We are a peculiar profession. A surprising number of folks will tell you that they had always wanted to be an architect. Further, we are a very respected profession, even considered noble by some. Yet our numbers do not reflect this highly desirable status. Currently, of about 30 million Texas residents, only about 8,200 of us are licensed architects.
What’s the deal?
Recessions hurt our numbers, of course. But architects have enjoyed a very busy time for the past decade. I believe the real issue is the cost of admission. That cost is paid not only in dollar terms, but more importantly, in navigating severely restricted access points along the journey to becoming an architect.
Recently, I wrote about some profound changes coming to our state demographics between now and 2050. Our population will soar to something like 54 million in 30 years. This near-doubling of our numbers from 2010 will undoubtedly create innumerable design and construction needs. In the U.S. as a whole, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), there is currently only one architect for every 2,800 people, whereas in Texas, it is only one architect for every 3,600 people. I fear this ratio will worsen in our state over the next few decades.
The Texas of 2050 will be vastly more diverse, and considerably older, on average. This reinforces two troubling trends already underway. First, our fastest growing ethnic groups have typically had the lowest levels of education. Lower levels of education have a direct connection to lower levels of income, which in turn cause further erosion in educational achievement. Second, the aging cohort of our population is quite large, and will be leaving the workforce in droves, taking with it the highest levels of education in our state history.
A proportionally smaller pool of architects in this Texas workforce of the future, with potentially lower average levels of education than today, does not bode well for our profession. Left unchecked, these trends forecast a gradual decline in our numbers, proportionally speaking. This shrinking would portend an erosion of our presence in the community, a reduction in our impact on the built environment, and a decrease in the effectiveness of our advocacy efforts.
What’s to be done about all this? I think it’s time to take a hard look at the many “gates” into our profession and recognize that, for many, these gates are firmly closed and locked. They exist at all points along the path, beginning with awareness, education, and licensure. As a profession, we must begin to push these gates open.
Awareness — Most of us in the profession had important role models in our lives, and very likely had people who encouraged and prodded us along. Somehow, the profession came to our attention as a viable, and achievable, career choice. The lower the income level, the less likely that children have such role models, much less any awareness of architecture as a profession. We must all work to be visible representatives of the profession and encourage young people to see it as a viable career option.
Education — The Texas Society of Architects has created a dual credit architecture certificate program for implementation at various high schools across the state of Texas. Through this program, students have an opportunity to begin their foundational architectural education for college credit while still in high school, and then transfer into an associate degree program at a local community college, or an accredited architecture program at a university. But students must know about, and take advantage of, this open avenue.
TxA also has an exemplary scholarship program, the Texas Architectural Foundation. Since its inception, TAF has distributed hundreds of scholarships, totaling well over $2,000,000, to assist students pursuing careers in architecture and to help fund architectural programs in Texas schools of architecture. Please consider contributing to TAF, perhaps even creating a new scholarship fund. And make yourself available to schools at all levels to talk about our profession.
Licensure — Certainly, it’s necessary to have minimal criteria for entry into, and licensure for, a profession that impacts the health, safety, and welfare of the public. These criteria must also be appropriate to the times, but I believe the times are changing. Licensure candidates struggle with the current registration exam process and require years to pass them all, as well as to complete all of the AXP requirements. It may be time to reconsider additional experience as an alternative path to licensure, as is the case in at least 17 other states.
The year 2050 will be here sooner than we think, so let’s not just wait to see what happens. We have nothing to gain by restricting entry to our profession, but we may have lots to lose if we don’t begin to kick open the gates. Let’s let them in.
D. Michael Hellinghausen, AIA, is a principal and COO of OMNIPLAN in Dallas, and the 2019 TxA president.