What do emerging professionals need from firms?

What EPs need from firms - hero image

Networking opportunities, face time with firm leaders, ARE study resources: EPs need it all to move forward with their careers.

Four designers weigh in on how firms can help their employees at a critical career stage

The path to licensure can be challenging for many. Even with the streamlined ARE 5.0, emerging professionals are pressed to connect what they learned in school, what they’re learning on the job, and what their exams require them to know. As such, supervisors and firm principals have an opportunity to influence the career arcs of the next generation of architects by creating environments in which their emerging designers can shine.

Yet there’s still much debate as to how much support EPs receive from their firms; a recent survey commissioned by AIA and NCARB displayed significant gaps between emerging professionals and their supervisors when it came to pursuing licensure. This sort of support is not the firm’s responsibility alone: EPs need to carve out time for independent study and build a collaborative community during this critical career stage. But to receive the financial and professional encouragement that is so beneficial to becoming licensed, EPs must continue to state their needs loud and clear.

Experience matters

LaShaun Key, Assoc. AIA, is a design professional working at Novus Architects in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The road he’s taken to get here is, as he puts it, “a squiggly one,” but it’s brought him unique insight into what emerging professionals need from the world around them.

After serving in the United States Army for 10 years, Key decided to follow his dream and pursue a career in architecture. He moved from Hawaii to Georgia, and enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design, but graduating during the recession left him with very few prospects. He took part-time jobs estimating flooring and working in telecommunications for a software company with interest in the construction and design market; that opportunity finally led him through a back door into the profession.

As he moved from firm to firm as a designer, with a wealth of experience in other aspects of life, he started to better grasp—and lament—some of the cavities that principals have been unable to fill.

“I’ve noticed this empty space in architecture,” he says, “where all the people who left during the recession used to be. They all got other jobs, they’re not coming back, so as EPs we’re stepping into this gap of sorts. And not having an experienced architect there to teach you, to allow you to make mistakes and spend what extra time he or she has guiding you, is hard.”

“I think all firms have a desire for their EPs to get licensed, but producing well-rounded architects is even more difficult.” - Claire Gillis, Assoc. AIA

“If a firm really wants to be great,” he adds, “mentorship is key. You are mentoring what should be your future principals. No firm leader should come into the mentoring process with any fear, or think, ‘What if I teach him or her everything I know, and then they leave?’ That’s great! You did a heck of a job, and you produced an architect who is out there making an impact.”

Novus has given Key the freedom to pursue both licensure and his career; he has the option to take time off, both to study and to take the exams, and he’s even opened his own design studio. Yet he’s very aware, from conversations with other future architects, that not every firm is as understanding.

“In talking to my peers,” he says, “there seem to be a split down the middle: firms that are flexible and take care of their employees, and firms that love to produce work, regardless of their employees. I’m a military man; I was taught that if you take care of your soldiers, they will charge that hill and be willing to take a bullet for you. If you take care of your people and then ask, ‘Can you stay late?’ you know what response you’ll get.”

Finding your place

“Clients want to work with a firm that specializes in something,” says Claire Gillis, Assoc. AIA, a designer at StudioGC in Chicago. “And who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to hire the best architect in his or her field?” However, as an emerging professional she sees how firms that subscribe to this mindset can stunt the growth of newly licensed and future architects, especially anyone who wants to experience the whole spectrum of architectural opportunities.

After four years working in marketing and design visualization at a firm in Minneapolis, she’s finally learning how projects actually get built. And she’s appreciated every chance to visit a construction site, even when she wasn’t on that particular project, just to soak in the experience. But her steps forward with AXP and the ARE have reinforced what she doesn’t yet know, and how difficult it can be to absorb the as-yet-unknown.

“It’s a challenge for firms to meet the needs of clients, as well as the needs of someone going through the licensure process,” Gillis says. “Some firms do it well, but specialization is good business and you end up leaning on architects and designers who draw on their past experiences.”

“I think all firms have a desire for their EPs to get licensed,” she adds. “But producing well-rounded architects is even more difficult.”

