In his article, “Should Engineers Be Licensed,” posted on Monday, April 22, Karl Stephen presented an interesting question that generated a great many comments and some debate among readers.  Perhaps a way to answer the question is to answer the question phrased differently. Would the business, industry, or process of engineering be better, would things improve, if engineers were encouraged to be licensed? 

Licensed practice is commonplace or mandatory in other fields, particularly construction, medicine and law, so should those individuals handily responsible for most every article we use every day also be given greater accountability for the science they practice? Let’s explore what a process improvement perspective might say about it.

There is, as Karl Stephen described, a Professional Engineer (PE) license in existence and it has existed for several generations of engineers. Certain engineering professions do require or encourage practitioners to be PE licensed, usually those in architectural and civil disciplines where people’s safety is at stake if the engineering is improper. Those aren’t the only disciplines that address safety, however.

Popular opinion seems to be that while a license reflects education, understanding, and a certain devotion to persevere through a rigorous examination process, a certificate or license does not a better engineer make. Like Karl Stephen, I too took the Engineer In Training (EIT) exam at the end of college, though when I did so it underwent a name change to the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. It was an 8-hour exam that has not yet been rivaled by any other experience for investment of time and energy or difficulty of written test. It’s no small thing to pass that exam.

As I developed in my engineering career, I too explored the possibility of achieving my PE license and status. In my state one must be mentored for a minimum of 4 years by another PE and then pass a review board, similar to defending one’s graduate thesis. In my career to this date, I have only worked with one other licensed PE and at the time, technically, he reported to me, not the other way around.

Still, I thought that I could show that my PE colleague was mentoring me at the time and began asking around about what advantages might there be if I did get my PE. Ironically, I was discouraged from doing so.

I am an engineer with a mechanical specialty, which means that I am now somewhat of a systems engineer and a dabbler in electronics too. None of the engineering or business leaders I engaged agreed that a PE on my resume would encourage them to choose me over another candidate. In fact, some said that I would not be hired if I had the PE because of a perception of increased liability to both the engineer and the business. Karl touched on this in his article.

While these tidbits of background might explain why very few engineers are presently licensed, I think the question we want to explore is, “Should we encourage or require them to be?”

Normally, I would begin a process improvement attempt by defining the problem. A good and complete problem definition states what the problem is, where and when it occurs, and how we know that it is a problem and that it occurs. In this case, I’m not sure we have a problem statement. The question above is just that, a question, not a problem.

Stating that engineering and engineered solutions would be better off if engineers were licensed is more of a hypothesis than a problem statement. Also, trying to say so falls apart when we try to address the “how we know” part of the definition. Most of the truly brilliant and innovative, engineered products we revere were developed by unlicensed engineers. What we might have is a solution looking for a problem instead of a problem.

Let’s not let it stop us. Though we can’t definitively state that we have a problem, we might still be looking at an opportunity to improve upon the status quo. Not every improvement is the result of something being broken. So, let’s consider who would benefit and who and what would be affected, and try to determine if the change proposed is a beneficial and valuable one.

Widely, we agree that a certificate or license does not assure an engineer’s quality or ability, nor that an engineer will operate ethically or responsibly. Accountability, however, can. For the sake of this discussion, let’s not consider a license for license sake. Let’s assume that the license would, ideally, enable a system of accountability whereby an engineer found negligent or remiss in his or her duties could be “black marked” from ever working as an engineer again.

So, should we institute a system that ensures that only licensed engineers might be employed, and that those who are incompetent or unethical or negligent would be removed from practice? Our objective is to prevent engineering errors caused by incompetence, negligence, or unethical decision-making. Let’s identify who is affected.  

The customers of the process of engineering are everyone. We all touch engineered products every day. The owners of the process are equally diverse, and so are the users of the process. We have the aerospace industry, automotive, consumer goods, medical, security, energy, construction, waste management, and a great many more industries to consider. There are chemical, mechanical, industrial, electrical, software, database, aerospace, civil, and other engineering fields and specialties.

Already the idea of licensing engineers seems daunting considering the vast diversity of the process application. But let’s not be turned away by a difficult challenge. If it’s the right thing to do, we can make a way.

All right, so let’s consider what problem the accountability solution would solve. Are the appropriate people held accountable today for engineering failures? I think the answer to that varies regionally, especially if we also consider how people are held accountable.

Ideally, we want our accountability system to prevent errors, not just punish them. In the case of the licensing solution, we would prevent “violators of the oath” from ever practicing the science of engineering again. Today, we have a system of accountability that is nearly as diverse as the engineering field.

