How the Pandemic Impacted Architectural Licensure in 2020

NCARB’s data illuminates the impacts of test center closures, transition to remote work and fluctuating demand for architectural services.

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The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) recently released a special report that details how the pandemic impacted architectural licensing and mobility. The findings, which look at data collected throughout 2020, illuminate the impacts of test center closures, transition to remote work and fluctuating demand for architectural services on the career progress of licensure candidates. It’s not all doom and gloom, however: as of June 2021, the majority of program metrics have returned to normal — or better — and point to a new period of growth.

Data pulled from the Architectural Experience Program (AXP) and Architect Registration Examination (ARE) offer insights about how the pandemic impacted candidates’ abilities to reach their career goals according to standard schedules. NCARB’s special report provides a monthly breakdown of this information and contextualizes it by comparison to averages from the previous three years (2017-2019).

In sum, the key take-aways include:

  • The number of newly licensed architects decreased by 40%
  • Delivery of the national licensing exam dropped by 44%
  • Candidates reporting professional experience declined by 20%
  • Applications for reciprocal (out-of-state) licenses remained relatively strong, only dropping by 3%

Now, let’s examine these numbers in closer detail:

At the onset of the pandemic, Prometric test centers across North America were closed, resulting in the near elimination of exams for over a 3 month period. In most states, the months of April to June proved to be crucial and this pause led to a 44 percent drop in completed over the course of 2020 (around 29,400 — the previous three-year average was 52,300). When test centers in various states were able to re-open in July, there was a quick rise in exam deliveries at numbers that rivalled pre-pandemic levels; however, this proved to be a short-lived spurt and the numbers dropped off again in November, presumably when cases in the US rapidly rose.

Successfully passing this exam is usually the final step before candidates are granted their license, so the number of newly licensed architects closely aligns with the number of completed exams. The March — June 2020 test center closure meant that a handful of individuals were unable to complete licensure requirements for an extended period, delaying many cnadidates by nearly four months. The ripple effect is that the number of new architects decreased by 40 percent in 2020 (nearly 2,900 — the previous three-year average was 4,800.). 

Meanwhile, one of the first steps towards becoming licensed is the creation of an NCARB Record, which is used to document professional experience and examination requirements. In 2020, there was a 33 percent decrease in the number of candidates who started a new record. Compared to the previous three-year average of 8, 800, this year saw just 5, 800  created.

Prior to the March lockdowns, this number was on par with historical trends; record creation numbers also slightly rebounded in the summer months, though this was not a pendulum swing. Peaks periods in the winter and summer could be tied to the start of college semesters; students could be more likely to document professional experience during academic lulls. Yet, it also remains true that many of these opportunities diminished due to COVID-19 as the availability of entry-level roles and early career opportunities like internships plummeted. 

“2020 was a challenging year for every industry, and architecture was no exception,” said NCARB CEO Michael Armstrong. “As we begin to turn the corner on the pandemic, we are seeing an upward trend that reflects a renewed national focus on infrastructure that protects the public’s health and wellbeing. This focus highlights the important role architects play. NCARB is excited to help support the pool of licensed talent, and foster this new period of growth for the field.”

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