What happens to the architects that don't get promoted?


I am really curious to understand the structure of this profession:

My understanding is that the industry relies on a large base of passionate young staff who are willing to put in the extra hours, managed by the very small amount of architects who manage to survive the hardships of the profession.

I'll give the example of our medium sized firm as an average scenario:

Our firm has 20 architects at 25-30(interns & recently qualified), 9 architects at 30-35 yo(architects & junior PAs), 7 architects at 40-45(senior PAs & associates), 1-3 architects at 50-60(directors)

If 20 junior architects work at the firm now, what happens to the ones of the 20 that aren't promoted to associates-directors in 20 years time?

1)Do they start their own practices?What percentage of them?

2)Do some quit after a certain age?(e.g. family commitments)

3)Do they move outside traditional practice? (e.g.on the client side)

4)Does a certain percentage from each age group get wiped out due to the 10-15 year recession cycle? Which age group takes the biggest toll?


Feel free to share you ideas/experience on this matter!

Jan 8, 18 6:25 pm

Some of each of those. 

1. I don't know what percentage of architects leave larger practices to start their own firm - but I do know that somewhere around 70% of all US architecture firms are 1 and 2 person firms.  Some of those are owned by people who've spent their whole career in tiny firms, but more often they spent at least a few years early on at someplace larger.

2. I haven't observed more than a handful people quit due to family commitments and never return, but there are some who become stay-at-home parents for some period of time (a year for some, 15 years for others) and eventually do return.  In a family with 2 young professionals, the non-architect spouse will often be the higher earner, so when they decide to have a stay-at-home-parent for some period of time it's often the architect.

3. Yes some move to other related roles - becoming OPMs, clerks of the works, facilities architects, municipal or state architects, in-house architects for builders, independent consultants, renderer/modelers, spec writers, interior designers, code officials, professors....

4. Maybe.  But I think these numbers are exaggerated.  It's cyclical. Unemployment in architecture firms in some cities did rise as high as 40% during parts of the last recession, and obviously that forces some to find other careers, whether temporarily or permanently.  But overall nationwide the % of architects who were unemployed at any given time during the recession was much lower (8% to 16% depending on the source), and yet you'll see some folks on forums like this insisting that it was 80% or 90%! 

5. Some people leave the profession to pursue other professions that are less directly related to architecture.  Coworkers from my early days have gone into real estate, graphic design, hospitality management, law, restaurant owner, software developer, medical illustrator, and daycare franchise owner. All of these are people who went to architecture school and worked in the field for a few years or more.  There are relatively few professions in which the majority of people who start them are still in them 10 years later (education, accounting, and medical are some).  It's pretty normal to have several careers in one's life.

6. Those who do not get promoted in one firm often achieve a vertical move when they jump ship to another firm.  Some do that multiple times.  Sometimes that's a faster trip to a partner-track position than working up the ladder at the same firm.

Jan 8, 18 6:59 pm

They go hang out on archinect!

Jan 9, 18 1:42 am

Landscape laborers (seasonal).

Uber drivers.

Jan 9, 18 9:17 am

I think most move out of traditional practice to another field. One of the smartest kids from my class never even entered practice but started a company right out of college, sold it (you've probably heard of it) and then started another company. He's done quite well. Several of my classmates started companies that were somewhat related to architecture, some not related at all. One owns a bar <-smart. Several went into engineering, real estate, and facilities management. At least three are full time parents. I graduated 15 years ago and out of my classmates, I can really only count 14 that are still on staff in a firm. Four are teaching.

Jan 9, 18 9:40 am

one is a green consultant and one is an accessibility expert who works as a consultant...


This sounds similar to the make up of my class. I think we had about 50 around graduation. A few never graduated - others went into the military, product design, law school, graphic design. One person is even a butcher. About 15 or so went to get MArchs and are now licensed/practicing.  And even a few with MArchs got jobs as owners reps or in construction!  So yeah, you really never know!


the same that happens to the 85% that enter college and never finish.

Jan 9, 18 9:50 am

I think its misleading to ask about those that "don't get promoted" as if that is the only goal, to climb a corporate ladder. What exactly are you trying to say? Your firm is not the only way things are done. I was an associate with 6 years of experience, you shouldn't have to wait until your 40's for that role. 

Jan 9, 18 10:09 am

That's a good point.  Also there's no real way to know, about gebr's firm, that others didn't get promoted.  In the older/upper tiers that he's describing, it could be that people regularly rose to those tiers, but some decided to leave after reaching them, for any of the reasons other have discussed.  It also could be that the firm was smaller historically, so the upper ranks would be smaller now but have potential to grow, or that some of the upper tiers retired.  The last 2 people to "leave" my current firm passed away, so that's another reason that hasn't been mentioned yet, that may ultimately thin the herd more, especially its elders.

