Licensure: Not Just an Attractive Appendage

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Paul W. Welch, Jr., Hon. AIA

While sitting at my desk, procrastinating myself on a report with a rather serious deadline (fear not, it was completed on time) I happened upon an article titled “Young Architects Bypassing Licensure” in Durability + Design magazine. The title alone is depressing and disconcerting, yes, but this should not come as a surprise to anyone. Such trending has existed for several years, and there does not appear to be any immediate remedies.

How did we get to this point? How has the journey to licensure become a 12-year marathon? Is the journey so littered with rules and requirements, that exhaustion and procrastination have replaced aspirational enthusiasm? I am greatly troubled about the reluctance of many young people choosing to avoid the Architectural Registration Examinations (ARE) and licensure. After deciding to pursue architecture as a career, investing thousands of dollars into an accredited education, and enduring numerous sleepless nights, many now argue that the license is superfluous unless one owns a firm, signs instruments of service, or is willing to accept long hours and inadequate compensation or benefits. Unfortunately, licensure, once seen as a gateway to many wonderful career opportunities, is now in danger of becoming passé, simply an attractive appendage with limited value. For me, this all too common negative commentary on the value of licensure is misguided, ill-informed, and extraordinarily detrimental to the profession and the careers of emerging professionals.

For decades, graduates completed their education, endured internship, took the examinations, became licensed, and perhaps, opened firms, finally able to pursue their long suppressed dreams of designing their own projects and making real money. And, because the examinations were only given once a year, candidates readily gathered in study groups eagerly focused on passing the examinations. The limited administration of the ARE, and the cultural expectation for Emerging Professionals to become licensed as soon as possible, nurtured an environment in which licensing was important and integral for career development, but more importantly, it was necessary.

Today, licensing is still necessary but the conditions are more barren and the experience perhaps less enriching—the robotic process devalues relationships. The computerized examinations enable numerous administrations during the year, and candidates register and cancel with little impunity. Firms, once willing to pay for the examinations and provide time off for studying, now argue that increased frequency of the examinations, and along with the ease of canceling, only exacerbates procrastination, an all too common attribute of the profession. Consequently, firms are increasingly hesitant to provide time off to study for the exams, and reimbursements for examination expenses most often provided on successful completion. Unfortunately, the problems are increasingly exacerbated when firms choose not to provide increased compensation upon licensure, and/or firms do not actively encourage nor expect licensure of architectural graduates in their employ.

While these are certainly contributing factors to the decline in licensure, I think there is another issue at play that materially undermines a candidate desire to seek licensure. The longer one is out of school, one’s inclination to take the examinations proportionately becomes a distant memory. Life gets in the way, and let’s face it, as one gets older, the fear of failure begins to seep through one’s consciousness. Career aspirations, once fueled by youth and passion, are slowly supplanted by fatigue, mortgage payments, and other challenges. Besides, rejection is painful and failing an examination is often tantamount to public embarrassment and humiliation. Consequently, a multitude of other reasons are cited for the decision not to finish a journey begun so many years ago.

Focusing only on the legal attributes of an architectural license is unfortunate. Viewing the license as only a destination, fails to appreciate the value in the role of a license as one’s career unfolds. Instead, the license should be viewed as a gateway enabling a multitude of career choices. Not unlike other learned professions, an accredited education by itself is not a public testament to one’s qualifications or experiences. Clearly, an architectural education is highly valued, but the license establishes a standard that is clearly understood and valued by society, clients and collateral disciplines and professions. Moreover, an accredited degree absent the license, does very little to distinguish one’s employment resume or Curricula Vitae.

I worry that the trend is an unintended consequence of the lack of mentoring that once was so prevalent in the profession. I suspect that students and graduates seldom hear about the value of licensure, the profession’s contributions to public health safety and welfare, nor the value of licensure in fostering a career of practice and prosperity. I spend a lot of time with Emerging Professionals and I am reminded far too often of decisions that would’ve been different if “I had only known then what I have come to understand now.” Understandably, our lives are replete with life and career-altering decisions, decisions that at the moment, seem so clear and so rational. I am of the opinion that the decision to not complete the journey to architectural licensure is an unfortunate choice, a choice substituting longer-term wins for short-term gains–another casualty of the lack of mentoring.

Reflecting on my own experiences, life-changing decisions are not easily recognized nor clearly understood. Windows of opportunity open and close with increasing frequency during one’s lifetime, and with 20/20 hindsight, we often contemplate the consequences of foundational decisions we made when starting our careers, when possibilities were endless and encumbrances of living were unknown. So if you individuals find themselves at the threshold of architectural licensure. We choose the path to wander through life. Let us choose wisely.

“Don’t fool yourself that important things can be put off till tomorrow; they can be put off forever, or not at all.”

– Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960

I think mentoring can help reverse this trend. What do you think?



The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments.

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  1. avatar
    Mike Novak

    I agree with you that lack of mentorship is a large part of the problem. Believe it or not, it is not a structural issue with exams or requirements. I was licensed five years after graduating and I had to pass 9 seperate ARE exams, provide paper IDP submittals and a CIDP binder an narrative to my supervisor and fill out the necessary CAB paperwork. Remember CIDP? I sure do. I did take the CSE just after they switched to computer exams so I missed the orals, but I wanted to get licensed. Easy as that. There is no immediate monetary value in licensure, that’s true. But down the road those designers who have avoided licensure will need to hire me, a licensed professional, to permit their designs through ever more regulated authorities having jurisdiction. By large numbers of people giving up on licensure, it is increasing the long term value of those who decided to get licensed. Supply and demand. I don’t think mentors these days are willing to spend the energy arguing the value of licensure day after day. It is a bit exhausting. There is no immediate monetary value in licensure. It is a long term competitive value. I, frankly, don’t get how anyone interested in surviving in business can’t see that. So, yes, mentors need to strees the REAL value of licensure. However, we millenials need to think long term or else we are tossing away our future.

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