The mission of the AIA Small Firm Exchange (SFx) is to advance the mutual interests of architects practicing in small firms. The objectives of the AIA SFx are three-fold:
1. Advocate the value of small firms, the national SFx, and local SFx groups, both within the AIA and to the public.
2. Curate and disseminate the most pertinent resources and information, from the AIA & elsewhere, that benefit small firms.
3. Inform the AIA of current issues facing small firms and areas in which current resources/information are lacking.
Approximately 75% of all firms within the AIA are small firms (less than 10 employees), which equates to 14,459 small firms within the organization.
~26.8% = sole practitioners = 5,173
~33.5% = 1-5 employees = 6,459
~14.7% = 5-10 employees = 2,827
We need to find ways to leverage that size for collaboration and influence, just like the individual large firms do.
Based on experience, I have seen extreme differences in how the current generation has felt about paying unreal amounts of money for education to get them ready to work in a firm. As a hiring manager, I often have to be the first to let them know that they do not meet the minimum requirements for a $100k salaried drafter, which I am told is what their instructors set as expectations upon graduation. The candidates are seeing $100k+ of student debt to get their Masters degrees and needing the high salary to even pay their high interest rate student debts. How are the rest of you addressing this? What do your conversations look like? Can your firms afford the competitive rates, and if so, which part of the nation are you able to?
$100k loan to get through grad school with tuition and living expenses does not surprise me. Considering my own experience many years ago, my starting loan-to-salary ratio was about 1.8 and I survived on my own in Chicago.
Thinking how that might compare today, you can run some quick math on a 20-year loan calculator to estimate the loan payment, add living expenses and allow for tax brackets to arrive at a reasonable salary for an entry level candidate.
What that magic number is will vary by geographic region and it's probably less than $100k. But the point of the exercise is to think about what a livable salary is, and whether the firm can afford it. If not, perhaps recruit candidates from a less expensive school ;)
I have not seen that level of fee for entry level in the Denver market and simply couldn't entertain it. It isn't a sustainable baseline, especially for a small firm. Certainly not here.
And I'm completely on board with the idea that the cost of an education v. potential/lifetime income is brutal. We're planning college for our 16 year old right now and it's staggering. But unless there's a magical change in fee structures and what we can start charging, I would resist the idea that starting salary needs to match that imbalance for education costs.
Daniel Guich, NCARB, LEED ap, CDT
While I agree with Daniel Guich about the value of a degree from an Ivy League school versus a state school, tuition at state schools has far outpaced inflation. I recall paying $900 for one quarter at the University of Cincinnati, or $2,700 a year, in the 80s. In-state tuition at UC today is over $13,000. That's relatively cheap compared to other state schools, but using an inflation calculator, $2,700 in 1986 equals $7,600 today. Tuition at UC is double that!
But telling new graduates that they should expect low pay but immense job satisfaction is unrealistic. You have to be able to pay your bills. If we continue to pay new grads so little that they can't pay for their loans, they will look for employment in other fields.
I think we need to adjust our thinking about how we charge for our work and pay everyone in our profession more of a living wage.
Good morning Michael,
I'm a partner in a 10 person firm on the west coast of Florida and we've had a few associates/interns that've interviewed with us and have similar salary requirements. My partners and I have had very real conversation with them to let them know this is completely unrealistic for a smaller firm to bear that cost vs. the amount of work they'd be able to produce. We try to explain it to them from a strictly business standpoint. One thing we tell these individuals: "if your in this to get rich, you're in the wrong profession. You can make decent money doing this but this is a profession for passionate individuals that love design. That's where the value is and what keeps us coming back everyday."
I don't dispute there gap between the starting wages and the loan ratios... I came out of college with $170k in student loan debt and my starting salary was $35k/annum. Obviously the starting salary has increased since then but it's not $100k/annum. We typically start them at about half that and their salary increases as their skills do.
As the managing principal of a small firm in Washington DC, we have come to rely on the AIA Compensation report as a reality check for salaries at any level. The data is sorted by both geographic location and firm size. The information has been helpful when discussing the average and range of compensation for each position.
The document can be purchased, but you can also receive a free copy if you contribute data. Typically, the data is collected in the spring of an odd calendar year (2021, 2023, etc), so keep an eye out in 2025. The more data that small firms contribute translates into more accurate data for all small firms to use.
The AIA also has a Salary/Compensation guide online that is free. It is not as detailed as the report you can buy, but it is good for verifying that you are paying salaries that are reasonable for the position, experience and geographic region. When prospects have unrealistic expectations, this is a good objective source to go to.
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