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Polymathic architecture graduates could be valuable skills pollinators

Words:
Stephen Cousins

A future portfolio-style job market could rely on the sort of multi-disciplinary skills that characterise architects, study finds

Over a third of architecture graduates end up in other sectors but their skills as polymaths and cross-sectoral ‘skills pollinators’ may be vital to the future jobs market, research has revealed

The White Paper The Myth Of Skills Shortages: The Undervaluation of a University Qualification summarises the research findings of the three-year Erasmus+ funded study Architecture’s Afterlife, led by the Royal College of Art in London.

The study questioned 2,637 architecture graduates, the vast majority from European countries, and carried out qualitative analysis via various interviews. It found that over one-third (38%) of respondents had chosen to work in other sectors, compared to 46% of graduates across all disciplines who work in another field.

However, architecture’s retention rate was poorer than comparable professional degrees such as veterinary science or medicine, the paper said.

Among the architecture graduates who switched sectors, 21% said they worked in areas related to architecture, but not necessarily involving the design and construction of buildings; 10% worked in creative industries, and 7% worked non-related sectors, such as politics.

The study revealed the ‘portfolio worker’ nature of those surveyed, with 10% of all respondents working across more than one sector simultaneously – for example architects in practice and as part-time educators and/or academics or researchers, writers or journalists.

The epistemological diversity of an architecture degree enables these multi-sector career shifts, said the paper, but it ‘can have a limiting effect on specialisation’. Furthermore, the diversity of the architecture curriculum allows graduates to play a key role in skills pollination between sectors and across a ‘broad range of contexts’.

The links between cross-sector mobility, portfolio working and ‘niche market creation’ by architecture graduates needs further research, the report notes, especially given future threats and opportunities in the labour market, such as the rise of AI and ecological crises.

The white paper goes on to suggest that the inherently multi-disciplinary and ambiguous nature of the architectural discipline helps students learn to manage complexity and cope with ambiguity. It states that transversal skills (encompassing ‘soft’, social, emotional and technological skills) and multi-sectoral skills are learnt ‘without being explicitly taught as part of architecture’s curriculum’ and they are not ‘recognised as important by the institutions which assess them,’ which points to a need for these tacit skills to be made explicit within the curriculum.

The most valued transversal and multi-sectoral skills needed to build a resilient workforce, capable of dealing with future uncertainty are characterised as ‘soft’ and ‘emotional’, the report states.

Responding to the white paper’s findings, RIBA president Muyiwa Oki said: 'This White Paper evidences the pressing need to usher in a mindset shift that reimagines the role of architects. So-called soft skills are not just nice-to-haves – abilities such as leadership, project management and partnership building are essential to the future of the profession.

He added: ‘Architecture can change the world for the better but, if we are to realise this potential, we must inspire the generation of architects and equip them with the diverse knowledge and skills they need. Education has a fundamental role to play in supporting innovative modes of work-based study and ensuring that sustainability and inclusivity are truly at the heart of architecture practice. The RIBA shares this ambitious vision for education reform.’

Eva Franch i Gilabert, former director of the Architectural Association, said: ‘This paper takes the opportunity and the responsibility to articulate what our discipline can contribute to the world we live in, and to redefine what the education of an architect both can and should be.’

Neal Shasore, director of the London School of Architecture said: ‘‘The study is rooted in the realities of the European labour market and its vicissitudes. Along with the potential for an epistemic shift, or perhaps as a result of it, comes a reflection on changing models of learning and working – less focussed on a single discipline and linear career, and more on a fluid and transferable career span responsive to a changing economy.’

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