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Emerging Professionals as a Priority

Kate Thuesen

DLR Group is continuing its commitment to the next generation of AEC leaders through hiring, mentoring, and investing in interns and new graduates. It has evolved its Summer Internship Experience Program to the Emerging Professional Experience Program. All interns will participate in the program, and recent graduates who are full-time employee-owners are also encouraged to participate.

3 young professionals working with stone samples and paper at standing height table by large windows in corner room
Image by Cory Parris Photography, Inc.

The American Institute of Architects defines an emerging professional as “students, interns, and young professionals licensed for less than 10 years.” DLR Group uses the term EP to reference the interns and new graduates who have recently joined the firm.

EPs have daily work responsibilities that may not provide opportunities to see or participate in other parts of the design process, disciplines, or business units within the firm. The EPX Foundations program is hosted for 10 weeks over the summer and includes weekly guest lecturers and recommended activities to encourage learning and professional growth. I was recently invited to share more about the program with Amaya Labrador, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, a Houston-based healthcare project architect who currently serves on the AIA’s Emerging Professionals Committee and as Young Architects Regional Director for Texas.

Black and white image of 7 people gathered around site map and other papers hung on wall. Young woman points to image
Image © DLR Group.
AL: Basics first; tell us a little bit about the origins of this program and your position.

KT: At its deepest level, this work is born out of my hope to help others have a better experience than I did when I first started out in the profession. Due to many factors (some of them from my own lack of perspective, others from the environment I was in), I didn’t feel supported to discover my own design voice and find my place in the profession. I’ve worked hard, failed, grown, and discovered a lot as I’ve worked my way to where I am now. I’m a licensed architect and have practiced primarily in educational environments for most of my career. I’ve also had many unique roles at DLR Group due to personal, professional, and business needs, and overseeing the EPX Program is my current role. Being part of design teams that were creating innovative learning spaces and working with students was something I found personally satisfying. I started attending career fairs to help in the hiring and mentoring process, and I also sought deeper connections on campuses through teaching, mentorship, and service. The firm’s leadership saw a need for more investment in the next generation of AEC professionals and asked me to focus on working with EPs.

AL: While DLR Group is not the only firm to have a structured program, they’re certainly not ubiquitous across the industry. Why/when/what were the driving forces that motivated the firm’s leadership to formalize the program and your position?

KT: I graduated in spring 2007 prior to the recession, and like me, most of my classmates were able to find work. Many of us recall the recession from fall 2007 to 2009 and how it negatively impacted our profession — primarily through attrition of professionals due to the downturn in work. I watched many of my classmates and young colleagues leave the profession. Over a decade later, some of them have returned, but many have moved on to other professions. And today, finding individuals who have 10 to 15 years of experience remains a challenge. DLR Group recognizes that investing in the next generation of AEC professionals is necessary for the success of our firm and the industry. When COVID-19 created new working models, we placed greater emphasis on our internship program and the hiring of new graduates. The firm sees the value in investing in the future of our profession and the firm, and that’s why 72 EPs joined us in summer 2020 even though it was a challenging time for our economy and our profession.

2 women working together looking at fabric samples at table in office with desks in background. Windows wrap around corner
Photo by Kim Nguyen.
AL: Why is it important to have this program?

KT: By being intentional with the time it has with interns, DLR Group is offering many individuals opportunities for growth and dual learning. This program is an opportunity for interns and new grads to get a perspective on the holistic nature of architecture and of the potential for experiences and growth at DLR Group. The goal is to provide a strong foundation for emerging professionals to build their professional careers. EPX provides a comprehensive overview of DLR Group, as well as the architecture, engineering, and construction industry and how to navigate it and advocate for career wellbeing. Professionals also encourage the nurturing of EPs’ networks through strengthening understanding of different roles within the firm, and the mentorship that occurs through this experience may have positive downstream benefits on participants’ careers. EPX is composed of three major components: mentorship, work, and foundations. When someone is new to their career, additional layers are crucial to successful learning.

  • Work: Interns and new grads are primarily hired to work with our project teams and are learning while they work with us.
  • Mentorship: Interns and new grads are paired with a manager and buddy, as well as introduced to other mentors during their time at the firm.
  • Foundations: The Foundations Program is inspired by learning in a college course, without attendance, grades, or homework. The program meets weekly and suggests activities to stay engaged during new employment at DLR Group.
Man uses VR headset and controls in front of table with 5 people in white office, desks back right. Pad of paper on table
Photo by Kim Nguyen.
AL: The program umbrella encompasses both student interns and emerging professionals (which is defined as up to ten years after licensure). How do you design a program and provide resources that cater to the needs of such a diverse group?

KT: When re-thinking the program, we had a rigorous discussion about the umbrella term. There were conversations about how new graduates, who are in a fundamentally different employment situation than interns, could also benefit by participating. When speaking with new grads, former interns who are now new grads, and interns, they reinforced that early in a career is a time of tremendous growth and learning, and that creating opportunities that cater to this larger cohort could benefit all. At DLR Group, EPs are typically interns or employee-owners who have graduated within the last one to three years. Many of the ‘buddies’ who support interns and new grads are also within 10 years of licensure and are welcome to participate and engage in the program.

AL: We’ve heard you say that enthusiasm can lead to action, but it’s not until one gains a platform that one can effect change. How can passionate emerging professionals find or create their platform?

KT: I did not originally set out to build the fully formed program we have now. I wasn’t even trying to create a platform! What I saw was a need, and I had a desire to fill it. I am fortunate in having the resources, energy, and support to keep moving forward, and having a firm that also values this investment has allowed me to fully support the growth of EPs. This has not always been easy, quick, or simple to execute. But with the support of the firm, I can continue to iterate the program and make it stronger each year. I could not do this work without direct support from many departments within the firm, from branding and graphics to practice and design leaders who help in the process. Additionally, almost 200 DLR Group employee-owners are managing, mentoring, or acting as buddies to our emerging professionals this year, and they are the ones who have daily interactions to truly invest in the next generation. While I initiated the idea, the program doesn’t exist or grow without the incredible support of the firm.

People gathered around standing height dark wood table with fabric samples and plans. Grey wall, back, with geometric details
Photo by the Unfound Door.
AL: The transition between “architect” and “manager” is challenging for some in the profession. What would be your advice to those currently making that transition?

KT: I think it’s important to remember that being an architect has many unique facets — from design and construction to guiding a project through phases and working with clients. The lessons learned in working with others and of guiding a process can be directly applied in management. I used to believe that my university experience didn’t prepare me to work in management because I don’t have a business degree, but I realized that my architectural education at university and in my firm equipped me to grow, learn, and connect with others, which is foundational to management and working effectively with others. I’d recommend to others to learn as much as you can from those in a similar position by asking to be mentored, reading management books, listening to podcasts, and using resources like the Harvard Business Review. Also, look at what resources your firm already has — for example, we have an extensive educational series for project managers. There is a lot of learning that occurs as the transition from architect to manager happens, and choosing to be proactive about learning and growth will help facilitate success.

 

This article originally appeared in the 2021 Q2 issue of Connection, the architecture and design journal of the Young Architects Forum.

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