Jan 9, 18 10:34 am

I’ve never been promoted. Only yelled at for sucking

Jan 9, 18 12:35 pm

Anticipating the end of your sentence.


Suck harder


There's also the fact that every firm has a different definition for each of those roles. The names/titles aren't protected or standardized (other than capital-A "Architect")

Jan 9, 18 1:54 pm

Thinking back on it, I don't think I was ever promoted from one job title to another within the same firm, except once very early on, when I went from "designer/job captain" to "assistant project manager".  I achieved all subsequent level changes by moving from one firm to another.  And then eventually I went out on my own, and then that grew into a firm with its own levels/hierarchies.

Jan 9, 18 1:59 pm

I just got the associate title... along with many others.  I believe the firm is rebranding their titles to be more similar to the banking industry.  Ever notice how everyone in banking is minimum VP?  Anyway, we have a roughly 100 person AE office and a satellite office that I don't know much about.  On the architecture side, we have 4 interns that aren't at least associate.  We also have probably 10 people admin or otherwise related that aren't at least associate.  Then we have probably another 10 engineers in training that aren't associate.  

It took me less than 24 hours to realize that I am now at the bottom of the totem pole.  Not sure where I was before that ; P  limbo land with no title, but really an intern anymore.

Jan 9, 18 4:12 pm

Good observation baby gebr.

Answer is pretty simple actually. Women get pregnant and men go to war and die. After everything has been destroyed, there is need to rebuild, and those fresh babies go into the profession. 

Another decade or so and cycle repeats. If you ignore absurdity of human condition, it's actually a beautiful and poetic life cycle. 

Which brings me to facility life cycles. I barely passed a recent certification exam because I didn't study the life cycle part. I only assume what I wrote above to be de facto truth on the matter. 

Jan 9, 18 5:19 pm

My title is Hey You, Yeah You, Can you take cara dis? 

Jan 9, 18 6:12 pm
The vast majority tend to leave for better paying prospects in adjacent/tangentially related fields.
Jan 9, 18 9:13 pm

My corporate life was cut short when I had to resign and go back to my hometown to take care of my ill father. This eventually lead me to do freelance and eventually start my own practice because in a way it was convenient that I could work on building my career/own practice slowly and at the same time be of assistance to my father when he needed it. A few years later I caught up with some old officemates and they were still in the same positions in the same company. Some moved overseas and although their salary was bigger (for reasons like they've already started a family) they still had the same kind of work they did in their previous job(s). Some got promoted, but they were still kind of stuck doing the same type of work. But the thing I learned about most firms is that anyone or everyone is dispensable (unless you're CEO or Partner levels, but hey look at Harvey Weinstein!). And it's not really a matter of whether you get promoted or not, but of the professional growth you can hone and achieve inside a company or in your own personal practice. So I guess don't be too attached to a job/profession or company if you're not really growing professionally and, more importantly, salary and benefits wise.

Jan 9, 18 9:14 pm
This is a great question, for the lot of us stuck in medium and large sized firms.

If you haven't been promoted to a senior PM/Principal type level until the age of 50, you probably won't last in the profession until 55. You will be let go, and no one wants an older person these days as an employee. You're better off starting your own firm.

On the same note, if you are in a corporate gig and have not been promoted in 3-4 years, it's time to head out.
Jan 10, 18 2:57 am

"no one wants an older person these days as an employee" - why is that, son?


Sorry if I hit a nerve. I would like for you to do an informal survey of offices these days and see how many people are post 55. Lets see how many you can gather. Thanks.


ok, but answer the question though.


in the 2 offices I've worked over the past 10 years, #1. 3 people, 2 over 55, #2. 7 people, 4 over 55. I would really like to see those reasons why people over 55 can't work in an office, because I haven't experienced an architect under 35 that can build shit.


If you read my answer, I was talking about "medium and large sized firms". Sorry I wasnt clear. In such places there's not much room at the top for more experienced folk.
To answer your question, such offices don't see older employees as savvy with newer software, have family commitments, have to be paid more etc etc. Nevermind that these are the employees with most real world knowledge.
Again, I'm just stating what I've seen from about 16 years of experience in the biz at different sized firms.


OK, but I still don't think it has to do with age, more with adaptability and expectations. I worked for a medium firm that was opening a branch abroad, they hired a bunch of people from diff backgrounds and experience and expected to start producing like a well-oiled machine in 3 months, they put a local in charge, the whole branch closed in a year. And then there's the futility of titles and promotions, if you do a good job, does it really matter if you are on top or below of some other people?


I would really love to see a 55 year old as good at crap Revit production than a youngster with 4-5 years experience.

Regarding expectations, as I mentioned, typically the older you get you have more responsibilities, and you expect a bit more in terms of salary. In medium to large firms Ive just seen a lot of experienced folk getting laid off and replaced with said youngsters, unless you are in a position of great responsibility or are bringing in clients.

