Engineering certification: License to engineer

Jan. 28, 2005
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.

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.
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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