Opportunities for Smaller Firms: Mentoring, Recruiting, & Growing with Licensure

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

Growing firms face many critical challenges to expansion, but perhaps the most important of these is adding licensed architects to the roster. This is true whether principals are looking to recruit architects who are already licensed or shepherd emerging professionals through the experience-gathering and examination process.

In New Jersey, where our firm Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D) is based and does much of its work, the number of licensed architects a firm has is crucial in the pursuit of publicly funded projects. When we opened ten years ago, the fact that I held the firm’s only license limited our approval for work in the public sector to projects of $5 million or less. That limit has since increased as we’ve added more licensed practitioners, but there is still an effective ceiling for bidding on larger projects in public agencies. And while private sector clients don't typically ask direct questions about the number of licensed architects working for us, the savvy ones ask about our quality control process or find other ways to determine our depth of experience. In other words, the number of licensed designers in our firm is always a topic of discussion, whether we’re working in the public or private sector.

As we have looked to expand our roster of licensed practitioners through new hires, we’ve found that younger applicants who will work for competitive salaries are rarely licensed. This is unsurprising since the average age of initial licensure is 33. (Though we should note that this average age was lower than in the past and continues to trend downward.)

Licensed practitioners, on the other hand, typically present higher salary demands that, though attainable at larger firms, are sometimes beyond what smaller firms can handle. Inspired by tighter budgets, many small firms like ours hire younger aspiring architects in order to "grow their own" licensed architects in-house—a long-term effort that brings its own challenges and rewards. The key to success is self-evident, and one that most design firms consider a priority: mentorship.

Strategies for Mentoring

At JZA+D, we approach mentorship as a means to achieving several firm goals. Chief among them is increasing the number of licensed architects among our ranks, which makes mentorship all the more important. As a result, we have developed a layered method incorporating several strategies and approaches.

Firstly, we try to be mindful of the challenges facing aspiring architects. We take this very seriously—the nurturing component of mentorship requires constant attention to a young staffer's career development. For continuing education, we frequently hold classes in-house, then follow up with staff to track credits in order to make certain they will complete the requirements of the Intern Development Program (soon to be renamed the Architectural Experience Program, or AXP). We also steer younger staff toward projects that will help them complete their program hours. If a designer requests to take a class, we offer time off.

Since the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) is not free, we offer our architects reimbursement for exam costs when they pass. This strategy is cost-effective in the long term because of the loyalty it instills in our staffers; young designers who have taken advantage of this offer typically stay with JZA+D for years.

We've also noted with gratitude the major changes to the ARE over these last few years. When I took the exam not that long ago, it was administered in one sitting, only once a year. About 2,000 aspiring architects sat in a cruise ship terminal to take the all-day, high-stakes, high-pressure exam. I'm pleased to say that I passed and received my license, but others were not as fortunate and had to wait a year to attempt this exhausting process all over again. Today's exam candidates are clearly better off: they take a single, shorter section of the exam at any given time and can retake a failed division up to three times a year.

But splitting the exam into multiple sections presents the difficulty of staying focused, so we work closely with our aspiring architects to ensure they don't lose momentum after taking just one or two sections. The topic is on the agenda for every annual employee review, and we've developed specific strategies to incentivize the pursuit of licensure. In addition to reimbursement of fees for passed exam sections, staffers tend to react the most positively to the suggestion of a future increase in salary. But many also respond to the idea of taking on bigger projects and having more responsibility and creative input.

Meanwhile, we also encourage other types of credentialing. Every professional at our firm is either LEED GA or LEED BD+C. This is a plus for their resumes as well as for the firm's business development, and as a one-time exam, the process for credentialing is an easier lift. We also have employed a Passive House-certified staffer, and as an integrated design firm, we encourage designers in our interiors department to seek NCIDQ or similar certification.

But our task remains: mentor the next generation of licensed architects—for the sake of their growth and ours. Mentorship is very rewarding, and even if our firm were large enough to hire licensed practitioners no matter the cost, we would still enjoy engaging with aspiring architects in this way.

Joshua Zinder, AIA, is founding principal of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D). Located in Princeton, New Jersey, the integrated design firm's global portfolio includes commercial, hospitality, retail, and residential projects, as well as product, furniture and graphic designs.