Intern no more: AIA supports two new titles for professionals pursuing licensure

Intern titling - ‎Young architects at CallisonRTKL

AIA's new position statement supports two titles for anyone working for a firm while pursuing licensure: "architectural associate" and "design professional."

A new position statement from AIA seeks to move architecture beyond the outdated use of 'intern'

In December of 2016, AIA's Board of Directors updated the Institute's position statements to clarify the term "intern." The newly approved statement specified that, while "intern" remains a supported title for students working in an architectural office while pursuing an architecture degree, it should not apply to those who have already earned a NAAB-accredited degree and are currently working for a firm while pursuing licensure. For those individuals, AIA strongly supports two titles: "architectural associate" and "design professional."

The statement is AIA's response to a lengthy debate on using "intern" to describe graduates on the path to licensure, an issue of importance to many emerging professionals. And while the two terms come with their own complications on a state-by-state basis, there's a consensus across the profession that this statement is a much-needed step in the right direction.

"My first exposure to the intern titling question came when I joined the AIA Intern Titling Work Group," says Danielle Mitchell, Assoc. AIA, design professional at Fung Associates and past president of the American Institute of Architecture Students. "The group included students, principals, people who've been working on licensure for a long time, and people who didn't intend on getting licensed at all. It was a diverse group of people, and led to a lot of good back-and-forth."

This work group—which included Mitchell as well as Gordon E. Landreth, FAIA, and Venesa Alicea, AIA—met to narrow down proposals to AIA's board on which titles the Institute should support in place of "intern." They began with a long list of potential titles gleaned from over 3,000 survey responses, and eventually winnowed the list to ten viable options that underwent considerable evaluation before ultimately coming to consensus in support of “architectural associate” and “design professional.”

"A big element of our discussion was thinking about what the Institute's role would be," she says, "and how it would be a loss if AIA was passive with the new titles. AIA is called upon to be a bold leader, and to shy away from 'architectural associate' would be keeping AIA out of the conversation."

"'Architectural' as the adjective and 'associate' as the noun means this individual is associating with the profession, with licensed architects, and working with them," she adds. "The phrase itself indicates that you're working toward licensure, toward the success of the profession, but you're not licensed."

"To go with another title would've been missing out on the opportunity we had. If we wanted to make any impact, we had to push for a title that people would listen to and respect. It couldn't be a title that has nothing to do with who are we and the education we've gotten."

New titles, still obstacles

Unfortunately, removing uses of "intern" from the architectural lexicon isn't as easy as releasing a statement. As Alicea, an associate at Dattner Architects in New York City, notes, neither of AIA's suggested replacement terms are likely to be acknowledged in New York State.

"Many firms already use 'associate' in an ownership or leadership sense," she says, "and you need to be registered to be considered a 'professional.' The chances of being able to change that nomenclature is slim, because once that box is opened there will be a rush to change other things as well. So there's a fear of opening it at all."

"What AIA can do is constantly solicit its diverse group of members and ask questions like, 'What is the profession today? Where are we going?'" - Nate Hudson, Assoc. AIA

This hesitancy exists within many states, serving as one of the challenges a position statement from AIA faces. AIA is not a licensing body and does not regulate titles along the path to licensure; therefore, it is up to firms to identify titles that are legal within their jurisdiction. The position statement is intended to guide firms and jurisdictions as they evaluate titles in the future and consider changes.

As a former member of the National Associates Committee and a former licensing advisor with NCARB, Alicea feels the conversation over "intern" is just the tip of the iceberg anyway.

"The issue isn't the titles," she says. "It's that the process to become an architect, and the definition of what an architect is, is so complicated."

Alicea agrees that the first few years in an emerging architect's professional career, when many have been labeled an "intern," are of the utmost importance. But she thinks the focus should be on supplying firms with the tools they need to lead their future architects to licensure, not just arguing over what they should be called.

"Build a culture in firms where this is understood: the first few years are for learning," she says. "You need to allow people the flexibility and hours they need to take the exams properly, and to get the experience they need to become architects."

Tweaking the process

Because, as many in the profession know, becoming a licensed architect is no longer the only career path for those who receive an NAAB-accredited degree. Many are considering and taking jobs outside of architecture, working as designers and urban planners rather than go through a system that labels full-time professionals with degrees as "interns." It's a trend that has been growing for a while, and one that architecture's leaders must address.

"When I graduated from college," Landreth says, "I marked on my calendar three years from that date and said, 'That's when I can begin to take my exams.' That was my target. Now I've spoken to graduate school students who ask, 'Why should I bother to be licensed? What difference does it make?"

Landreth—who currently leads Landreth Architectural Consulting in Corpus Christi, Texas, after 39 years with CLK Architects & Associates—has spent years trying to streamline the path to licensure. He served on the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners from 2000 to 2008, along with chairing an NCARB task force on impediments to licensure, and recognizes that the long journey from the start of college to your final exam can certainly scare away a lot of potential architects. One of his initiatives while on Texas's board was to allow graduates to begin taking their exams during IDP (now known as AXP).

"If we wanted to make any impact, we had to push for a title that people would listen to and respect." - Danielle Mitchell, Assoc. AIA

"When it comes to a title like 'architectural associate,' I don't have a problem with it," he says. "Whatever we can do to encourage people. It reminds me of when we pushed for graduates to take their exams earlier. " People said, 'They won't have enough experience to pass the exams.'," he says. "I would respond, 'You know what happens if you don't pass? You fail, you go back, and you take it again.'"

"A statement I detest," he adds, "is, 'We've just always done it that way.'"

What is AIA's role?

In updating its position statement on the use of "intern," AIA is working to push architecture beyond its engrained ways. That's the ultimate takeaway for Nate Hudson, Assoc. AIA: this sets the Institute up as an agile leader in defining the profession for a new generation.

"AIA has, without question, the big voice in the room," says Hudson, a project manager at Cathexes Architecture and the regional associate director for AIA Western Mountain Region. "Its choices can really impact how people outside the profession perceive us. So to get away from 'intern' and find a title more open-ended that appeals to those on the fringe might help bring those people in and expand our profession, helping to make us as valid as possible in today's society."

Though AIA has no authority to enforce its new statement on a state level, Hudson regards that as a good thing.

"That's what is so unique about AIA, as compared to state legislative bodies," he says. "They are looking for static information that can be drawn into law and upheld, and that's the sort of information that won't be challenged until a unified voice lobbies against it. But what AIA can do is constantly solicit its diverse group of members and ask questions like, 'What is the profession today? Where are we going?'"

"AIA membership is voluntary," he adds. "I want, and AIA needs, those designers and practitioners with accredited degrees to carry the letters after their name as well. To do that, we have to listen to their concerns to the best of our abilities."

AIA position statements are evaluated every three years, and are meant to evolve with the profession. If a new, dignified title for architectural graduates arises, AIA will evaluate updating this position statement. Going forward, there will continue to be opportunities to discuss and evaluate the validity of the new titles.

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at AIA.

Image credits

Intern titling - ‎Young architects at CallisonRTKL

Jim Richards

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Jim Richards

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