The road to becoming an architect is arduous. In fact, about half the people who obtain a professional degree from a NAAB-accredited program don’t make it through the process. By getting more involved in intern development, firms and architects can help.

One of the dilemmas encountered by emerging professionals occurs after they complete their formal education and enter the work force as interns. At issue is the failure experienced by so many to connect with a supervisor and a mentor who can act as guides in their formation as design professionals.

A combination of demographics and a troubled economy make it more important than ever that we solve this problem, both as individual professionals and as firms. Demographic studies suggest that architects will soon retire in greater numbers than new workers entering the profession. And if architecture faces a generation that departs the profession because they cannot find work that enables them to advance their careers, we may see a repeat of the 1990s, when abandonment of the profession was common. Individuals, firms, and clients all suffered and continue to suffer from that loss of a generation.

As an architect who has led a good sized firm and spent recent years engaged in a volunteer capacity with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, I have some thoughts about how we might improve what established professionals can do for the benefit of interns, the firms in which they work, and the clients they serve.

While my exposure to the dilemma has come through my architecture career, I have suspected that emerging professionals in other design professions suffer the same difficulty. My colleagues in those professions have confirmed that to be true. As I tackle this subject, it will be from the perspective of mentoring emerging architects. The lessons learned and the suggestions made should be easily transferable to other design professions.

Journey to Architect

Architecture is a wonderful profession, but the road to becoming an architect is difficult. It is a challenge not simply because the courses are demanding and the knowledge required spans math and science as well as the visual, written, and spoken arts but because far too many of us are asked to travel this road without benefit of a map. We stumble forward mostly on our own, navigating by dead reckoning. Certainly, there are people willing to help and who travel by an intern’s side at various points along the journey, but often they too are without a map, and the result is a trip that is sometimes longer and more difficult than necessary.

The journey of an emerging professional has three important milestones: education, training, and passing the Architect Registration Examination. Together, these elements are designed to ensure that an architect entering the profession has developed the knowledge and skills necessary to practice independently.

Emerging professionals usually get guidance early on as they chart their educational course and later as they prepare for the ARE. However, even though the NCARB-administered Intern Development Program enumerates training requirements, it is this step that represents the largest part of the dilemma. During this time, emerging professionals need to begin planning their career and applying foundational knowledge they gained in the academy across the broad spectrum required of an architect. It is here, at this critical time, that emerging professionals are too often left to their own devices.
Each year, about 5,000 people receive a professional degree in architecture from a program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. Of this number, only about 2,500 go on to complete the IDP, pass the ARE, and enter practice as licensed professionals. While this loss of potential architects has a number of causes, one of the most significant is believed to be the failure of institutions, firms, and individuals to mentor emerging professionals on their journey.

What’s the Problem?

Fault can be placed on the academy, for far too many students graduate without understanding how to plan their career in architecture, finding out only too late that they made missteps during their education that could have been prevented had more information, mentoring, and advising been available. While many accredited programs do a wonderful job of instilling a culture of practice in their students, there are far too many programs that need significant improvement in this area.

Fortunately, NAAB is completing work that will improve the conditions that must be met for program accreditation, and some improvement in this aspect of an emerging professional’s formation seems, if even only incremental, likely.

Fault can also be found with the profession (by both individual architects and firms). There is much to be done to improve the training experience during the IDP program. The American Institute of Architects and NCARB have worked hard to integrate practice and education in meaningful ways, and schools have embraced these efforts. For its part, the AIA has funded a successful Practice Academy Initiative that has enabled three accredited programs to conceive, develop, and implement programs that effectively integrate practice and education in unique ways. The AIA expects that these models can be transported effectively to other programs. Similarly, NCARB continues its NCARB prize and grant programs, which are also directed at integrating the academy and practice. The NCARB Prize for Creative Integration of Practice and Education in the Academy is in its 8th year and has awarded well more than $400,000 to more than 40 programs.

