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Education and Employer Expectations for Preservation Professionals 

12-09-2015 17:35

As a graduate student in the field of historic preservation about to enter the preservation workforce, I wanted to know if I was adequately prepared by my graduate education to obtain a professional position. Did I have the qualifications that organizations and agencies were looking for in a candidate? My self interest soon expanded to the entire historic preservation graduate community. To determine what qualifications were essential in an entry-level employee, I went to the consumer of historic preservation graduates, potential employers. A detailed examination of the needs of preservation employers was required to assess the readiness of graduates to enter the field as viable practitioners. Consequently, I undertook a study in the spring of 1996, which reviewed the history of preservation education in the United States and current graduate programs, and surveyed the professional preservation community and preservation program alumni. My intent was that the information gathered from professionals and program alumni would benefit educators, students, and ultimately the profession. The first survey was mailed to 403 preservation professionals to determine their needs in an entry-level preservation employee. The questionnaire was designed to obtain a better understanding of employers` needs and how graduate programs could respond to those needs. The second part of the study, a telephone survey of 17 alumni representing 12 of the 15 historic preservation programs, was intended as a focus group-type discussion. This survey was designed to determine the level of knowledge these former students obtained during their preservation graduate education, and to learn if, and how, they could have been better prepared to enter the workforce. The aim of the study was to outline some broad indications of employer needs and encourage a debate about the implications for higher education. Presently, 15 graduate programs lead to a masters degree in historic preservation. One only has to look at the varied university schools and departments that house historic preservation programs -- architecture, environmental design, fine arts, geography, history, planning -- to see that preservation is an interdisciplinary field, involving architecture, planning, decorative arts, archaeology, engineering, art and architectural history, landscape design, real estate, and law to mention only the principal areas. The programs reflect the diversity of the profession, involving various formats and curriculum requirements. Aside from requiring an architectural history course(s), either as a part of the curriculum or as a prerequisite, and a course that covers preservation philosophy and theory, program course requirements vary greatly. Seven of the programs allow students to specialize in a particular area, such as conservation or planning. In general the following two characteristics are common to all programs:

  • To produce general preservationists with professional specialities in preservation planning, architectural history, conservation, preservation law, historic administration, interpretation, archaeology, research, or design. Students work together on preservation projects to prepare them for cooperative work in the field after graduation; and,
  • To prepare students for stewardship by supplementing academic course work with field projects based on the premise that the classroom cannot replace practical hands-on experience.
Preservation training in academia has been in place for the past 37 years. Today, graduate programs are producing preservationists who will be tomorrow`s leaders in the preservation movement.

No hypothesis or assumptions had been formulated before the start of the study. Certain responses, of course, could be intuitively predicted. Now, however, the study can report statistical data to back up those predictions and answer the question: what do the professionals in the field of preservation desire in an entry-level candidate? I intended to include respondents in 50 states from all levels of government and the private and nonprofit sectors. Fifty percent of the deliverable questionnaires from respondents in 49 states were completed and returned. The highest percentage of responses (38 percent) came from those involved in state and federal governments. The responses were evenly distributed geographically, with the highest number of responses (23 percent) coming from the South. Sixty-two percent of all respondents reported that they currently employ one or more employees with a graduate degree in historic preservation. Respondents were asked to rank the importance of 33 areas of knowledge and skills for an entry-level preservation professional. They were also asked to respond to seven questions to help further in determining their needs. Table 1 illustrates the desired areas of knowledge and skills broken down by types of employers. The breakdown was developed by including only those areas ranked very important by the majority of respondents within the division. The alumni segment of the study consisted of telephone interviews with 17 former preservation students. Program directors, program literature, and other alumni provided the names. The criteria for participation were that they had completed their course work between 1988 and 1994 from one of the 15 historic preservation graduate programs in the United States, and that they were currently employed in the preservation field. All of the respondents completed their required historic preservation graduate course work between 1988 and 1994. All but two have received a degree. Respondents were read a list of knowledge and skills they might have acquired during their graduate education and asked to rank their level of knowledge from not covered to a great deal of knowledge. This list was followed by several questions about their education, job search, and job. No attempt was made to analyze the level of knowledge and skills the alumni reported. This information was for the sole purpose of providing a focus group-type discussion for the study. The areas of knowledge and skill ranked medium knowledge or great deal of knowledge by the majority of program alumni are in Table 2, along with the very important knowledge and skills desired by at least three of the four different types of employers -- nonprofit, state/federal, municipal/county, and for-profit. Table 3 depicts the alumni`s deficiencies in the areas ranked very important by at least three of the different employers. Although professionals were not asked about skill in dealing with groups of people, seven alumni said they were unprepared to work with the public, volunteers, preservation commissions, and boards. The areas of greatest deficiency in working with these groups are reported as: dynamics of group behavior; group facilitation; and working through conflicts. Several comments from professionals on this topic include: "Send us people who know how to work with groups, not just conduct a survey," and, "We need people who can work with others [and] build coalitions." This study defines practical experience as community-based experience with, among other things, historic resource surveys, historic structure reports, planning studies, and design guidelines. The vast majority of professional respondents believe it is very important to be trained in the field. Although 53 percent of the alumni reported that a great deal of skill was obtained through practical experience, nearly half (eight) of the alumni responded later in the questionnaire that more practical experience was needed during their education to prepare better for work in the field. One former student called it a lack of "touching buildings." Additionally, three respondents reported a lack of National Register nomination knowledge and experience, and two reported a lack of knowledge and experience with Section 106 reviews. "Everything is great in theory, but practical application is so important." Another commented that, "more emphasis on skills to work in the field [was needed]." One professional respondent added, "Students need more training and experience in practical application of skills and knowledge and less theoretical and academic drill." Another noteworthy comment, "Academic work provides a frame for analyzing the real world, but real world exposure is necessary to validate it." Findings also suggest that not all organizations expect students to come to the job and be immediately productive. Many organizations surveyed had some type of entry-level training curriculum to introduce the employee to the specifics of the operation. However, comments were also made regarding the lack of understanding by new employees about the relationship of the organization to the preservation process. Specifics include an inadequate knowledge of the nature of state office programs and how those programs relate to the federal government, and insufficient knowledge of the organization and operation of nonprofit organizations and government, especially at the local level. "A well-rounded background in preservation is important but so is some basic knowledge in business, economics, and government practices." Five program alumni agreed that they did not know the structure and operation of governments and state historic preservation offices (SHPO). When asked if they encountered any obstacles in their job search, ten alumni responded that when they first began looking for a job, there was a lack of jobs within their minimal level of experience. Three respondents were hampered by geography. "With so few entry-level positions available, one must be flexible and mobile." Two alumni said that their lack of knowledge in other areas (besides preservation) disqualified them from some jobs and, if they could do it over again, they would have majored in an allied discipline with a specialization in preservation.

