Four years ago, Marc Swackhamer, a 1997 graduate of Rice University's master of architecture program, reached a milestone in his fledgling architecture career: He finished all 700 training units of the Intern Development Program (IDP) and was ready to sit for the exam. But then his road to registration took a detour. Swackhamer accepted a job as assistant professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, got busy with research and teaching, and put licensing on the back burner. Now, his estimated-time-of-exam is next summer, and he's prepared to study hard.

Swackhamer has no problem with internship per se; it's the tedious regulatory process that has him frustrated. “IDP was, in my point of view, just maniacally complex,” he says. “I'd get these forms and letters that made my eyes cross.”

  • Credit: Joyce Hesselberth

Swackhamer is referring, of course, to the structure of the IDP, administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) in Washington, D.C. With less than 50 percent of architecture school graduates going on to get licensed, the methodology is being questioned fairly seriously around the country. In fact, it's the topic of a conference (www.designingtomorrowsarchitect.com) to be held in late September and sponsored by the AIA and NCARB. For the AIA, a steady supply of licensed members is a matter of survival. “When the number of licensed architects dwindles, the opportunity for maintaining membership numbers in a professional organization dwindles,” notes John Senhauser, FAIA, Cincinnati, a member of the AIA board of directors. “We're still graduating more students than in any other time, so the interest in architecture as an educational pursuit is not dwindling, but the number of people who actually enter the profession may be.”

In response to accusations that the IDP's overly developed bureaucracy is bogging down an already long and arduous process, NCARB president Carlton Godsey, FAIA, points to a lack of hard data on the state of registration.

“The numbers being discussed are 5,000 graduates per year, but no one is able to document that number, because schools don't share that information,” says Godsey, a partner at Godsey and Associates, Louisville, Ky. “We're seeing an average of 2,100 people passing the Architectural Registration Exam [ARE] every year, about 50 percent.

“One of my goals for this year is to figure out how to get graduation data and start collecting it so we have a good, clear picture of whether we have a problem and, if so, what the problem is,” Godsey says.

Indeed, the reasons for a licensing shortfall are difficult to untangle. Many architects have suggested that professional licensing needs to be imbued with greater status. “I'm not sure why interns are saying, ‘I don't need to get a license, because I don't stamp drawings,'” Senhauser says. “Stamping drawings is hardly the point; you went to school to become an architect, not an intern.” Part of the problem, he believes, is that architecture firms are giving non-licensed employees increasing responsibility and placing less importance on licensure as a rite of passage. Godsey agrees. “A lot of interns don't see a reason to be registered,” he says. “They go to work for large firms, which tend to have projects sealed by one person, and they don't see any financial or other reward. But how many projects can fit on the head of a pin? How many drawings can one architect responsibly look at?”

Then, too, as the marketplace evolves, an architecture degree is morphing into ever more diverse permutations that don't require a license. “Architecture is under some pressures that are competing for the best and the brightest,” Senhauser says. “A lot of it is just the nature of modern practice, and not solely related to the idea that licensure has become a rather punitive [form of] gatekeeping.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many architecture school grads are pursuing real estate development or design/build practices. Others are going to work for computer animators, jobs that pay more right out of school than doing CAD red-lines and staircase details. William Braham, associate chair of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture department, recently polled 300 master's program graduates to see where their career paths had taken them. “Often the stories I get told are, ‘Well, I got out in 1988 and couldn't find a job for that first year, so I went to work in construction-related sales or lighting design, and within two years I was making much more money than I could make as an entry-level architect,'” he says. “It's difficult for them to come back into architecture.”

competent to practice

On the one hand, it seems wise to do away with gratuitous regulations that keep graduates from getting registered. On the other, this issue isn't just about improving the numbers. By definition, a profession needs to have a technical basis for exercising its authority and assuring the public that its services are trustworthy. But how best to test for that competency is a point of contention.