Amid broader white-collar unrest, architects are also expressing dissatisfaction with their pay. But how much is the average architect paid and how does this compare with other professions? Brian Green digs into the data
It is not hard to find an architect these days who feels their profession is undervalued and under-rewarded. That sense of being underappreciated seems set to deepen and spread as below-inflation pay rises and the cost-of-living crisis heighten anxiety and discontent over earnings.
Clearly, architects are not alone among professionals in their growing discontent. Lately, strikes by nurses, teachers, university lecturers, doctors and lawyers have overshadowed the blue-collar strikes that were more familiar in the past. In the 1970s, when industrial strife peaked, it would have been unthinkable to envisage bewigged barristers picketing with placards. Today it is reality.
This raises multiple questions about the profession of architecture in 2023. Is the discontent among architects justified? Is the architectural profession that much less valued and remunerated than in the past? Are they doing worse than other professionals as is often said?
Before delving into the facts and figures, it’s worth bearing in mind some nuances surrounding the issue of pay. In human resources circles pay is often regarded as a ‘hygiene factor’ as distinct from a ‘motivator’. That means it doesn’t do that much to encourage employees to perform better or work harder, but if employees don’t feel adequately paid, they become increasingly dissatisfied. Motivation, according to the theory, comes from criteria such as the nature of the work itself, achievements, recognition, and advancement. Obviously, people are wired differently so the effect of pay rises, or lack of them, will vary depending on each person’s personality and what they look to get out of work. Do they see their job as a vocation or simply a way to earn money? How much do they see their earning potential as a measure of their worth?
Looking at architects, it’s reasonable to assume that, for many, the profession is a vocation, a calling, as it is for many nurses, teachers and doctors. This underpins a drive that is often expressed in what HR professionals call ‘discretionary effort’ – working beyond contractual requirements with, say, a willing acceptance of unpaid overtime. But dedication to a vocation is not inexhaustible. Few people will put up with a sense that their goodwill is being exploited by their employer.
Unsurprisingly, there comes a breaking point. This may explain, in part at least, the current surge in industrial action among doctors, nurses, and teachers. Their grievances come after years of relative decline in their earnings, which they see as not only disadvantaging them but also undermining their vocation.
Now to the numbers. How much is the average architect paid? How does this compare over time with other occupations?
While The Fees Bureau provides detailed data on architects’ earnings, the best set of comparative data across occupations is probably the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) produced by the Office for National Statistics. This compares earnings and hours worked between industries, occupations, and gender. It also separates data for full-time and part-time employees. It’s not flawless. Its sample sizes can get small if you drill down too deeply. It only covers employee jobs, so doesn’t fully reflect earnings across the whole workforce. There are also the normal concerns that people might be misclassified, leading to distortions in the data. But it provides the benchmark for many government departments and it has a long time series.
Chart 1 shows data from ASHE taken over the years 2002 to 2022 at current prices. It shows the hourly earnings for full-time architects, all professionals, and all employees. It shows pay steadily rising. And, for the keener-eyed, it shows how hourly earnings for architects and professionals more widely are rising more slowly than earnings overall.
But when we take inflation into account, the picture looks very different in relation to what matters in the real world, which is what your earnings buy you. Chart 2 shows the same figures used in Chart 1 adjusted for CPI inflation (the consumer prices index). By this measure, prices have increased by about 63 per cent between 2002 and 2022. While the ASHE data shows overall employee median earnings rising 68 per cent over that period, the median earnings of professionals have only risen 38 per cent, with architects’ pay rising a smidgeon below that figure. The data for the mean average, however, suggests that total earnings per person have risen less. Employees overall appear to be just keeping pace with CPI inflation, while architects’ mean earnings have risen just 27 per cent against the CPI rise of 63 per cent.
As a passing note, before the CPI was introduced in 1996, wages tended to be gauged against the retail prices index (RPI). Inflation measured by the RPI shows prices rising by 93 per cent between 2002 and 2022, compared with the 63 per cent shown by the CPI.
There are other ways we can explore how the relative pay of architects has performed. Chart 3 shows, in percentage terms, how much more or less full-time architects earn than full-time professionals overall and all full-time employees across the UK economy.
In 2002 a full-time architect in the middle of the pay scale would earn around 60 per cent more than someone in the middle of the UK pay scale for all full-time employees. That differential has fallen to around 34 per cent. Meanwhile, over time, architects’ pay appears to broadly match that of all professionals. This paints a picture of architects’ pay conforming to a wider pattern of falling earnings relative to the UK average. And while the figures are far from conclusive, this downshift in relative earnings appears to have accelerated in recent years, certainly when we look at the mean average earnings data.
Using the New Earnings Survey (NES), which was replaced by the ASHE survey, we can examine the pay gap a decade earlier. The NES data is split by male and female with no data provided for female architects (likely due to the sample size). But taking comparisons of full-time male earnings, the data suggests that in 1992 architects’ hourly rates were almost 70 per cent above the average for all full-time male employees. Furthermore, these hourly earnings were relatively closely aligned to professionals overall, as is currently the case. This points to a longstanding decline in earnings among architects which is mirrored elsewhere among professionals.
However, the decline is less marked in overall annual earnings as opposed to hourly pay. This is partly down to the average number of paid hours worked by full-time employees in the UK falling over the past 20 years, from 39.6 to 38.8 per week, while the average number of paid hours worked by architects has been broadly stable at 37.8. Paid hours among all professionals have risen slightly from 36.2 to 36.7 per week. This has brought the hours worked by professionals closer to the national average.
However, anecdotal evidence and survey data suggest that architects work significant amounts of unpaid overtime, which is not included in the figures. A recent survey by Frame, an architecture and interior design recruitment specialist, looked at pay and conditions among architects in early 2023. It found more than three-quarters of architects were working overtime, with 13 per cent working 10 or more hours of overtime a week – down from 16 per cent in 2022. It also found that four in five practices did not pay for overtime. Those working in London were more likely to be working overtime.
Selected comments from those surveyed indicate growing discontent. One quote from an architect working in London characterised this mood. ‘Eight years of study to be paid the same wage I did when I worked as a bar manager,’ they wrote.
Indeed, where people live has implications for earnings. According to ONS statistics taken up to 2019 (to avoid possible disruption in the figures caused by the pandemic) almost 40 per cent of employed UK architects live in London, compared with 18 per cent of professionals overall and 14 per cent of the wider workforce. Importantly, the concentration of architects in London has increased faster than for professionals generally or for the workforce at large over the past two decades. So if we were to take the higher cost of living in London into account, we might reasonably suggest that the earnings of architects relative to others have been hit harder than the figures show.
In September last year Aziz Mirza, when analysing The Fees Bureau data in RIBA Journal, pointed out that the latest pay rises were leaving architects poorer, particularly in the public sector. He concluded: ‘Surely the calls for inflation-matching pay increases will become loud and widespread.’
To this we might add concerns that the attraction of architecture as a profession may fade as each new crop of budding architects faces the prospect of long years of studying that lead to diminishing financial reward.