Is Working Abroad Bad For Your Architecture Career?
Architecture, perhaps more than any other profession, is filled with people who want to live and work abroad.
Are you in Mumbai dreaming of New York City?
In Seattle thinking about a life in Rome?
Some architecture students get a taste for travel while in school. Study abroad programs in the U.S. are quite common. Often when students finish their degree they are drawn to the idea of living abroad.
A doctor can easily find a person wandering nearby. An accountant can easily find an excel spreadsheet. Architects don't have the luxury of buildings coming to us (that would be cool though). We have to go to them. This has inspired generations of architects to pack their sketchbooks and travel.
I have had the privilege of living all over the world and I have three different citizenships to prove it. From New Zealand to London to Madrid to San Francisco, these places and people have made me who I am today. Beyond a doubt I would not be the same person without my international experience.
So I must believe this is the best route for everyone in architecture? As the title suggests, I don't think that working abroad is necessarily a good thing for every architecture career.
I speak with many students and aspiring architects who want to work abroad. When I ask them why, I often get responses like, "it would be an adventure" or "I want something different".
These reasons sound valid on the surface right?
You need to be clear about what you are looking to get out of this "adventure". Otherwise it might turn into a nightmare.
In this post I will cover several architecture career and personal areas affected by the decision to live abroad. Regardless of your origin and destination these are common issues that I and others like me have experienced. Hopefully this will give you pause to consider your own career and life goals.
Is the grass really greener on the other side? Let's find out.
"I will just go for a year"
This is what I told everyone as I was preparing for my move to Europe. I thought about it on the flight to the U.S. when I moved back... seven years later.
Life has a way of getting away if you don't have a plan. If something is temporary are you still getting the benefits you had hoped for? What if it turns out to be permanent? Do you turn down a promotion because you are leaving soon? Do you want to have your head in one place and your heart in another?
Life goes on without you. I missed many weddings, funerals and lost touch with a lot of friends. Despite the fact we are in the most connected time in history, the realities of physical separation are unavoidable.
I discussed in a previous post, Want A Great Architecture Job? Don't Send a Resume, the importance of building and maintaining an architecture network. A network consists of a group of peers and mentors in the architecture community.
Often this group is formed from past and current colleagues, former architecture school professors, classmates and architects from conferences and industry associations.
Once you arrive in your new city you can begin to build this network. However, when you return to your home country the network doesn't come with you. Sure you can friend them on Facebook or add them on LinkedIn. Yet, it is very unlikely those colleagues 3,500 miles away will lead to your next career opportunity.
BIM programs like Revit are becoming more and more common in the architecture profession. We are headed toward a monopoly on design software.
That being said there is still a discrepancy between the software used in the U.S. versus Europe. For example, Revit is becoming the gold standard in the U.S. but programs like Microstation still dominate European firms.
So how does this affect you? Sure it isn't that difficult to learn a new program. The problem is that software is changing so fast that if you live in another country for five years you may barely recognize what you left behind.
The large international firms are beginning to push the architecture profession to a few standard pieces of software. As a result design software is beginning to cross borders.
As for now there are still distinct software differences by region that you need to be aware of. Ten years of learning an irrelevant program can definitely set your architecture career back.
As with software the code is becoming, well, international. The International Building Code is the current global standard. Despite the name, every country, state, region and city have their own regional codes.
For example, the "San Francisco Department of Building Inspection" in addition to the "California Building Code", the "California Building Energy Efficiency Program" and countless other programs.
There are so many that California requires an additional architecture licensing test (California Supplemental Exam) beyond all of the other states. The study guide is so long I ran the printer out of paper.
Since every area has its own specific code requirements learning the Paris regulations will be of little use back in Detroit.
A recent job posting listed the required experience for the role:
"Knowledge of the NYC building code and applicable Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws".
If you want to work in New York long-term but are "getting some experience" in Athens then you would not qualify for the above role.
There is nothing wrong with working abroad as long as you understand it is not a ticket to any job you wish. In many cases it could put you at a disadvantage.
Put yourself in the role of the hiring manager at a NYC architecture firm. You have two resumes in front of you:
She has five years of experience working in New York. She is familiar with all of the building codes and has connections with many NYC consultants and designers.
He has five years of experience working in Madrid. He knows many Spanish architects in the region and worked on the city hall project in downtown Madrid.
While Anthony has an interesting story, all things being equal, Julie will be hired.
Bestselling author of the "The Millionaire Mind", Dr. Thomas Stanley studied thousands of millionaires. He looked at hundreds of traits, including their moving habits.
He found that, "one reason [millionaires] seldom move is that moving away from clients, customers or other key professionals would have a significant negative influence on productivity. Just the process of preparing to move can be extremely disruptive, especially in long distance moves."
The idea that moving is very disruptive should not be surprising. Even if you are single, moving abroad is a massive undertaking.
Many of you starting out in your careers will likely be on a tight budget. Rent, entertainment and student loans are all fighting for a piece of your hard earned cash.
You will also be at the mercy of an exchange rate. For example, the value of the English pound dropped almost in half over the course of the recession. This essentially gave me a 50% pay cut for any U.S. payments. Not to mention paying transfer and deposit fees while keeping track of multiple accounts in two countries.
To my fellow Americans, one word to be very familiar with: TAX. Unfortunately as an American citizen you are required to pay tax in the U.S. regardless of where you live in the world.
For 2015 the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is $100,800. Anything you earn over this amount will be subject to tax. If you earn less than this you will not be required to pay U.S. tax but you must still file a return every year. While you may not earn that now, what about in 30 years when you decide to stay?
Keep in mind if you sell a house abroad the gain from the sale would be considered income and potentially subject to tax.
For more information visit the IRS website.
If you are an American living abroad you will not be able to contribute to retirement plans (Roth IRA, 401K) since you are not earning an income in the U.S.
Friends and family
Since most of my audience consists of millennials I assume a large percentage are not yet married with kids.
You are probably thinking, "this is the perfect opportunity to move since I don't have anything tying me down." Assuming you are single, relationships can become very complicated as I found out. When are you moving back? Are you staying forever? What if we get married?
As a result of living all over the world my friends and family are spread across the globe. For some reason whenever I explain this people assume it must be great.
Flying back every week for life events isn't possible. Will you allocate a couple weeks vacation on your best friend's wedding or Christmas vacation with your family? A tough decision.
So what if you are reading this now and considering moving and working abroad? Am I suggesting you not go for it? Certainly I would be in the minority if I did. I am the last person to tell you not to follow your dreams.
I will say that in the era of social media we are more connected than ever. This can lead to the so called "Facebook Effect". In other words, not following what is good for your own career and happiness but rather to impress a few "friends".
The main takeaway should be to do what is right for your long term goals. Don't just think about the short term excitement.
Whether it is the type of projects you want to work on, the city you want to live in or merely the feeling of going into the unknown. Whatever you choose to do I wish you the best of luck. Thanks for reading.
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Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
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