Better Training for a More Accessible Architecture

This is another in an emerging series of articles here at ALL CAPS reflecting on how we make architecture a more accessible and authentic profession. We’ve previously looked at education, licensure, and continuing education. We’ve also looked at how the Hip-Hop Architecture movement can be a gateway for established architecture professionals to be more accessible and authentic; and also a beacon for some who might not otherwise consider an architecture career. In this article, we’ll dive into how training contributes to an accessible and authentic profession.

I was going to write about this from the perspective of mentorship, but that’s kind of a limiting perspective. This profession moves faster and faster as time goes on. We accomplish things in a few hours today that used to take days or weeks to get done. There’s more pressure than ever to be productive and therefore profitable. People move around jobs with ever increasing frequency. All of this puts a lot of pressure on the traditional vision of what mentorship is for architecture professionals. I’m not saying that mentorship is bad (endangered, maybe) — I think it’s the best way to learn. But the dynamics of today’s practice mean that we should speak more broadly and instead talk about training, knowing that a few points here apply to mentoring as well.

No matter the type of schooling or degree earned, we all come into our first jobs having some level of familiarity with the practice of architecture, but little to no idea of how to apply ourselves. This, of course, is where training comes into play. Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot of people who were new to the profession about their experiences with being trained, and more often than not those were bad experiences. For those who had bad experiences, sometimes it bothered them to the point where I could see it had stunted their growth, and other times they turned inwards and stumbled through by teaching themselves. An anecdote for sure, but I’d love to see some research into training in architecture as I have a hunch it’s a significant contributor to who stays and who goes in our profession. When your trainer is a white male (as it’s likely to be now and at any time in the past), the perspective of that training may unconsciously tilt in ways that marginalize the trainee (especially if they aren’t a white male). Compound that with degraded training quality due to being in a rush on a project where the budgeted hours and schedule were established by another white male who last did production work when drafting tables were where the computer workstations are today and well…you can see how training could really suck ass for the new person.

From a business perspective, this is insane. It’s expensive and time-consuming to put out a candidate search and do interviews and make an offer and finally hire someone. But it keeps happening. Firms that are bad at this stuff have a myopic focus on brining work in when it’s slow, and then keeping their noses just above the water line when it’s busy — there’s no planning, even though we’re supposed to be planners. During economic booms, labor needs get so bonkers that you end up with new hires being trained by other slightly less new hires. Not only does this frustrate staff, but it contributes to the profession being inaccessible since no one is trained properly. No one is learning anything.

This is a good spot to bring up that we all need training. Even if we’re not new to the profession, we’ll need to be trained at a new job as there’s always new stuff to learn about the firm, the standards, and the clients’ projects, to name just a few topics. So this is yet another opportunity to get training wrong for all of the same reasons noted above, even if the trainee previously had good training experiences elsewhere.

Fixing Training

The first step in fixing training is to document training procedures for incoming staff that are new to the profession and for staff that are simply new to the company. I know from experience that just creating the training documentation alone will trigger better training. But we don’t stop with the documentation. This is where I changed my own views of training based on experiences outside of a traditional architecture firm setting.

Identifying staff members to become the go-to designated trainers is the next step, and one I borrowed from the restaurant operations staff I worked with during my time as a corporate design professional (the restaurant industry has great approaches to training new hires). These designated trainers have regular jobs within the firm and should have a designated backup staffer to fill in for their day-to-day work when training needs arise (part of the training procedures need to include the ramping up for this handoff to the backup). The identified trainers need to have great emotional intelligence and an open mind, all coupled with the patience to be good teachers. They should also be capable of providing objective evaluation to the hire’s supervisor(s) so the assigned work can be aligned to the new hire’s skills; at least in the beginning as they get settled into their new role. The trainer will work side-by-side full time with the trainee for a period of time set forth in the training procedures, and end that time by providing their evaluation to the supervisor.

Another thing that the restaurant training staff I’ve worked with do well is getting a diverse group of people to both function as, and feel a part of a team. They do this by being open and flexible with their understanding of people and their personalities, which is going to be challenging for some architecture professionals; at least in the office setting where it seems like we don’t always present our true selves (or where we’re even directly or indirectly discouraged from doing so). Restaurants seem to bring out the authenticity in people more easily, which may be a function of the hospitality of that industry — this is a big deal and is key to success — it’s going to be difficult for architects to cultivate that hospitable environment. It’s not necessarily about the “family atmosphere” that you see some firms brag about on their websites because a lot of that stuff is a reflection of the lack of diversity within those firms.

Toxic Attitudes Around Hiring & Training

So documenting training and using talented designated trainers is a big step forward, and the smaller the firm, the bigger the step that’s going to be due to deeply embedded bullshit mindsets. There are so many toxic philosophies out there about training, many of which are tied closely to hiring practices. From thinking you shouldn’t have to train experienced hires to using software proficiency tests in the interview process. Another one is the probationary period for someone to learn software or get to a certain level of productivity — this one really gets me because if you just trained people properly to begin with it goes away (they’re basically paying you less to not train you and let you stumble along). We need to reframe how we look at all of this bullshit: the firms that engage in it are actively making their firms and our profession less accessible, less diverse, and less equitable.

When people are trained well, not only are they more productive, but they feel more connected to the organization and the profession. We don’t get this right because we don’t manage the ebb and flow of workloads. We just react, and training is directly impacted by that poor reaction. That’s not appealing to outsiders looking to come into the profession, and all the HR diversity initiatives in the world won’t help if training sucks. Let’s fix training and the toxic mindsets that so often come with training and hiring.

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