Monday, April 15, 2013

Should Engineers Be Licensed?


Not long after I chose electrical engineering as a major in college, someone asked me if I was planning to take the EIT exam.  What was that?  It stands for “engineer in training” and it is the customary first step in obtaining a Professional Engineer (PE) license.  To the best of my recollection, it didn’t cost that much and I went ahead and took it, not so much because I wanted a license but because I was the kind of nerd who couldn’t turn down a chance to see how well he did on standardized tests.  By the time I graduated, I had learned that you had to “practice” for a specified number of years to take the next exam to become a full-blown PE, and in the meantime I had not been able to find anyone who could tell me what good it would do to have a PE license.  So I dropped the whole thing.

Doctors and lawyers in Texas, just to choose a state I’m familiar with, must have licenses issued respectively by the Texas Medical Board (a government agency) or the State Bar of Texas (a private organization authorized to grant licenses to practice law).  You can go to jail for practicing medicine without a license, and the penalties for violating legal codes of ethics include “disbarment,” which effectively ends your career as a lawyer.  But the codes of ethics of most engineering organizations do not have the force of law, and the great majority of practicing engineers are not licensed, at least not in the U. S.  (The laws of many other countries for licensing engineers more closely resemble those of the medical and legal professions here in the U. S.)

Why can you practice engineering without a license here, but not doctoring or lawyering?  The doctors and lawyers have to answer for themselves, but it turns out that for engineers, every state (that I know of, anyway) has something in their laws concerning the engineering profession called an “industrial exemption.”  The gist of the exemption is this.  If an engineer works for a private firm whose products are sold outside the state where the engineer is employed, then the state regulations don’t apply.  The federal government is not in the business of licensing engineers, so that is the reason why you don’t need a PE license to work as an engineer in most firms.

The industrial exemption doesn’t cover everyone.  Public works such as roads, bridges, and buildings that are all in one state are not regarded as interstate commerce, and so many engineers working for certain civil-engineering firms must sign off on plans as licensed engineers.  Also, there are situations in which engineers who work directly for the public, such as consulting engineers, find it helpful if not essential to be licensed.  And there is the prestige factor of being able to list “P. E.” after your name, but that’s a pretty silly reason by itself. 

The National Society of Professional Engineers, for one, would like it if every engineer were licensed.  That organization performs a function similar to the state bars for lawyers, in that it operates the examination system for licensing of engineers and investigates alleged cases of unethical behavior by engineers.  However, the power to revoke licenses lies not with NSPE, but with the state boards of professional engineers who issue a person’s license in a given state. 

All this seems rather obscure and complicated, but most political things are.  Would we be better off if the federal government, for example, issued engineering licenses, and no one could be hired as an engineer even by a private firm without possessing such a license?  That is similar to what’s happening in the medical profession today, as more and more doctors join clinics and hospital-run HMOs rather than try to make it alone in private practice.

If such a thing were to come about, there would be some good effects and some bad effects.  The good effect, for engineers, anyway, is that average salaries for engineers would probably increase, simply because the supply of engineers would go down while the demand stayed the same.  However, a bad effect might be that universal licensing requirements for U. S. engineers might encourage the ongoing trend to outsource engineering to countries outside the U. S.  Of course, you could try passing laws about that too, but you might succeed only in making an entire firm wash its hands of the U. S. altogether, if it got too expensive to do engineering here.

Would we enjoy better-engineered products under a universal licensing law?  Somehow I suspect that competition and quality control give us products that are the best our money can buy most of the time already.  Microscopic state control of every aspect of manufacturing, from engineering to marketing and distribution, was tried for decades in the old Soviet Union.  And the products that resulted were not renowned for their attractive characteristics, although there were exceptions. 