The need for a community

“Architecture is in the weeds right now,” says Nick Caravella, AIA, project manager at Davis Wince, Ltd. in Denver. “Schedules are faster, deadlines are tighter, and production is how we pay the bills. But sometimes, when you want to run, run, run, the best thing can actually be to stop, take a minute, observe the situation, and create a plan of attack.”

Caravella is recently licensed and an at-large director of the National Associates Committee, meaning he spends a copious amount of time thinking about what firms can do to develop and produce licensed architects. His general consensus? Start talking.

“When I would ask the question, ‘What’s valuable to EPs?’ I would get different answers from everyone,” he says. “But architecture is an explorative process; all of us are in different places, and we have so much to teach each other. It’s a craft, at the end of the day, and understanding the different methods and approaches is the best way to hone our craft.”

This means firm leaders need to get involved with their EPs—specifically, taking ownership of AXP and understanding what it really entails—and EPs need to feel comfortable interacting with their firm leaders. But just as much, Caravella recognizes how important it is to build a community outside of your firm’s walls.

“It’s not about giving anyone a hard time; it’s about reminding them that we care, and making sure they’re progressing not only with exams but in their professional development as well.” - Chris Bohigian

“I don’t think I would’ve gotten licensed as quickly as I did if I didn’t have friends who were also getting licensed,” he says. “And sometimes, we’d even wonder if this road was really right for us. But through that back and forth, I learned that studying for these exams made me a better practitioner. And I talk to the friends I studied with nearly every day; if I ever have a question, I’m not afraid to ask. That network I built will pay dividends throughout my career.”

How firms are getting involved

At the end of the day, though, it often comes back to your firm. There’s no more accessible concentration of experienced design thinkers, and there’s no other force with that kind of ability to shape your future. Many firms take pride in that opportunity to mold the next generation of architects, including DLR Group. This international firm has identified the need not only for study resources but a mix of professional and personal guidance as their licensure candidates traverse this bumpy path.

“When we meet with our EPs as a group,” says Chris Bohigian, senior associate at DLR Group and one of the firm’s AXP coordinators, “it’s not about specifics, or to review particular areas of study. We ask where they are in the process and what they need from us.”

“It’s about being accountable for your own progress,” he adds. “If you said you were going to take an exam last month and you haven’t, what happened? Do you need help? Are you overloaded with work? It’s not about giving anyone a hard time; it’s about reminding them that we care, and making sure they’re progressing not only with exams but in their professional development as well.”

One of the tools they’re using is a firm-wide license for AIA ARE Prep by Black Spectacles, which offers 200 licenses for the firm’s emerging professionals to use at their leisure.

“It allows for a valuable level of continuity,” Bohigian says, “to track the pace of all our EPs and to know that everyone in our offices is consuming the same materials. Plus, the Black Spectacles system is all about accessibility: there’s no limit on where you can watch their videos, or how many times. If you’re a working professional with a family, it makes it easy to study at home.”

When asked what resources would’ve made the difference on his own journey to licensure, Bohigian doesn’t hesitate: “Access to digital information.” “At the bare minimum, offer study materials for the ARE,” Gillis insists. And Key feels a real need for person-to-person mentorship: “As you send great people out, great people will come in to you.”

Regardless of each person’s specific needs, firm leaders need to listen and EPs need to ask. “Speak up,” Caravella says. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourself, and figure out what you want, what you need, and how to get it.”

Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers architecture, sustainability, and health.

About the Emerging Professional and Supervisor Survey

The data referenced in this article is from a survey of emerging professionals and supervisors that gathered information on the current relationship between the two groups, including insights into how their respective opinions compared.

The survey was conducted by The Rickinson Group, an independent third-party market research company, on behalf of the AIA and NCARB in October 2016. The survey was in the field for 10 days, and received responses from 580 emerging professionals and 800 supervisors for a total of 1,380 usable survey responses.

For the purposes of this survey, supervisors were defined as those who currently, or in the past, have supervised an emerging professional on the path to licensure, while emerging professionals were defined as those actively on the path to licensure.

For more information about the survey and its methodology, or to provide any thoughts on your own experience, email us at emergingprofessionals@aia.org.

Image credits

What EPs need from firms - hero image

Jim Richards

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