Weaknesses have existed in the IDP program as well. NCARB has launched needed improvements to the IDP program, and more improvements are coming as part of the rollout of IDP 2.0 that will be completed over the next 18 months. Improvements such as enhanced content tied directly to the recent NCARB practice analysis, clarification of training settings, increased opportunity to earn credits outside an office setting, and electronic reporting are among the changes being made. These advances will work together to make the program not only more effective but also friendlier to use.


These improvements aside, there remains a significant gap in supervision and mentoring of emerging professionals as they enter the work force. Improvements are needed in two specific areas. First, it is critically important that firms embrace the IDP program. There must be individuals in firms who are working with intern architects on projects. These individuals must be familiar with the training requirements of the IDP program, and they must work cooperatively with interns to make sure interns have the opportunity to gain the right experience at the right time in their formation. For this to be effective, there must exist a relationship of trust between the supervisor and the intern.

Two aids, the IDP Guidelines and the IDP Supervisor Guidelines, are available on the NCARB Web site ( These are useful tools for interns and supervisors. In addition, NCARB conducts webinars that have proven useful to interns and supervisors in understanding the mechanics of the IDP program. NCARB is very willing to present these webinars to firms and to individuals. Firms and practitioners embracing the program and working proactively with the interns will go a long way toward improving this situation.

The second specific improvement must happen in the academy. Many architecture students enter the work force while they’re in college. The IDP program has provisions that enable students to earn qualifying credit for such work. It is important, therefore, that students are introduced to IDP while they are in school and preferably at the earliest point of eligibility for the IDP program, which for Bachelor of Architecture students is after the third year. For this to happen, the faculty must be trained and active in the IDP program. They must also have an understanding of the culture of professionalism and practice. While many programs do an outstanding job in this area, more programs must make improvements. The AIA provides annual training programs for IDP education coordinators, and many jurisdictional licensing boards are willing to travel to campuses to help academic programs make improvements.

Interns play a large part in the success of their training experience as well. They have easy access to the information that informs them about the experience areas they must complete in IDP. Interns carry the responsibility of addressing training issues with their supervisors so that the required experience is gained. If gaps exist, it is particularly important that interns press their supervisor for a plan to address them. They need to create scheduled opportunities to meet with their supervisor to assess their progress and plan the next steps in their training experience. In many firms, performance reviews offer a natural opportunity for this. It is necessary that both supervisor and intern recognize and make use of opportunities.

While supervision is critically important in interns’ development as competent architects, there is another element in need of considerable work — mentoring. A mentor is often defined as an experienced and trusted advisor. While the IDP program requires a supervisor, a mentor is recommended but optional. The primary purpose of IDP is to ensure that by the time they are licensed and registered, architects are capable of practicing in a way that protects the health, life, and safety of the public. Interns who have a mentor — or a supervisor who also mentors them — can learn so much, especially in the areas of ethics and values.

One might think of a supervisor as a parent who helps the intern learn through experience to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to be a competent professional. Through this experience, the intern becomes sufficiently accomplished in programming, design, detailing, construction, and contract administration to enter practice as a licensed professional. In some respects it is a discipline-driven approach in which the focus is on the array of experience requirements stipulated in the IDP program. As they travel through their internship, they also learn to lead and to collaborate with other design professionals, contractors, and clients in the process of designing and building buildings.

An intern who has a mentor has someone teaching much more. You might think of this mentor as a grandparent — one who teaches values. This person, through stories relating experiences and guidance in values issues, will help the intern become a more broadly responsible and capable architect who can better serve clients and the public.

The benefits of providing interns with a well-rounded and effective training experience are quickly understood if one recognizes that, whether it happens in the academy or in the work place, the objective of education, training, and mentoring is helping people achieve their full potential. At every stage of their development, students and interns who are fully engaged will outperform those who are not. In addition to the higher level of their self-satisfaction, their firms, clients, and society will all benefit.


Gordon E. Mills is the retired chairman and CEO of Durrant, headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa. He currently serves as the 2008-2009 president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Mills is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council and a Fellow of the America Institute of Architects.