I'm not a robot

I work for a large office. This place is not very hierarchical - meaning you could be managing a project and then be helping out in production on someone else’s project while yours is on hold. Ownership has been known to jump in on building physical models (sure it’s only for a couple minutes and it’s doing things like putting trees on a site model, but it gives them a chance to get to know junior staff).

I'm not a robot

We also have a very wide age range in the office - and it can be hard for someone to work here that has this “ladder” attitude. The down side to being a very “flat” office is that it can be challenging for someone with little to no experience to be able to find a footing - the more “junior” staff that survives usually comes in with a couple years experience.


Just out of curiosity, do medium or large firms make you clock in-out?


I've never worked in a firm that makes you clock in and out. At one time I worked as an architect for a municipality and they did have a person with a clip board who logged all workers in the building in and out.


As for Revit expertise: I know some older folks who are very skilled with it. One thing to keep in mind is that some of us oldsters have been using it for a long time now - in my case since before Revit was even purchased by AutoDesk, so getting close to 20 years now, and at one point I taught it. While people fresh out of school generally do have a more thorough knowledge of what's new in the latest releases, those of use who've worked several years each in multiple Revit-using firms may have a better big-picture grasp of best approaches.

Imagining that you're going to climb the corporate ladder to the top is like imagining that you'll walk on the moon after joining the space program. 

Jan 10, 18 12:50 pm

Miles, correct me if I'm wrong, but you've never worked in a corporate office have you? I'm not disputing that in some cases this is true, but what is "the top"? If it is having creative control over projects, then there's a ton of those positions at every corporate firm, and as far as I can see, that's the great benefit in having your own shop, no?

There are all kinds of situations. I've was lucky to grow up (literally) in my father's atelier. One of our guys did some time at Emery Roth (they were the production arm for one of my father's highrises) and reported on the work environment there. Drafting leads were doled out one-at-a-time by a bean counter. Using too many got unwanted attention.


On the contrary I used to work with an ex-Paul Rudolph asshole architect that used to dole out drafting leads. The corporate office I worked at had a whole room full of awesome markers, trace what have you. Not one size fits all, and generalizations are made by myopic people.


there is a place for everyone.  Unfortunately some guys top out at as project architects of super simple projects.  I've never seen a 50 year old drafter, I assume those people eventually find their true calling.

Jan 11, 18 12:57 pm

I've known quite a few 50 year old drafters. There's only one in my current firm, though a handful of up-and-coming drafters in their 40s are following him.


in many firms, its up or out

Jan 11, 18 1:09 pm


I would really love to see a 55 year old as good at crap Revit production than a youngster with 4-5 years experience.

Why don't you think that is possible? 

Sep 6, 18 5:35 pm

because he's young and thinks revit is the answer to life on earth, wait 15 years and the next software fad and see what happens.


Dual screen technology and filled regions with two patterns in them starting Revit 2019!!! Nothing can beat that ;p *snark*

The 55 year old isn't doing crap Revit production because he is busy managing clients, projects and the firm. That's why there are CAD monkeys.


"Those that do, do. Those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach....teach gym" - Dewey Finn, School of Rock. 

Oct 19, 18 4:32 pm

It's possible in your location or in larger cities or firms that could have quite a bit of truth to it.  However, I have worked in some medium-sized firms where some of the buildings and details were so difficult and complex, they had to retain a guy who was in his 70's (one of the best architects I've ever worked with BTW) (was not even a registered arch) just to actually tell everyone else how the most complicated areas of the building would be detailed.  Some of what he did is still a mystery to me, but I worked with him a couple years on a huge project and really learned a lot.  And he earned as much $ as the 4 VP's of the firm.  

To answer the OP-

(to answer your actual question, they usually jump ship after a number of years for a better position elsewhere once they've gained enough experience or had enough of the BS)

1)Do they start their own practices?What percentage of them?

Maybe 5%

2)Do some quit after a certain age?(e.g. family commitments)

That would be great but I've never seen it happen.

3)Do they move outside traditional practice? (e.g.on the client side)

If the opportunity comes along, yes, say 2%.  (happened to me once)

4)Does a certain percentage from each age group get wiped out due to the 10-15 year recession cycle? Which age group takes the biggest toll?

Yes.  Typically the 35-45 year olds get plowed during this time.  

5)???  You forgot suicide rate but I haven't seen that at all.  A few became professors or work as Directors of Agencies or Facilities Managers, etc. for different levels of government.  One guy was a Project Manager / Project Architect for the state for many years, and recently became a director.  

6) I'm directing our really smart, very young interns towards Civil engineering and Industrial / automotive design now.  Thank God they're listening.

Oct 25, 18 4:34 pm

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