25 Things To Consider When Choosing An Architecture Job Offer
According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2015 was the best month for architecture jobs in over eight years - since February of 2007.
Architectural services added 2,700 jobs in June, up from the 800 jobs added in May.
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There is certainly a great supply of architecture jobs out there, so odds are you will have more than one offer from which to choose.
Having made it past the application process and aced the interviews, you have landed multiple job offers. Congratulations! Now which one do you go with? Of course these same principles apply to taking a new job versus staying at your current employer.
I will try to take an objective look at the various components that define a job offer and how to select what is best for your architecture career. For my international readers, I am mostly speaking from a US perspective, although having worked in Europe for many years I am familiar with the EU system. Although naming of the programs and certain details may differ, the concepts remain the same.
Base salary is certainly a major part of the decision process. With contracts in hand many applicants will often just sign with the firm that offered the largest salary. However, given the many variables when it comes to compensation this isn't always the best choice. I covered the subject of architecture salaries in more detail in a previous post: 5 Factors Affecting Your Architecture Salary.
Bonuses can come in many forms: annual bonus, 401k profit sharing, year end bonus, stockholder bonus, firm performance bonus, quarterly profit sharing, licensure bonus, etc. The important thing is to understand the full package. You may have to speak with former employees, the HR department or the hiring manager to get an idea of the complete picture.
Often the firm is hesitant to give a fixed number for any particular bonus as most of the above mentioned are discretionary and not guaranteed. However they can usually give a general range based on previous years.
This varies greatly by geographic location and firm type. The standard vacation time in the US is around two weeks while in many parts of Europe it is four weeks and above. This is one of the more negotiable aspects of a contract.
If vacation is a top priority for you try to negotiate additional time, this could be ongoing or a one time extra week signing bonus. While less desirable, unpaid vacation can be added or personal time off (PTO). Knowing what options are on the table can be valuable when it comes time to negotiate.
4. Public holidays
In US offices it is fairly standard to have approximately eight public holidays per year. This isn't negotiable unless you can find a way to add your own Architecture Day to the calendar?
5. Sick leave
Some offices require you to accrue sick pay, typically at the rate similar to that of vacation, around ten days per year is standard. Other offices operate on more of an honor system. There isn't a set number of days but this may become a problem if someone abuses the privilege.
This is particularly important for jobs in the US. Other parts of the world such as Canada and the majority of Europe include public healthcare. Depending on the coverage this could easily be worth $10,000+ per year, this is especially critical if you have a family.
However, negotiating the provider or specific package outside of the given options is usually a non-starter so try to focus your efforts elsewhere.
7. Dental, vision, life, long term disability insurance
In addition to medical these are the standard benefits offered. They are nice, however, keep in mind the cost of providing these benefits for yourself. Often it is less out of pocket than you expect, so don't consider these to make or break a potential offer.
8. Retirement: 401K or similar
This is a standard program offered by many firms, to contribute before tax earnings to a retirement plan. Again, like medical, the plan provider is not usually negotiable so not a lot of room for change here. Typically there is a minimum employment eligibility, usually around 6-12 months of employment to participate.
9. 401K / Profit Sharing
This usually takes the form of contributions from your employer as discretionary or a fixed percentage, each firm does it a little differently. The contract should detail what the terms of the package are. This is usually done once a year.
Typically a scaled vesting percentage applies to the contribution based on your time at the firm from the date of the contribution, say 20% vested per year. This can be a very nice addition over time, but keep in mind your long term goals. How long do you plan to stay at the firm? If for a short time, other compensation benefits may be better for your situation.
10. Professional benefits
In the US many firms pay for AIA memberships, conferences and other certifications. This could add up to thousands per year. Some firms will cover the cost of the Intern Development Program (US) or other costs of acquiring your architecture license such as the Architecture Registration Exams (US) or Part III (UK).
As it is often in the best interest of the firm to have a licensed staff this will be covered in full or in part. Some firms even offer a bonus for completing your license, a large American firm offers $5,000 for successfully acquiring your license. Your employer often covers the cost of other professional certifications such as LEED certification and Project Management Professional (PMP certification).
11. Continued education
Staying up on the fast moving architecture profession is essential to staying relevant in the marketplace. If you office is willing to pay for additional training, such as Revit classes or "Lunch and Learn" type programs can be very beneficial to your long term career track and the growth of the team.
12. Business expenses
If the new job requires you to travel extensively check the company policy on how expenses are handled. Will you be provided a company credit card? Just so you are aware, with some corporate cards you are personally liable if the office cannot pay. If you come in Monday and the doors are closed you might be on the hook for that two week tip to Beijing. Hope you had fun.
Will you have to pay it out of pocket then be reimbursed? If you don’t have a personal credit card or enough cash reserves you could run into a problem.
13. Office space
What is the actual office space like? An open office? Cubicles? Private offices? We all work best in an office environment that fits closely with our preferences. If you are easily distracted, it could be frustrating working in an open office environment. On the other hand if you prefer constant interaction you may be more efficient in that type of space.
Most architecture offices now are an open office layout, so if you prefer a quiet space, you may have to go with a smaller office or invest in some good headphones.
14. Project type
This comes down to personal preference and your career track. Do you want to work on large commercial projects? Custom residential houses? Depending on your career goals, like starting your own office may affect your decision to join a particular office. If you plan to design small scale residential projects, working on towers in Dubai may not be the best investment of your time..
