Low pay, gruelling hours, tedious work: Why Singapore’s architecture graduates are drawing up exit plans

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In her case, the lack of guidance at work has also been a bugbear.

“I’m just left to make mistakes on my own, which I’m not comfortable with … My colleagues are very helpful when you ask, but everyone is too busy with their own tasks that you cannot just latch onto someone.”

HOW BAD IS THE BRAIN DRAIN?

Singapore Institute of Architects’ president Melvin Tan said the survey’s findings on how many planned to stay long term were “not extremely shocking”, based on observations of past cohorts, including his own.

But they were still “alarming” and allowed the institute to “put numbers to what we were sensing”, he said.

Already, some firms that are hiring again as projects restart are having difficulty filling positions, Mr Tan noted.

The graduates that CNA spoke to said friends who quit the profession ended up in fields such as the civil service, arts, UX design or interior design.

But amid Singapore’s big urban ambitions, be it greening the built environment or realising its long-term plans, more talent will be needed to fill a growing number of roles, Mr Tan said.

“If there is a significant drain and we can no longer retain even the small percentage that we’re looking at, then we are headed down a difficult road.”

WHAT IS BEING DONE?

Mr Tan acknowledged the challenges facing young graduates, echoing their thoughts about low wages and the lack of a fee scale.

“If you look at today’s market, the fees, unfortunately, are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago.

“Anyone who has a sense of economics knows that’s not viable, because we’ve had to suffer inflation over the years. It’s impossible that we are looking at fees that are lower, when we are doing a lot more.”

Though it cannot impose a fee scale because of competition laws, the Singapore Institute of Architects is working on a value articulation framework, which will list all the works and costs that architects undertake.

“(This) covers manpower, rental, subscriptions, software, codes, regulations, and costs of liabilities and responsibilities.

“We hope to illustrate the breadth of responsibilities and liabilities that architects take on in every project and the value we bring, so they understand better how to charge for these to create a commensurate fee structure.”

It will also help developers or clients understand why the cost is fair, he said.

He added that the statutory authority, the Board of Architects, is also looking into “trying to have conversations surrounding this issue”.

The institute is also working on an upcoming survey focused on benchmarking fees that firms are currently charging.

RAISING WAGES, INVESTING IN FUTURE GENERATIONS

Mr Tan is also pushing firms to invest in their staff members, estimating that there may be about 5,000 to 6,000 architects and architectural assistants in Singapore.

If there are about S$15 billion worth of projects on offer every year that the industry can undertake, setting aside 1 per cent of this would allow an investment of around S$2,500 a month in each staff member, he said.

This sum can go to providing commensurate wages or investing in manpower and skill-building.

“While we cannot make this mandatory, we hope members come together to make that positive step for our future,” said Mr Tan. He added that the survey has made members sit up, sparking their interest on how to improve the situation.

Finally, a mentorship programme has been expanded to cover young graduates entering the industry.

The young architecture graduates CNA spoke to were sceptical about how effective these initiatives would be, but they also acknowledged the difficulty of solving the issues at hand.

Jessica also suggested: “(Educating) the general public is very important … Because it sets mindsets and expectations, and also sets the status of architects.”

Daniel agreed that the work deserves more recognition: “Without architects, you won’t have hospitals for doctors, officers for lawyers, factories, shopping malls, corporate businesses.”

Regardless of the current challenges, Singapore Institute for Architects’ Mr Tan is also confident about the profession’s future.

After all, architects are “supreme optimists”, he said, explaining that this is because “projects take so long to realise that if you’re not optimists, you would have already given up halfway”.

“(Architecture) is here to stay. There’s a lot of interest around architecture and everyone appreciates architecture. 

“I think the future is bright. But it’s our responsibility to ensure that we continue to invest in it for its future.”

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