Have you ever had that conflict of emotions where you felt positive about one thing yet concerned about another? Of course you have. That seems to be the way any form of positive news is delivered these days: There always seems to be a catch. It feels like nothing can be simple, especially in the time of pandemics and unpredictable world events. In 2021, we had both ups and downs, and after a period of optimism about escaping the pandemic, we entered the new year with another surge in case numbers. If you are a follower of Dave Barry, you may have seen his “2021 Year in Review,” published on the Washington Post website, in which he stated: “Our point is not that 2021 was massively better than 2020. Our point is that at least it was different. A variant, so to speak. And like any year, it had both highs and lows.”
Our profession is no different. At the end of 2021, the Architecture Billings Index, published by the AIA and recognized as a key economic indicator, gave reason for both optimism and concern. One survey participant stated: “2021 has been a busy and somewhat surprisingly good year. However, with the uncertainty around the increase in inflation and the emergence of the Omicron variant, 2022 is a bit of a puzzle, despite a currently strong backlog.” Another firm offered, “There is a tremendous backlog of work going into 2022, but limited availability of new staff to do the work.” Although we have a boon of work, we find ourselves struggling with staffing challenges and other uncertainties.
Of all the things we can legitimately blame on COVID, our current staffing shortage is not one of them. The talent shortage was known to exist before the Great Recession, although that downturn allowed the industry to avoid the issue for a time. But as the economy recovered and firms began to repopulate, once again the lack of qualified people became apparent. Of course, now it is worse because so many have left the profession. Many who graduated in 2008-2009 never entered the field at all. Some who were laid off decided to leave the profession and never return. Baby boomers held on for a while but began retiring. All these factors have contributed to a lack of experienced staff nationwide.
We are also losing newcomers to the profession. According to the 2021 “NCARB by the Numbers” report, over the course of the past 10 years, 37 percent of candidates stopped pursuing licensure. That’s nearly two out of every five people on the path to becoming an architect. This is a large attrition rate and calls us to identify and address contributing factors. Before 2014, the majority of those ceasing pursuit of licensure or leaving the profession were women. Fortunately, that seems to be changing, as recent data shows the number of women leaving is 1 to 3 percentage points lower than that of men. More good news is that, in 2020, 41 percent of new architects were female. This is in contrast to the total percentage of architects who are women, which is only 24 percent. It seems we are finally seeing a change in the status quo, but given the number of people leaving the profession, that change will continue to take significant time and effort.
Like the Great Recession, the pandemic has had an impact on those seeking licensure. In 2020, there was a significant decline in the number of ARE completions. This was blamed mostly on testing center closures, but it is yet to be seen if this dip will be a short-term issue or part of a larger trend.
So what do we do about the lack of people power? For Texas, which had 8,595 resident architects in 2020, the problem may be more accentuated. In a population of 29,145,505, that is one architect per 3,390 people. The national average is one architect per 2,700 people. In 2021, Texas experienced the largest rate of growth of any state in the U.S., so this gap is probably even larger now. It should be no surprise that in the fastest growing state in the country, we are struggling to find the people needed to get the work done. (See the President’s Letter by Mike Hellinghausen, AIA, in the September/October 2019 issue of Texas Architect; this topic of our state’s growth is even more relevant today than it was in 2019.)
There will be no quick solution to this challenge, but there will be many opportunities to improve this in coming years — and several of these are unique to Texas. In addition to the sign of improvement in adding women to and keeping them in the profession, we have other demographics that are full of potential. Nationwide, LatinX people comprise 18.5 percent of the total population and 8.5 percent of architecture professionals. In Texas, 39.7 percent of the population is LatinX, yet this group still only makes up 8 percent of our state’s architects. With deliberate, targeted efforts toward this group and other people of color during the early years of their education and into college, we can make a tremendous improvement in the pool of available talent in Texas.
Two Texas Society of Architects committees are involved in these topics: the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee and the Education Outreach Committee. If you have not previously discovered it, check out the Education Outreach Committee’s work “Steps to Becoming an Architect” at texasarchitects.org/become-an-architect. Beyond the resources listed on the site, additional partnership efforts between higher education institutions and the profession will also prove beneficial. The Society’s education outreach and EDI efforts will continue in 2022 with an increased focus on getting this information out to the public.
And so, despite the challenges we face, we have good reason to envision a positive future where we have not only the workforce we need but also a profession that reflects the true character of Texas.
Eva Read-Warden, AIA, is a principal at The Architex Studio in Bryan and the 2022 TxA president.