Can soft skills be the key to a successful career development for young architects?

It is no secret that the question “Should I just drop out?” has been stirring in the minds of most architecture students at one point or another during their university career. The long hours, constant stress and looming deadlines undeniably take a toll on many of us. However, does the problem lay deeper than the pressure we all experience from our course?

According to a recent Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) research statistic, roughly 1 in 10 UK students drop out after their first year of studies. Moreover, results show that Architecture holds the 4th place for number of university dropouts – nearly 7.3% of Architecture undergraduates don’t continue into their second year. It seems that the problem for many students is not only that they go blindly into the degree, (because it sounds like a nice mixture of “creative and technological skill”), but that they lack certain soft skills relevant to their chosen career. So, what are soft skills and why are they important for career orientation?

While hard skills entail technical knowledge which could be learned, like writing, drawing, computer skills, etc, soft skills include personal qualities like communicating effectively, being a good team member, being adaptable and so on. Although they vary from profession to profession, I find that in the architecture discipline you need a large variety of the so-called “salesmen” skills, as architects to a large extent have to convince their clients that their ideas and designs are worth pursuing. Therefore, being able to collaborate, think creatively and critically, be flexible and take responsibility, are all essential to be a successful member of the architectural practice.

However, soft skill development is still underestimated as an essential part of every architecture course, which can lead to students not being able to cope with the requirements of the degree and dropping out. Moreover, in recent years there has been a backlash from employers, stating that universities don’t prepare graduates for the reality of the practice. According to a 2014 RIBA Skills Survey Report, 80% of employers considered that higher education puts theoretical knowledge above practical know-how and 53% thought that graduates lacked transferable skills. This to a large extent was backed up by students as well.

That being said, architecture courses should aid us, the student body, by developing curriculums which will evolve with the ever-changing environment of the architectural practice. One thing that I have noticed is that although we are being taught what to do in order to improve our projects and knowledge, we are not really being told how to do it. Some might argue that certain modules are vague so that they can develop a level of initiative and self-learning, however, most of them fail to deliver good results when our skills are lacking a base. How many times have students not been able to communicate their ideas efficiently during presentations because they did not know how to explain them?

In order to tackle this issue, there should be a clear understanding of what techniques universities should develop. In recent years there have been a number of questionnaires, or tests, if you like, that help people find out more about their qualities and provide individual feedback. So why can’t courses develop a similar approach to paying personalised attention to what key skills students should nurture during their university career? Would that not be beneficial not only for people who are not sure about whether they chose the right course, but also for graduates just going into practice?