Is education a good sector?


Hi all,

I am a graduate working at a medium sized firm currently looking for a new role.

I recently made through a friend the acquaintance of a director at a large firm working in a variety of sectors and primarily in education.

I understand that my friend talked me up because at the end of the event the director approached me and we had an informal chat about my circumstances and whether I am currently looking for a new role. He gave me his card and asked me to contact him if I am. There is now a position advertised at this large company for someone at my level to work on education projects, ranging from primary schools to higher education facilities.

I understand that primary/secondary education is government work and there would be work to be done even during a recession. I also think that universities are clients with good financial capacity and stable business, so they tend to expand and generally spend money on facilities, whether these are new builds or refurbishments.

I know that primary/secondary education projects are priced $20-30 million and involve standardised design and construction, so there is little room for interesting/innovative design.  These would be quick, repeat jobs for 2-3 person teams to get the fees in and pay the bills.

On the other hand, the university projects are $200 million jobs that could involve the opportunity for more interesting design, as higher ed institutions are considered open minded clients.

I would like to know if anyone has experience in this sector, what would be the benefits and drawbacks in regards to working there and if in your opinion staying in this sector could be a rewarding long-term commitment. I also wonder is there is opportunity in such firms to later transfer to other teams like commercial or transport and diversify my experience.

The firm is large, so pay is better than average and generally seems like a good place to work.

What do you think?

Sep 16, 18 5:40 am

it is a good sector.  there will be a lot of specific technical things for you to learn, but that shouldn't be a hindrance.  good luck.

Sep 16, 18 11:20 am  · 

But, if you believe that higher ed is becoming a bubble that is likely to burst, then tread carefully.

Sep 16, 18 4:56 pm  · 

The relative attractiveness of the public K-12 education market is very state-specific.  There are states that have many-years-long moratoriums on school spending, where unless it falls into an "emergency" category because the ceiling is literally falling on kids there's no state funding, and even your example $20-$30M school project will probably fail a public vote 2 or 3 times, while it gets whittled away to nothing.  And then there are states that heavily subsidize school construction, and where the typical public high school project is well north of $100M.   The pros are as you listed.  The cons are very long roads to successful funding, much bureaucracy involved in approving designs and in requirements for deliverables, involvement of huge numbers of stakeholders and committees, and very difficult deadlines dictated by school schedules.

With university projects it depends more on the university, and on the architecture firm's typical project.  Yes there are $200M+ flagship projects.  There are also bread-and-butter repeat mundane projects, like redoing dorm kitchens, designing tiny bare-bones multi-family housing for visiting professors, perpetual reconfiguring of office suites, classroom renovations, boiler room renovations...  You might ask to see a list of the firm's current projects, and talk to some other people in similar roles in this firm, to see what type of projects they're currently working on and have worked on in the past there.

Sep 16, 18 5:08 pm  · 

it does give you an experience that is applicable anywhere in the world.  And it won't burst worldwide anytime soon 

Sep 16, 18 11:48 pm  · 

Why are you looking for a new role?

Oct 5, 18 3:16 pm  · 

My firm has a longstanding relationship with a few prominent universities - more in the realm of preservation than building new design.  Design decisions can become very political.  We've had wings of buildings taken out of scope and then put back in scope then taken out of scope again because of the fear of public perception.  Upper-level staff want to be careful where they appear to be spending student tuition, even though a project is actually funded by the state or alumni contributions.  An entire design may change mid-construction because of someone you've never met sharing his/her opinion with another upper-level person who has pull.  There can often been LEED requirements that are a pain if you're not used to going through all of that extra paperwork.  Not to mention adhering to a University-specific building requirement that can sometimes be more stringent than the typical building code.

All of that being said, if you really want to do this kind of work, be ready for the bureaucratic side of life.  A lot of extra paperwork (and opinions) than you would have with a typical private client.  

I would definitely go through the firm's portfolio on their website and have some questions prepared if you decide to interview regarding what projects more specifically you'd be a part of. K-12 is a different beast than university work.

Oct 5, 18 5:01 pm  · 
It is a bubble but it’s more that it’s deflating slowly than one that’s going to burst. Slowly incoming students are becoming more wary of loans and subsequently universities are scaling back some of the more egregious superfluous expansion projects. That said there’s still a ton of money in higher ed and plenty of the more ‘boring’ projects where aging infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization. This could be tiny room by room renos to massive adaptive reuse projects. Universities tend to hold quite a lot of existing real estate and generally something is always in need of repair at any given time.

All that said, because it is higher ed the clients tend to be very risk averse and often project financing is very much start and stop depending on other needs of the school and donations received (or expected but not actually received). A large uni project could easily last 6+ years from initial programming to completed construction of like phase 1 of 5 phases.

Government anything tends to be all of the above but with even tighter restrictions on budget and design innovation.

In either category the concern, from a firm management/staffing/budgeting standpoint, is less about losing the client / project altogether and more about trying to plan around these groups which have basically an unlimited ‘schedule’ for starting and stopping. There’s often a lot of hurry up and wait. Healthcare can be similar in that regard.

In general there is no specific typology as an architect that you can pursue and assume things are going to be stable and consistent. I, like you, specifically went after higher ed/gov in search of stability and unfortunately found that it was anything but.

I’ve found repeat developer work and private chain/big corporate companies to be far more consistent. These clients are on a set timeline and in order for them to make their projected profits the project needs to be finished on time. Further they have all their ducks in a row in terms of financing on the front end long before tapping the architect. It’s harder to get repeat work from them as they’re constantly shopping for a cheaper architect, but that’s something your PM/principal should be negotiating aka not your concern based on your described experience level. The pace of that type of work is satisfying even if the design is meh because you’ll get to see a fairly large project completed within say a year vs a government project which can take many many years.

Nothing is recession proof and every kind of client will be clutching their purse strings if and when the economy takes a dive. Better to focus on what you want to do and whether there’s opportunity for growth within your company than to try and predict / operate around potential recessions. Even in a recession not every single staffer will be getting laid off, especially at a medium to large firm, so focus on being an indispensable team member and you’ll be last on the chopping block should things get bad.
Oct 6, 18 12:42 pm  · 

I would go for it! Especially if you can get on some of the fun university jobs. 

First half of my career was mostly education projects, all private high schools and universities, fun work, big budgets, and usually the jobs got built per the design. Those projects are the jewels of my portfolio....At my current firm the education studio has a lot of fun projects cooking right now. 

Good luck! 

Jan 8, 19 3:31 pm  · 

Education in Public Sector is good

Jan 9, 19 1:05 pm  · 

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