The evolution of preservation education is ongoing. Yet the more we know about the needs of the field, the better prepared new practitioners will be for the challenges of preserving and protecting our resources and heritage. The current preservation programs appear to be keeping up with the field and providing the proper basic education, although more attention is needed in some areas. The programs are diverse in their requirements, curricula, and most important, approach: general versus specialization. Therefore, prospective students should do some research before choosing a program that is right for them. Once in a program however, whether a graduate is well prepared to enter the preservation workforce or not is primarily the educator`s responsibility. Understanding the needs of the profession is the first step toward developing a program curriculum that will include the elements that are fundamental to success in preservation. Besides reviewing and updating program curricula, educators can advise the students of electives that are directly applicable to the field, and that might allow a student to concentrate on a specialization. Preservation program curricula have advanced enormously since the 1970s. Nevertheless, criticism cannot be expected to cease. The needs of the profession stem from judgments, values, and interactions within a given context. The needs are dependent upon the purpose being served and on the current situation. As the survey results show, each job or position in the preservation field has its own needs, based on its purpose, and today`s situation may not be the same tomorrow. Preservation educators, however, can alter their curricula to better prepare graduates for the workforce.

There is a great deal more to working in preservation than identifying the style of a building or knowing the benefits of an easement. Based on the needs of the profession as expressed by individuals in both surveys, graduate programs might incorporate the following, if not doing so already, into their curriculum to improve graduates` marketability and job performance:

  • group dynamics and facilitation
  • conflict resolution
  • public speaking
  • experience in National Register nominations and process, and Section 106 review and process
  • numerous visits to all types of preservation organizations and commissions to view their own brand of preservation first hand
  • structure, organization, and operation of preservation offices at all levels of government including SHPOs
  • writing style and content critique
Additionally, practical experience, which is crucial to training preservationists, should be included in the curriculum whenever possible. Overall, a thesis component to graduate education was ranked as not very important; therefore, an individual, community-based terminal project could either replace or be an option to a thesis. This opportunity would allow students to gain experience and move toward a specialization through research or field work. Currently, eight programs require a thesis, five offer it as an option to another project, and it is optional at two programs. As the number of preservation training graduate programs and the number of avenues one may take to becoming a preservationist continue to grow, a study of this type -- investigating the needs of the profession and how preservation training can respond to those needs -- should be undertaken periodically. The National Council for Preservation Education, the group entrusted with the establishment of standards and well-being of preservation training in academia, is the logical choice for continuing this task. Rarely does any research effort settle all of the questions on a given topic. Yet this effort did answer the question: what constitutes a valuable entry-level job candidate? Based on the results of both surveys, a well-rounded job candidate would possess a great deal of knowledge in and be skilled at:
  • advocacy
  • architectural history
  • design guidelines
  • conservation of building materials
  • preservation law
  • preservation planning
  • economics of preservation
  • public relations
  • documentation techniques
  • organization and operation of all levels of government
  • tools and techniques for the protection of resources
  • conflict resolution
  • word processing
  • group facilitation
  • public speaking
  • research
  • writing
To back all this up would be unending practical experience throughout the academic program besides an internship. Knowledge is often thought of as the key to life. The more we know about the needs of preservation, the greater can be our contribution, productivity and worth to the field.

Publication Date: Spring 1997


Author(s):Jane A. Tarlov

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