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'At 6pm, it feels like it’s lunchtime': Low pay, long hours driving away Singapore's young architect hopefuls

Only 7 per cent of young architecture graduates said they were likely to stay in the profession in the long run, according to a survey done last year.

'At 6pm, it feels like it’s lunchtime': Low pay, long hours driving away Singapore's young architect hopefuls

File image of an architect working on a floorplan. (Photo: iStock)

SINGAPORE: It took Daniel (not his real name) seven years to finish studying architecture at polytechnic and university – but less than 15 months on the job to decide he didn’t see a future in it.

Low pay, slow progression, gruelling hours and complicated work were some reasons, said Daniel.

Though the word “architect” may call to mind awe-inspiring structures and a certain glamour, the reality can be far different.

His days are filled with tedious tasks, long back-and-forths with stakeholders and no shortage of “abortive work” – efforts that end up in the bin – which make the job demoralising, he told CNA.

“At 6pm, it feels like it’s lunchtime … the halfway mark of my day. You start around 9am, and on average, end at midnight, by the time you get home it’s 1am or 2am.”

The pay also feels disproportionate to the work, the architectural assistant told CNA.

A company once offered him a starting salary of S$2,700 even though he has a master's degree, which is generally expected of architecture students.

"If you deduct your CPF after that, you'll 'eat grass' every day … You start to think: 'My peers go through fewer years to get a bachelor’s degree, something I already have, but they earn 50 per cent more or even double.'"

Daniel isn’t alone in these sentiments. In a survey last August by the Singapore Institute of Architects, only 7 per cent of young graduates said they were likely to stay in the profession in the long run.

The top reasons behind this: Low wages and long hours, a lack of work-life balance and high stress.

The biggest factors said to cause stress at work were heavy workloads, unreasonable clients, and conflicting requirements by authorities.

Interviews by CNA with young architecture graduates bore these out.

"WE COME OUT EARNING LESS"

Job portal Glassdoor pegged the average base salary for architectural assistants at S$3,400 per month as of June this year, though the sum typically ranges from S$3,000 to slightly more than S$4,000, according to those CNA spoke to. 

One recent graduate, who only wanted to be known as Ms Tan, lamented: “Architecture graduates study a year more than regular degree holders, so we take five years … but we come out earning less.

“Progression is also very, very slow. After five years, if you start at high (three thousand), you may not even reach S$5,000 – which is what other people’s starting pay is.”

Ms Tan, herself, is looking for an exit, despite having only joined the industry a year ago.

“I don’t want to wait until I’m five years in and then living the reality that people tell me – that after five years, you stare at your bank account and say: ‘Why didn’t I jump industries sooner?’

The pay stems from a larger problem: The lack of an established fee scale, which has pushed professional fees lower and lower over the years, said the young graduates.

A fee scale for the profession was abolished in the early 2000s, when the Competition Act was introduced.

“We are bound by the Competition Act, so we cannot impose a minimum professional fee … so people undercut each other,” said Jessica (not her real name), who has worked in the industry for four years.

“People can bid a ridiculous price just to get the job, and I think that is very, very harmful to the industry.

“It’s just getting lower and lower, then obviously the firms don't have money and cannot pay the staff, therefore the whole brain drain.”

EXPECTATIONS VS REALITY

Another big challenge is reconciling the reality of the job with what one had expected it to be, Jessica said.

Many students are drawn to architecture because of their passion for design, but the designing of buildings is “only 5 per cent of the job scope”, she said.

The bulk of actual work involves managing contracts, construction, administrative work and navigating sometimes conflicting restrictions set out by various authorities.

And though school emphasises creativity in design, it is difficult to flex these muscles at work.

Daniel said: “There’s budget, compliances, and Singapore being so small, a lot of projects are alterations and additions, minor renovations where everything is all pre-fixed.

“In school, it’s all about design… when you work, it’s all about compliance. Those things dictate your design before you can even fully explore.”

(File photo: iStock)

He added that projects done overseas are “very different” compared to those in Singapore.

“Singapore is known for being safe, but sometimes it restricts us in a way where we are not allowed, or we wouldn’t dare to take risks because of other factors involved.”

Architects also carry a huge liability, said Jessica. “If anything happens to the building, even in 10 years to come, it’s the architect’s fault … I am liable for so many things but paid so little, then what for?”

