Engineering certification: License to engineer

The bar is constantly being raised for licensed professionals and its important for engineers to stay up-to-date on certification changes. If not, you might be left without the proper accredidation for your job.

By Lisa Greenberg, managing editor

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Licensure isn’t something engineers spend much time thinking about, unless they’re trying to obtain it or maintain it. But you might be hearing more about it in the following year as the standards for obtaining and maintaining licensure on a state-by-state basis continue to evolve and the bar is raised for educational expectations.

As engineers well know, what qualifies a person to be a professional engineer (P.E.) in one state might not cut it in another state. This patchwork of state licensing laws has been evolving since the first engineering licensing law was passed in 1907 in Wyoming.
Although it might appear as though an occult hand reached down and wielded arbitrary influence on the regulatory bodies in each state, the differences really are due to each state having the freedom to set its own requirements, instead of having one set of federal requirements. The trade-off is that this state freedom can sometimes be a burden to engineers who are working to become licensed or who already have a license in one state and then move to another state. 

Matching up the patchwork  
But after almost 100 years of uneven licensing requirements, Arthur Schwartz, deputy executive director and general counsel for the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), Alexandria, Va., says groups like his are making some progress in influencing the uniformity of laws. “You have to be involved for a period of time to see the progress,” he says, but the state regulatory bodies are moving in that direction.

For example, there have been more changes on the national level, says Lake Charles, La.-based Bob J. Green, P.E., manager of engineering services for PPG Industries and vice chairman of the Louisiana Professional Engineering and Land Surveying board (LAPELS). Regarding reciprocity, he says more jurisdictions have adopted the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) model law. This contributes to the uniformity of testing and licensing of engineers from state to state. “It acts as a template for each jurisdiction,” he says. “Most states have adopted it or have written their [licensing laws] to be more consistent.”

There is more uniformity in testing for the P.E. exam, which is also administered by NCEES. “This helps with maintaining the integrity of the exams,” Green says. “Consistency is an integral part of the process.”

Still, there are plenty of differences in licensing from one jurisdiction to another. Some states don’t require P.E. candidates to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, whereas in other states, it’s mandatory. Also, some states provide an industrial exemption to engineers who work in industry; as long as engineers are working under the responsible charge of a P.E., they don’t need to be licensed. About 36 states feature an industrial exemption in their licensing laws. Despite the differences, groups like NSPE are working toward a more uniform future for the licensing process.

“We need a national standard for engineering,” says Vic Edwards, P.E., process director for Aker Kvaerner, Houston. “I would love to see us have a national registration process. With electronic communication, it would be easy to do that.”

Join in for a change  
If progress isn’t being made fast enough to satisfy industry objectives, Schwartz recommends getting involved on a committee within your local or state association to help change public policy. Think things move at too glacial a pace to really make a difference? You can find out firsthand by contacting your state licensing board.

Green, who is in his fifth year of a six-year term on Louisiana’s licensing board, says the experience has been fulfilling. He has worked to make it easier for more engineers to become licensed. For example, in August 2004, the Louisiana licensing board held a vote to determine whether engineers should still be required to have four years of work experience after college graduation in order to take the P.E. exam. “Many engineers may not be totally prepared to pass a comprehensive P.E. exam after working in the field for four years because they may have forgotten certain things they learned in college. They may not have had to employ those skills in the working world that are on the test,” he says. The measure was narrowly defeated, but Green was pleased to see the item on the agenda. It might also be voted upon again in 2005 -- he’s not giving up. Green believes that if the four-year experience requirement were eliminated, more people would pursue a P.E. license. “It is a real barrier to engineers becoming P.E.s,” he says. But the fact that Louisiana’s board is considering the measure “is a step in the right direction,” he says.

Green’s appointment to the board has allowed him to share his views on licensing practices and to help make them a reality. But, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to get involved, there are still several changes to the licensing process that you should be aware of. The following issues continue to take shape in 2005.    

A different course
If concerns about the ability to recall information learned in college after a few years of work keeps engineers from taking the exam, schools may be adding an additional burden on students. It used to be that earning 126 to 128 credits was sufficient to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering. But some schools are upping the ante to the tune of 30 more credits, which amounts to taking 10 additional courses to complete a bachelor’s degree.
These additional hours aren’t being spent in technical courses, either.  “Graduates are expected to be educated about a body of knowledge and be well-rounded,” Schwarz says.

“There is pressure to provide or impose hours in addition to technical classes.” This additional educational requirement might deter some students from pursuing engineering, and therefore there might be a further reduction in the number of people who will eventually become P.E.s.

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