Rants and Wisdom
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about why the profession of architecture is losing so many young people and why so few are getting registered as Architects, particularly women. I’m not alone in my wonder; Rosa Sheng, Steve Mouson and Susan Shannon have all written on this with great insight.
Well, here’s my take on why young grads aren’t registering: Because it is hard. Really hard. And if someone tells you differently, they are only telling part of the story.
First a little background.
To become an “architect” requires a crazy amount of education including a five-year professional degree or a four-year major in architecture plus a master’s degree (another two years), or a four-year “other” college degree plus a three-year master’s degree program. After all that, you have the luxury of being an “intern.” That’s right. You are still not an Architect. Instead, you begin a three-plus year training period required to be eligible to take the Architects Registration Exam (ARE), which, if you pass, allows you to become licensed in your specific state, much like the bar exam.
When I took my ARE in 1984, it was only offered once a year, in one single place in the state. If you did not pass any one part, you waited for another year to retake it. It was a miserable 4 day/40 hour testing marathon. Now the testing is a bit more flexible, but it’s still onerous. And it seems to me that interns are taking the test later in their careers, a disturbing trend, as this is a tough enough process to get through without the responsibilities of family and young children. So, ARE in hand, you finally navigate into a satisfying corporate position or begin your new firm where you’ll hopefully reap the creative (and some financial) rewards of all this work. It’s all hard to do.
So how have we responded to challenges like this over the generations? Why are the millennials leaving the profession? Or not facing up to the ARE exam? How has our attitude changed about things that are hard to do, the seemingly impossible task, the unknown scary outcomes of adult choices?
I look at my parents, both born in Europe. My mom was a British professional woman, a Navy veteran, and college graduate. She immigrated to the U.S. without ever having visited and she knew no one. She got a work visa, a job and came with her small savings. She attended Smith College at age 42, where she obtained the master’s degree that the U.S. required for her to become a licensed clinical social worker. Wow, just think how hard that was to do as a woman with a young family in the 1950s and 60s?! Just imagine the courage that took.
My dad came to the U.S. as a refugee from France escaping Nazi-controlled Paris and ended up with his sister and my grandparents in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Whoa! From Paris to Albuquerque at age 19. With nothing. He learned to speak fluent English. He worked odd jobs. He also went to college and graduate school for his master’s degree and became a civil engineer. He became a U.S. citizen, as my mom did 10 years later. When asked in 1947 by the Richmond Virginia Times-Dispatch about his choice to become a citizen, my father stated, “America extended open arms to me during the German occupation, educated me in its universities and now the least I can do is take out a share in her destiny.”
I marvel at their courage and hope I have even a fraction of it. Perhaps it’s understandable then that based on my personal history, I get a bit twitchy when I hear stories from the next generation of how hard it is to become registered as an Architect. Or how hard it is to be an Architect. Or how hard it is to start a firm, run a firm, and work as a mother and an Architect and a business owner. Yep. Really, really hard. Got it. Really, I do. But is nothing worth the effort? I go back again to lessons learned. I think of my parents and how their stories exemplify the courage to do hard things, a trait that seems sometimes missing today. Perhaps millennials have different priorities. Or perhaps we as “boomer” parents helicoptered to such a degree that taking risks became more difficult. I won’t pretend to have all the answers.
If you want to be an Architect, difficulty should not be the issue. Get your degree, finish your internship requirement, take your ARE as soon as humanly possible, and learn, learn, learn. Take a chance. Remember that you don’t know what you don’t know, and that is OK.
Courage. It takes courage.