Much later in life, when I was contemplating a move from Massachusetts to Texas and wanted to get a job teaching in the latter state, I found out that some schools encouraged their applicants to have a PE license.  So I looked into what would be involved in getting one in Massachusetts.  It turned out that for someone with enough years of experience, you could avoid taking an exam altogether and simply assemble a lot of documentation on your career and appear in person before the state board of licensure.  I did so, and I remember one of the members asking me if I intended to practice engineering or just teach it.  I told him frankly what my reasons were, and he said something like, “Well, if that’s all you’re going to do with it, I guess it’s OK.”  So I walked out of the hearing with a PE license, which I have maintained to this day.

 As it happened, nobody much cared at Texas State University (or Southwest Texas State, as it was called then) whether I had a PE license or not.  But the certificate looks nice on my wall, and I get to put “P. E.” after my name, for what that is worth.

Should every engineer be licensed?  On the whole, I think such a law would cause more problems than it would solve, even for the engineers who might think they would benefit from the restricted market of engineering talent that would result.  But at the same time, I think it is a good idea for every engineer at the start of his or her career to consider becoming licensed, because it can’t hurt you, and it might help both you and the people you are obliged to serve.

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article “Regulation and licensure in engineering” and the websites of the Texas Bar Association and the Texas Medical Board. 

4 comments:

  1. I advocate for repeal of industrial exemption for PE licensure. Many, if not most, engnineers are not designers - we are operators, regulators, inspectors, maintainers of processes and facilities that can create much damage to public health and safety. The definition of "practice of engineering" reflects this. The State regulates professions per its duty to protect the public good - not establish cartels or to restrain trade. So unless a strong case can be made that regulating the engineering profession via licensure is necessary to protect the public health and safety, the State should not be regulating the practice of engineering.

    I think Katrina, BP oil spill, space shuttles falling from sky, 100,000 sick workers in Dept. of Energy, etc make a case for universal PE licensure.

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  2. jpcarson you make a clear opinion about licenses and disasters, which has and always will plague our civilization. First of all all these disasters you speak of, happened because of cultivating circumstances, not because of a so called "Profession Engineer" License! This piece of paper only intensifies a label or title not knowledge or imagination of Engineering. Show me the facts where during these catastrophes the engineers that worked on the equipment were not licensed? Katrina or hurricane which is a force of nature encapsulated with one of the strongest elements known to man "water" combined in a momentum force of "wind" another element. Definitely would annihilate anything man(human being) constructs. You think an Engineer is responsible for these disasters or the aftermath where lives were lost? Come on please utilize your mind, not your brain when spouting out irrelevant facts of intellectual pseudo-scientific false fantasy and manipulation.

    The next topic is the PE license, which is a contrived manipulated idea thought up by intellectual pawns in this game of life, we as human beings brought forth to enslave ourselves and others worldwide. What does a certification have to do with creativity, visualization, critical thinking, art, and true passion for figuring out many life's puzzles? I clearly see the standpoint, but there is not rationalization whatsoever behind the concepts brought on this article.

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  3. I think the main impetus for standardized licensure is for public works projects, such as bridges, where the quality of design is critical. In many cases, construction plans must be stamped by an engineer to recieve a building permit. So, in this case, the licensure serves as a quality control measure for building departments. In this way, I think licensure has real value in our society.

    That being said, getting a PE license is only really valuable in the consulting engineer/public works world. Even when it's not required, having a stamp (or stamps) on the drawing you are submitting makes the design much more legitimate in the eyes of the client. This being the case, the career advancement path for a licensed PE is very different from a unlicensed designer.

    I took the EIT in Dec. 2011 and I'm planning on taking the Electrical PE next year. Thanks for the article!

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  4. I live in NY State, and here the definition of engineer is only one with a PE license. I am a mechanical "engineer" without a license, I graduated from college with an HVAC engineering degree, and worked for almost 30 years at different firms where I functioned as an "engineer" and where my title was almost always "engineer". At this point, I have started my own LLC and am offering consulting engineering services, but am concerned about the legalities and what I can do without my PE. Any thoughts?

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