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Should Engineers Be Licensed?

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 9:17am
Karl Stephan, Consulting Engineer, Texas State University, San Marcos

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. 

This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.

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