The architecture market is very unpredictable and unfortunately layoffs are a common occurrence in our industry. Your research into the firm can play a part in how comfortable you feel about the security in the position. Also, your personal situation obviously plays a role.. Are you moving your family of six across the country for this job? How is the market in that city if you did lose your job? If you are getting the only gig in town it might be something to think about.
Generally speaking larger firms can absorb a down economy a little better than a small office. Larger projects certainly get cancelled all the time. However, a ten year airport project has such a long schedule and so much momentum that it is less likely to be cancelled than a small residential project. Remember that the best job security is not the office but you. Having a personal toolbox of valuable skills and experiences is the best job security of all.
16. Office location
There are two aspects of location: the city and location within the city.
Is this firm where you live now? Will you be relocating across the country or world? Does the long term benefits and/or compensation offset the cost of living? Where in the city will you be living? Will you have to commute by car or public transport? How long is the commute?
Speaking to others in the office about their schedules and living situations can be very informative. In many of the larger cities, the architecture firms are downtown, where the housing is most expensive.
Are you willing to make an extra $15,000 a year to work in Chicago vs. Nashville? The math may not be beneficial in the more expensive city. However, the project experience or the chance to work with other outstanding professionals may be worth the sacrifice. Depending on your short term vs. long term strategy, the location of the firm is something to seriously consider.
Responsibility, or should I say the potential for responsibility. This is not something that is just handed over to you day one.
How many people will you be managing? What type of projects / areas of a project will you be charge of. Does this align with your previous experience or are you willing to take a chance on making a major change?
Generally speaking the more responsibility, the more your income will proportionally increase.
This is a common issue in the architecture community: long hours. Many firms, especially the name firms have an unwritten rule of requiring long hours. Working all night is somewhat of a ritual in architecture school so that can carry over into your professional life.
I have no problem with someone that wants to work 80 hours a week, I have done it myself in fact. It comes down to your goals and priorities. If you want to work long hours for awhile and get some good experience then move on, fine. Or work your way up the organization by showing you have what it takes.
Take an objective approach to the question, not whether it is good or bad but what are the typical hours? Weekend work? Finishing a major deadline is one thing but will you be working late regularly? This is difficult to negotiate. Changing the office culture is a tall order, best to pick a firm that closely aligns with your own work-life balance.
19. Internal support
This can be one of the benefits of working in a large office. The support of the teams within the office is often a great resource. The larger offices will often have specialists including construction detailing, 3D modelling, graphic design, model making, etc. Just pick up the phone if you have a question and get your answer in seconds. At a smaller office it may take you hours of research to find the solution.
20. Contract type
There are many different contract types out there, here are a few of the most common:
Standard contract, you are an employee of the company, including all the benefits associated with it. This can be more binding, typically with non-compete clauses and other fine print preventing moonlighting.
This reduces the cost and obligation to the employer, common with short term employment. Is generally associated with a higher pay since you are not receiving any benefits or bonuses.
You work as a company consultant for a certain length of time (typically 3-6 months) as a trial. If everything works out you are then hired as a full time employee.
Each contract has its own pros and cons. You will have to decide what works best for you. For example, does the flexibility of a consultant contract outweigh the lack of benefits? Does the flexibility of a consultant allow you to pursue other goals?
21. Start date
The usual assumption with an employer is that you have to give two weeks notice at your current job then can join. Depending on their immediate need you may be able to agree to a later start date. This can be a way to give yourself a long vacation in between or complete a project at your previous office.
Usually if an office is hiring they need people right away. If asked in the interview when you can start it is best to err on the side of as soon as possible. You can bring it up again at the point of negotiation if you wish.
22. "Good for resume"
This is something I often see from candidates. They are focused on whether the firm name will boost their resume. While this is certainly a valid argument, be careful joining a firm for no other reason than to get the name and leave. You may find the office is not a good fit and quit after a month. Now you are back at the the job search, with a strange entry on your resume that may get the wrong kind of attention.
23. Match for your experience
If the potential firm is the same or similar work as you have previously specialized in, then it is an obvious fit. However, many new candidates are looking for a change. While this can keep things interesting, you need to make sure the firm is aware that there will be a learning curve.
If you are coming from a two person firm that does housing refurbishments to a global office designing commercial towers, you will need to be prepared. Change is good, but getting in over your head is not.
24. Match for your goals
As with any new position you should be thinking about this as not just a job. Always be looking at it as a career. What are your career goals? Where do you want to be in ten years? Is this job helping me to get there? If not then perhaps one of the other offers is a better fit for your long term ambitions.
25. Fun stuff
One firm I worked at had amazing christmas parties. They rented out stunning venues years in advance and provided huge events with live music, catering, and prizes. While this may not make or break your decision, it is nice to know that the employer does value their employee’s contributions to the firm.
As you can see there is a lot to consider when choosing a particular job offer. The next step is negotiation, so I will leave you with a few tips:
- Once you have the contracts, copy the text into a spreadsheet to create rows for each benefit and columns for each office to easily compare the offers side by side.
- Be flexible on “currency”, think about the total value of the deal, not just the salary.
- When making counter offers (which you should always do) try to ask for everything at once. Ask for A, B, C, and D at the same time but limit demands. Tell them what is the most important out of your list. Don’t agree to salary then come back and also ask again for more vacation. Offers usually take time to put together so by asking for everything upfront will likely reduce the frustration of the employer.
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Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
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