CLIENTS TOO DEMANDING

The amount of “abortive work” can also be demoralising, said the graduates. Jessica cited clients who ask for “option after option after option”, only to end up choosing the original design. 

“We already try to give our best, and it’s normal for people to ask for more, but clients nowadays (are doing) unlimited asking,” she said.

With greater access to online sources, some also feel qualified to make certain architectural demands, even if they aren’t trained, Jessica added.

Some clients may also contact architects after hours and on weekends for minor changes, “believing their work should be your priority”, said Ms Tan, who works in a small firm.

These changes are more frustrating if the company does not have the tools to manage them, she said.

To make a minor amendment, her firm’s software may require her to manually change more than 20 drawings – instead of applying the change across all of them.

In her case, the lack of guidance at work has also been a bugbear.

“I’m just left to make mistakes on my own, which I’m not comfortable with … My colleagues are very helpful when you ask, but everyone is too busy with their own tasks that you cannot just latch onto someone.”

HOW BAD IS THE BRAIN DRAIN?

Singapore Institute of Architects’ president Melvin Tan said the survey's findings on how many planned to stay long term were “not extremely shocking”, based on observations of past cohorts, including his own.

But they were still “alarming” and allowed the institute to “put numbers to what we were sensing”, he said.

Already, some firms that are hiring again as projects restart are having difficulty filling positions, Mr Tan noted.

The graduates that CNA spoke to said friends who quit the profession ended up in fields such as the civil service, arts, UX design or interior design.

But amid Singapore’s big urban ambitions, be it greening the built environment or realising its long-term plans, more talent will be needed to fill a growing number of roles, Mr Tan said.

“If there is a significant drain and we can no longer retain even the small percentage that we're looking at, then we are headed down a difficult road.”

WHAT IS BEING DONE?

Mr Tan acknowledged the challenges facing young graduates, echoing their thoughts about low wages and the lack of a fee scale.

“If you look at today's market, the fees, unfortunately, are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago.

“Anyone who has a sense of economics knows that’s not viable, because we’ve had to suffer inflation over the years. It’s impossible that we are looking at fees that are lower, when we are doing a lot more.”

Though it cannot impose a fee scale because of competition laws, the Singapore Institute of Architects is working on a value articulation framework, which will list all the works and costs that architects undertake.

“(This) covers manpower, rental, subscriptions, software, codes, regulations, and costs of liabilities and responsibilities.

“We hope to illustrate the breadth of responsibilities and liabilities that architects take on in every project and the value we bring, so they understand better how to charge for these to create a commensurate fee structure.”

It will also help developers or clients understand why the cost is fair, he said.

He added that the statutory authority, the Board of Architects, is also looking into “trying to have conversations surrounding this issue”.

The institute is also working on an upcoming survey focused on benchmarking fees that firms are currently charging.

RAISING WAGES, INVESTING IN FUTURE GENERATIONS

Mr Tan is also pushing firms to invest in their staff members, estimating that there may be about 5,000 to 6,000 architects and architectural assistants in Singapore.

If there are about S$15 billion worth of projects on offer every year that the industry can undertake, setting aside 1 per cent of this would allow an investment of around S$2,500 a month in each staff member, he said.

This sum can go to providing commensurate wages or investing in manpower and skill-building.

“While we cannot make this mandatory, we hope members come together to make that positive step for our future," said Mr Tan. He added that the survey has made members sit up, sparking their interest on how to improve the situation.

Finally, a mentorship programme has been expanded to cover young graduates entering the industry.

The young architecture graduates CNA spoke to were sceptical about how effective these initiatives would be, but they also acknowledged the difficulty of solving the issues at hand.

Jessica also suggested: “(Educating) the general public is very important … Because it sets mindsets and expectations, and also sets the status of architects.”

Daniel agreed that the work deserves more recognition: “Without architects, you won’t have hospitals for doctors, officers for lawyers, factories, shopping malls, corporate businesses.”

Regardless of the current challenges, Singapore Institute for Architects’ Mr Tan is also confident about the profession’s future.

After all, architects are “supreme optimists”, he said, explaining that this is because “projects take so long to realise that if you're not optimists, you would have already given up halfway”.

“(Architecture) is here to stay. There's a lot of interest around architecture and everyone appreciates architecture. 

“I think the future is bright. But it's our responsibility to ensure that we continue to invest in it for its future.”

Source: CNA/cl(cy)

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