Entry-Level Pay, In Context

by Mary-Margaret Zindren, EVP/Executive Director

What is fair pay for new graduates with architecture degrees?
Most commonly, people within the profession look to the AIA Salary Calculator to inform their answer. For our geographic region, the median salary reported for recent college graduates, non-licensed, with a professional degree in architecture, is $49,000, or $23.56 per hour.
Of course, the median number means there are firms paying above and below this number. The decision of what salary to offer is influenced by a firm’s values, if they want to be seen as an employer of choice, and the economic conditions of the firm.
As we emerge from the pandemic recession – which has been experienced unevenly by the architecture profession, depending on the pre-pandemic client base – there are certainly firms that are caught in a tough place, needing to expand their staff teams yet not being in a solid financial position.
But how low is too low when it comes to pay? And what should we be aiming for?

The AIA Code of Ethics provides guidance to members when it comes to pay: “Members should provide their colleagues and employees with a fair and equitable working environment, compensate them fairly, and facilitate their professional development.” And “members shall treat their colleagues and employees with mutual respect, and provide an equitable working environment.”
Recently, AIA Minnesota leaders were made aware that a student who will graduate with their M.Arch from a top 30 School of Architecture this Spring was offered a position at $15.00 per hour.
Offering $15.00 per hour to someone who holds an M.Arch – or a B.Arch – degree is neither fair compensation, nor respectful. It discounts the knowledge and skill gained through five to seven years of academic achievement, and the significant financial investment required to obtain a NAAB-accredited degree.
Pegging pay to the AIA Salary Calculator is a solid path for ensuring compensation is at least commensurate to what’s being offered in the market.
But determining what is fair pay goes beyond simply looking at market competitiveness.
The MIT Living Wage Calculator puts pay in the context of cost of living and family situation for every county and metropolitan area in the nation. It is designed to help “individuals, communities, and employers determine a local wage rate that allows residents to meet minimum standards of living.”
Very importantly, the costs considered for this minimum standard of living do not include savings for the future (e.g., a home, retirement, or kids’ college savings) or student loan debt payments. A 2014 Archinect article put the average minimum monthly student loan debt payment for B.Arch graduates at $487, to be paid over a 10-year period.
A number of firms – and AIA Minnesota – are starting to look to the Living Wage Calculator as part of pursuing the JUST Label. The International Living Future Institute created JUST to measure social justice and equity in the workplace and is a voluntary disclosure and transparency platform. Firms are rated in the areas of Diversity, Equity, Safety, Worker Benefit, Local Benefit, and Stewardship.
Depending on the goals an employer is aiming for within the JUST framework, the reference points in the Living Wage Calculator range from $32,552 ($15.65/hour) – the salary needed to sustain a single person with no children – to $63,149 ($30.36/hour), the salary needed to sustain two adults, one working, with one child.
Again, these calculations are for a minimum standard of living in these family scenarios – they in no way recognize an architectural designer’s professional degree and specialized skill set, nor do they account for student loan payments.
As we emerge from the pandemic and shift to a hybrid future – where people can work from anywhere, requiring new considerations around market rates based on geography – employers and employees alike will be looking at pay in more complex ways. The AIA Salary Calculator and the Living Wage Calculator / JUST Label are core tools to lean on in these critical conversations and decisions as we seek to ensure equitable pay for all.

View the April 2021 edition of Matrix.