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Difficult to retain younger architects who leave for higher pay or better hours, firms say

Talent retention is a real challenge that the sector is facing, with more people switching careers and leaving the industry in recent years, architecture firms tell CNA. 

SINGAPORE: Retaining architects has become harder in recent years, with a tight labour market and younger employees leaving for better salaries and opportunities, firms said. 

An “unhealthy work culture” across the industry where clients, both private and public, expect architects and consultants to be on call almost 24 hours a day drives employees away, said the founding partner of MKPL Architects Siew Man Kok.

The nature of architecture work is also “quite tedious”, he added. 

“For young architects, they have a certain expectation for what working life for them should be,” Mr Siew told CNA. 

“And just like me once, when I was a fresh graduate, we want to exercise our design and creativity straight away in our work. That would really be a challenge for many of them depending on what kind of firms they get into.” 

CEO of DP Architects Seah Chee Huang told CNA that the issue of talent retention “is a real one” that the sector and his firm have faced “for a long time”. 

“The competition is not only coming from allied partners, the developers, the agencies. We do see quite a lot of the profession leaving for the government bodies and agencies,” he added. 

“But now, competition beyond the built environment sector, we are seeing people switching careers and leaving the industry to join a different one.” 

The loss of potential talent is a “huge issue” from an organisational standpoint, said Mr Seah. 

Younger architects have a lot more choices, he said. They also often want to relocate overseas for work to experience different types of architectural projects. 

“There’s also the enhanced mobility that's associated with younger team members and the mental attitude too, because they are not so entrenched yet in terms of the professional space.” 

The convergence of issues like long work hours and job stress add to pushing them out of the industry, making the competition for talent “even more severe”, said Mr Seah. 

BIGGER OPPORTUNITIES, BETTER WORK-LIFE BALANCE

To retain talent, firms need to have a robust professional development programme, said Mr Seah, who was the former president of the Singapore Institute of Architects. This will help employees to chart their career paths and match their talents to the projects available. 

His firm DP Architects tries to give younger employees international exposure and experience, and opportunities to collaborate with other related disciplines, he said. 

Mentorship opportunities are also available to top talents in the firm. 

Founding director of Forum Architects Tan Kok Hiang told CNA his firm “never really had a problem” with retaining staff until it saw a wave of resignations in the middle of 2021. 

While working from home, employees, especially those who were fresh graduates, had very little interaction with senior team members. 

“I think they felt a bit lost and the learning was slowed down tremendously,” he said, noting that mid-level employees resigned as well. “I felt that was one of the reasons why the younger staff tend to feel a lack of morale, maybe because they were working from home for too long.” 

To retain talent and boost morale, the firm allows employees to choose how often they want to work from home or from the office, said Mr Tan. 

The firm also offers “a good variety of work”, and trains architects in areas like design and project execution. Architects who work for larger firms may find themselves in just one section, and leave to gain other areas of experience, he added. 

“That leads to this thing about graduates wanting to take the professional practice exam. They usually need to clock in a whole range of experience from design to execution,” said Mr Tan. 

The firm is also mindful that employees want work-life balance, he added. 

“We (tried) to be very careful about how we distribute work and how we allocate workload. I think to the extent I would say if I looked at my time logs in my firm, (there is) very very inconsequential overtime,” said Mr Tan. 

“Unless there’s a certain rush for something, but that’s not very common. We could be one of those unusual firms.” 

Mr Siew’s firm also saw a wave of resignations as the pandemic waned, from both architects and technicians. 

“It's a combination of tight labour market, and I think some people are moving around hoping to get a better pay,” he added. 

Throughout the pandemic, architects working from home at his firm “felt like they had a breather” because clients were also taking a backseat, taking fewer meetings and moving them online. 

Even though his firm tries to secure “nice” projects and pay their employees “reasonably well”, Mr Siew stressed that he cannot control the industry’s work culture. 

“Especially with certain clients, they become too demanding, unreasonable, it affects the morale of architects. I have architects who resigned because of that, they couldn’t take the abuse of the client,” said Mr Siew. 

STUDENT INTAKE REMAINS "FAIRLY STABLE" 

Firms CNA spoke to also said that pickings for talent are slim, noting that fewer architecture students move on to do their master's degree, which is typically needed to practice architecture in Singapore. 

“They also realise that they’ve got so many years of studying, and then when they come out, they feel that in terms of job satisfaction, pay and hours, it’s just not worth the effort,” said Mr Siew. 

“I think a lot of them are making early exit decisions, so it’s quite worrying and quite sad.”

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.

Student intake for the Architecture and Sustainable Design programme at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has “remained stable”, said the university’s spokesperson. 

“We have not experienced a significant decline in numbers. Our ASD (Architecture and Sustainable Design) undergraduates and Master of Architecture graduates still choose the architecture profession predominantly,” the spokesperson said. 

“A small number has ventured into affiliated design industries such as experience design, exhibition design and digital solutions providers in the built environment sector.” 

The programme has a “stringent selection process” and “close-knit study environment”, and students are coached and mentored to “keep on course” for graduation, the SUTD spokesperson said. 

Intake for architecture students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has similarly “remained fairly stable over the years”, said a spokesperson for its College of Design and Engineering. 

The curriculum trains students in skills that are relevant to a “broad variety” of careers. Students in NUS’ most recent batch of architecture students had an employment rate of 97.7 per cent, with “competitive” median starting salaries at S$4,000, the spokesperson said. 

“Whilst not all of our graduates go on to work as architects, our curriculum’s focus on design excellence ensures that those who do choose to explore other fields find success in related careers,” said the NUS spokesperson. 

Architecture graduate Chua Sheng Chuan told CNA that of the 150 students in his batch, only about 20 of them are architects now, five years after graduation.

Mr Chua, who set up his own timber construction firm Calvary Carpentry, said he decided not to take his master's degree despite interning at several architecture firms.

“If you ask me – do I want to reach the stage where I become an architect? Yeah, I think every one of us still has that little dream within them. But it’s just that the process to get there is so hard,” the 31-year-old said. 

“I think every single architecture student ... wants to see their ideas become a reality without all the trouble in between.” 

Architecture firms should be part of a larger group pushing for “more positive changes” in the professional sector, said Mr Seah. 

“There's still a lot we can do to make it a lot more attractive in terms of prospects, opportunities. Remuneration for architects, not just young but especially for our talents,” he added. 

“The subject of talent retention is very critical, because the draining part is not obvious when it starts. And it’ll be very evident (after that) but by then it’s already too late. 

“It’s timely not just from a firm’s perspective but from an entire profession and sector, we look at this issue deeply ... and really induce some positive change.” 

Source: CNA/hw

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