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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Green says this is part of the effort to make engineering education on par with the course loads that doctors and lawyers have to take to become licensed. However, in this case, the focus now is on softer skills, such as humanities and social skills. “It used to be that students would take 128 hours of all technical courses, but now it might be 100 hours of technical classes plus an additional 28-plus hours of humanities,” Schwartz says. “A balance has to be struck.”

Green concurs. “Many young people go into college without a firm understanding of what kind of career they want to have. There are economic and time factors; it could be a factor in the number of students who choose to pursue engineering.”
Dan Hebert, P.E., senior technical editor for several engineering magazines, believes that the undergraduate engineering experience weeds out all the underachieving engineers, and the ones who graduate and go on to the working world have to be competent as a result of making their way through the training. “They’re not going to accomplish anything by making the requirements harder,” he says. “Making it harder has the drawbridge effect” of not getting more people into the profession, he says. “It’s an elitist thing.”

Speaking of making things harder, there is also a movement to create graduated titles for engineers based on their work experience and possible testing status. Instead of having two classes of engineers – those with P.E.s and those without – there would be more classes or tiers. It is being developed by the NCEES Engineering Licensure Qualifications Task Force (ELQTF). Although this movement is in its infancy, it recommends conferring titles on engineers based on their career progress. Titles include graduate engineer, registered engineer, associate engineer, etc. You can find more information about this topic at Adoption of a model by the state licensing boards is voluntary; it probably will be some time before a measure like this is ready for institution.

Train to stay in the game  
Having separate tiers of engineers draws attention to another issue: Less than 20% of engineers are licensed P.E.s to begin with. Although the pass rate for first-time chemical engineering test-takers hovers in the 60% to 70% range, which is higher than in other engineering disciplines, a small percentage of all engineers attempt the exam each year.
Green says that there is an average of 65,000 engineers who graduate from American schools each year; there are only 15,000 P.E. licenses issued each year. Although there isn’t a direct correlation because new grads have to have four years of experience to be eligible to take the exam and foreign-schooled engineers working in the United States also can take it, you can see the disparity between these numbers. Many engineers either think they don’t need a P.E. or don’t have the motivation or time to prepare for the comprehensive exam.
Some engineers foresee a time in the future when all engineers will be required to be licensed. One chemical engineer with a P.E. designation, who declined to be named, says licensing for engineers is a noble concept, but earning a license isn’t mandatory to be successful in the field. “Many of the best engineers I know are not licensed,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that much at this particular time. If you’ve gone to a good engineering school and have good grades, technically, you’re competent.” But he foresees a time when things could change. “But right now, I don’t think it helps you career-wise or money-wise,” he says. 

But Joe Cimini, P.E., special project manager for PPG, Lake Charles, La., says a P.E. license helps you get through the door when you’re looking for a job. “It’s also for your own personal satisfaction,” he says. His P.E. designation came in handy when he was doing consulting work many years ago, but it hasn’t been a big factor in his career since he stopped consulting. “It used to be that when we hired someone here, we would expect [that person] to continue the process to become registered within five years,” he says. “At the time we felt that was important.” It might become that way again. “Government keeps getting more and more involved in everything we do,” he says, and the requirements could eventually change.
 NSPE’s Schwartz says, “Any time you have additional credentials, it helps.” This is especially true for consultants, expert witnesses or those who want to start their own businesses. “It’s an insurance policy for your career,” he adds. “Unless you know that you’ll never need a professional engineering license, you may want to get one.” As companies begin to outsource more work, there are more individuals who will become private practitioners and they will need an engineering license simply to be considered for such work.
Continued improvement  
These issues aside, once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree and have passed the tests to become a licensed engineer, there’s yet another requirement in some states: Continuing Professional Competency (CPC). Twenty-seven states already require engineers to complete CPC requirements as a condition of license renewal, and other states are considering making it part of their licensing requirements. For example, Illinois and Louisiana require engineers to complete 30 CPC hours every two years to be eligible for renewal. Those 30 hours can include attending lectures, publishing articles and other career-enhancing educational opportunities.

Texas also requires engineers to complete 15 CPCs per year, but requires P.E.s to complete one hour of engineering ethics as well. “We had a voluntary continuing education program in Texas, but that was discontinued,” says Aker Kvarner’s Edwards, and replaced by the new requirement. For a listing of state requirements, visit

Of course, all of this study and work to satisfy requirements is meant to keep American engineers among the best-trained in the world. Who wouldn’t want to keep up that mantle?

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