Tayler Morris/Image courtesy of Utile

Growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, Tayler Morris got an early introduction to the architecture profession through a high school work-study program that laid the groundwork for a future career.

Now the director of equity and cultural impact at Boston-based Utile Architecture + Planning, Morris is helping another generation of students add diversity to the profession, where less than 1 percent of architects are Black women.

“For me, it was a transformative experience working in a corporate environment at the age of 14,” Morris said.

Dorchester-based Cristo Rey Boston High School is expanding its work-study program this fall by adding corporate partners Utile, developer Accordia Partners and public relations firm Nickerson.  Christo Rey already partners with more than 70 local businesses seeking to increase diversity in their workforces, ranging from law firms and health care institutions. Commercial real estate and architecture is a new focus, following participation in recent years by brokerage Colliers and Boston Properties.

“Our kids never knew about the commercial real estate business, and now they’re very interested,” Cristo Rey Boston President Rosemary Powers said.

The Savin Hill private school is part of a network of 38 across the country that provide full scholarships and work-study programs for students from low-income families. Its 210 students receive college prep instruction four days a week and one day in the corporate setting.

“We know if a company is interested in a more diverse workforce in the future, getting kids in high school is a really tremendous way to build that pipeline,” Powers said. “It’s a long play with a 15- or 16-year-old kid, unlike a college intern where you might have the turnaround in a year or two.”

Motivated by her own career path, Morris contacted Cristo Rey Boston and suggested that Utile join the program, which placed a student in Utile’s offices beginning in September.

“She said, “I’m a person from a non-traditional background at this design agency, and Cristo Rey is the reason I’m here,’” Powers said.

Remote work arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic forced the work-study program to contract and add virtual mentorship last year before rebounding this fall as firms reopened offices.

The conditions have some parallels to Morris’ own internship during 2008, when the global financial crisis dampened development and led to massive layoffs in the design industry.

“It was rough for the architecture field in general, and that was very evident in my work-study. We felt fortunate they were able to keep their corporate work-study students,” she said.

After graduating from Hollins University and moving to Boston to work in retail, Morris joined Utile in 2018 as an office assistant and successfully pitched her expanded role in diversity to management in 2020. She leads four working groups that promote minority representation in the firm’s workforce through recruitment and mentorship.

“It’s great to work for a firm that takes my little ideas and dreams and helps make them happen,” Morris said.

Design Firms Offer ‘Transformative Experience’ to High Schoolers

by Steve Adams time to read: 2 min