It’s mid-September, and even though the economy isn’t exactly booming, Fred Scharmen is a busy man. At 33, Scharmen is the co-founder of the Working Group on Adaptive Systems—a Baltimore-based business focused on architecture and design that he has worked hard to grow during the past year. He has just completed a small residential project in the historic Fells Point neighborhood and has started another residential rehab nearby. He is helping builders in the city with a case study for a passive house development project and is teaching 20 hours a week at three area universities, including Morgan State University and Catholic University of America, which both have architecture programs accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). As a founding board member of D:center Baltimore, a new nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of architecture and urban planning in the city, he has also spent time in D.C. lobbying on behalf of architecture projects. He recently had to do something incredible in this economy: He had to turn down work.

Scharmen is a reassuring presence for those who fear for the future of young architects. His is a promising practice built on sweat equity and talent that exemplifies the kind of diverse work that a contemporary architect can tackle. Thing is, Scharmen isn’t an architect, at least not in the legal sense of the word. He has yet to earn a license.

When he started architecture school at Yale University eight years ago, Scharmen believed that he would get a license. “Once I knew about the steps to licensure, it was always a goal,” he says. Today, he is almost there, having fulfilled most of the required steps. First, he earned a professional degree from an NAAB-accredited program (M.Arch. from Yale in 2006). Then, over four and a half years and at three different architecture firms, he logged the 5,600 hours required through the Intern Development Program (IDP) run by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Finally, a year and a half ago, he purchased study materials to prepare for the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) administered by NCARB. And that’s when his momentum faltered.

This winter, Scharmen will need to start making significant monthly payments toward the student-loan debt he deferred in order to get his practice and teaching career started after the IDP. “If I don’t have myself in a sustainable situation, I’m not going to be able to pay Sallie Mae,” he says. The more than $1,000 that he estimates he would need to pay in fees to NCARB for the ARE, plus the time spent preparing for and taking the seven divisional tests, are simply not a priority. “That time and money could go to expanding my practice, which is professional development—on my terms. Given the choice, I would [rather] invest in myself,” he says.

Scharmen represents what some in the profession are calling the “lost generation”—graduates of architecture programs who find it unnecessary or untenable to pursue licensure. Because of the difficult economy, coupled with what some professionals and academics believe to be a complex and lengthy licensure process, many graduates may be discouraged from legally entering the profession. “We all fear the loss of a generation,” says Judith Kinnard, FAIA, professor of architecture at Tulane University and president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). “The road we’re headed down leads to fewer talented people entering the profession as licensed professionals with the ability to use the word ‘architect’ legally and with confidence.”

So are young professionals such as Scharmen an anomaly? Or do they represent a growing trend? Are an increasing number of architecture graduates choosing a path that does not include licensure?

A Question of Data

Let’s start by asking a seemingly simple question: What percentage of architecture-program graduates eventually earn a license? Ask the organizations that oversee the academy, the licensing process, and the profession—NAAB, NCARB, ACSA, American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS)—and the answer is the same: We don’t know. “It’s been very difficult for schools to track their graduates on licensure. Given the economics of education, it’s an expensive task. I think we all would love to know, but we all guess,” Kinnard says.

Andrea S. Rutledge, executive director at the NAAB, says that her organization has heard the apprehensions about a lost generation: “The leaders of the AIA and NCARB have expressed concerns about the rate of licensure.” But, she adds, it is not within the NAAB’s mission to bolster licensure rates. “No one is coming to us to do anything about it,” she says.

NCARB, the national membership organization composed of all the architectural registration boards for the 50 states, D.C., and the three U.S. territories, cites as a “primary function” maintaining records for state boards, architects, and interns. But NCARB also says that it does not have access to relevant data. Ask about the number of new licenses issued last year or the average age of the more than 105,000 licensed architects in the U.S., and NCARB officials say that the organization currently can’t glean that information from its membership or from internal records. NCARB also has no specific data on what the attrition rate of the IDP and ARE programs are. Kim Kerker, NCARB’s director of communications, says that the problem is data collection. “Every year, we survey our members as to how many architects they have in their jurisdictions and how many reciprocal licenses they have. We don’t ask the question, ‘How many new licensees did you acquire last year?’ In the future we can start asking,” she says.

NCARB, Kerker adds, is limited by the data and format of information kept by the architectural registration boards that compose its membership; there is no unified standard for record-keeping. Moreover, the architect and intern records that NCARB maintains were, until recently, in hard-copy and PDF formats. “This system is archaic today,” Kerker says. “NCARB is moving away from hard copies to electronic data—and in the near future we will be able to analyze our data much more effectively.” NCARB, she says, hopes to provide at least some of the above information on licensure by the end of the year.

Even though the relevant data currently hasn’t been compiled to determine the extent—or even the existence—of a lost generation, the licensure issue has sparked a heated debate about the ways that the profession is losing future talent. So what is fueling the conjecture?

Daniel Friedman, FAIA, dean and professor at the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, says that there’s plenty of reason to be alarmed. In May, toward the end of his tenure as president of ACSA, Friedman wrote a farewell essay that called for reform within the architecture community. The profession must make licensure a priority, he wrote, citing research by AIA chief economist Kermit Baker suggesting that over the past three years, the number of employees in U.S. firms has declined more than 25 percent. “Extrapolate this estimate among the 105,000 registered architects practicing in the U.S., and 25 percent seems alarmingly high,” he wrote.

Last year, the NAAB reported 27,852 students enrolled in the 151 accredited programs in the U.S., with a total of 6,017 accredited degrees awarded. Friedman wonders how the industry can encourage those students to pursue careers in architecture, when we are “heading into a turtle-paced recovery, with little hope a shallow upturn can restore lost jobs?” (The 2009–2010 AIA/NCARB Internship and Career Survey underscores the challenge for interns, showing that of some 10,000 respondents, 27 percent were laid off in 2010, as compared to 5 percent when the survey was last conducted in 2007. Of those laid off or out of work, 30 percent said that they were unsure about returning to the profession.)

Just as alarming, Friedman notes, is that less than 30 percent of full-time faculty at accredited schools hold a license, according to the NAAB. “Soon we’ll need to decide how much it matters that less than half of all our full-time tenure-track professors are licensed, and whether or not we care that fewer and fewer students and interns value registration,” he writes.