Cadalyst AEC Tech News #123 (July 1, 2004)

30 Jun, 2004 By: Michael Dakan

The death of the CAD drafter position in the AEC industries has been proclaimed many times in the past. However, I still get inquiries from young people seeking a career path outline to get into an entry-level position as a CAD drafter in an architectural office. I also hear from those who have been using CAD in another industry who want to get into a similar situation in the architectural area.

Though it's a bit premature to announce the death of this type of work, the requirements are changing, and the demand for strictly "CAD Operators" in architecture is limited and getting more so all the time. You still see advertisements from architectural firms looking for architectural CAD specialists, but increasingly there are additional requirements beyond expertise with one CAD software program or another.

Not too many years ago, when the use of CAD was relatively new to the profession and many architectural firms were just getting into it, there was strong demand for anyone who had some training with CAD software, and even more if that person had also worked with CAD in an architectural office. Now that CAD has become ubiquitous throughout the industry and most professionals have some experience in its use, there's less demand for CAD operators. CAD experience is expected in an architectural office, and is usually part of the job description for pretty much all of the job openings in a firm. A firm may look for experience with a particular CAD program, but often even this will be stated as a preference rather than a requirement. CAD experience with one program is considered to readily transfer to other programs, and it doesn't take long to get up to speed regardless of the program you're most familiar with.

In the architecture profession, all young architectural school graduates are required to work a few years as an intern under the direct supervision of a licensed architect in order to themselves become licensed. Before CAD, these young intern architects were put to work as pencil and paper drafters, drawing design and construction drawings sketched up by a more senior architect. They constituted the bulk of the drafting staff employed by a firm. Now with architectural school graduates getting some training in CAD as part of their college courses, most of the CAD drafting jobs are again being filled by intern architects on the path to licensure as an Architect.

In the old days, trade schools and community college courses covered architectural drafting, and there continued to be a certain demand for technical school-trained drafters in addition to intern architects. A person who couldn't or didn't want to complete a rigorous university curriculum in architecture could pursue a reasonably good career as a drafter for architectural firms. I'm sure the same thing will remain true for those who undertake architectural drafting training using CAD, which is simply a different tool to accomplish the same thing.

In addition, the new tools have created new categories of jobs required to support them, such as CAD manager, computer network administration, and IT personnel. But increasingly even these jobs are being filled by people who graduated from architectural schools and then gained additional expertise in these more specialized areas of practice. There's much less mystique attached to computer technology now that most people have some experience with it. Architectural employers are looking for people who first understand the practice of architecture and then how the technology can best be applied to the practice.

My advice to young people who hope to work in an architectural office remains pretty much the same today as it always has been, regardless of the tools used in the course of a day's work: start with graduation from an accredited school of architecture, if at all possible, and then pursue a specialization within architecture if you want. An architectural school curriculum includes courses in art, architectural history, building design, construction methods and materials, and structural engineering, as well as additional studies in the general humanities and liberal arts. These areas are all considered important and contribute to the broad generalist skill set of an architect. Even though the industry will always have some need for people who don't necessarily have this rigorous education, those jobs will always be less in demand and more limited in career potential, salaries, opportunities for growth and advancement in a firm, and personal and professional satisfaction.