In the construction, architectural, and civil disciplines, where licensed engineers are more common, we have a system of de-licensing violators as proposed. For most other industries, civil litigation requiring companies responsible for engineered products and solutions to pay severe penalties for injuries, fatalities, and significant defects seems to be the widespread method of holding people accountable.

In these cases, it is the business, sometimes the business leaders, that are punished, rarely the engineers. It may be that such is appropriate since with most engineered solutions, the business leaders, not the engineers, have the final say over the product’s risks, quality, and readiness to launch.

There are a few industries or sectors with a different or additional accountability, however. Consider the commercial aerospace industry, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. In this industry a regulatory agency dictates that every commercial airplane must demonstrate compliance to regulatory standards.

The regulatory agencies, in the U.S. it is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), often delegate representative authority for the judgment of compliance to practicing engineers who may be employees of the aircraft and component manufacturing firms. These delegates are employees of aircraft businesses, but when it comes to signing their names to a product and a product design, signifying that the product is compliant, they answer first to the regulatory agency.

It is a good system because practicing engineers are, for the most part, writing the regulations, adhering to the regulations, and making judgments about compliance, which is better than having a bureaucrat, who may not exercise his engineering skill in the industry daily, do these things. The agency is there to ensure that the vision of the regulations is preserved and to hold everyone accountable.

To get such delegated authority, the engineer must demonstrate a significant degree of engineering and industry experience, a thorough understanding of the regulations, and must do so before a panel of regulatory agency leaders. It is similar in expectations to the PE license, but it is highly specific to a single industry and usually to only a portion of the total regulations.

If a delegated authority abuses the privilege or allows a business manager to dictate a decision contrary to his or her obligation to the regulations and delegated authority, not only might the business be punished by losing the privilege to self certify product, but the engineer loses his or her delegation and will never get it back. In effect, it is the same accountability practice that the PE license would produce if widely instituted.

The example of the FAA delegation authority is only one example of many different industry-specific licenses or equivalents that are already in place. I think the example reveals an important insight to our exploration. Is it right to hold the engineer accountable for a product’s or solution’s performance? It is if the engineer has the final authority over delivering that solution to a customer. However, in many businesses or industries, such is not the case.

Obviously, we don’t have to allow today’s paradigm to roadblock our license and accountability solution. If licensing engineers and holding them accountable would improve things, then the paradigm, out of necessity, would evolve. No engineer would accept a role where a manager could veto his decision and cause the engineer to lose his career. Business models would adjust.

The fact that numerous sectors of the engineering field have evolved, and do exercise, some form of license and accountability system seems to suggest that it is a viable and effective system for ensuring, or at least encouraging, quality and ethical engineering practice. We observe too, that engineered solutions in regions where ethical and quality adherence to effective regulations are enforced generate noticeably fewer “disasters” than less stringently regulated regions. The variance in construction methods around the globe makes a good and timely example.

So, we observe that the license accountability we are investigating can be effective and is in use. One other important question we should answer as part of our analysis is this. Since it is an apparently effective improvement to engineering practice, is it a value-added improvement? Will the beneficiaries of the licensing system be willing to pay for the benefits? (By the way, this is a very important process improvement consideration that is often overlooked.)

Let’s consider consumer goods as one obvious genre where little engineer-focused accountability exists. Would consumers pay extra for goods that declared that licensed engineers developed them? Today’s market behavior would seem to suggest otherwise.

While some consumers will pay more for “Made in the U.S.A.” or for German branded products, just to pick a couple of long-held perceptions, many simply shop for the best price, or the best perceived value with little regard for who made an item or where it was produced.

We might find that consumer behavior would change if the perceivable quality-value performance for goods from one region or brand noticeably exceeded competitors’; in our case if licensed engineers produced superior products to unlicensed engineers. To find out, we would need an experiment or some examples of where just that sort of phenomenon has occurred, or does occur. Without that observance, it is difficult to declare that licensed engineering practice would produce a valuable improvement to the consumer goods industry.

Based on the short explorative above, which is by no means as comprehensive as the engineering field is diversified, it seems to this writer that we already seem to have incorporated a pragmatic licensing system in those engineering sectors where doing so provides meaningful benefit. The solutions in place, while they vary across industries and regions, are based on a common license-authority and accountability model. In each case the accountability is expressed in the form of an oath or similar agreement that describes the expectations and values of the licensing authority.

Because of the vast diversity of engineering disciplines and applications, it is probably necessary to allow different licenses for specific needs, applications, or accountabilities. Should every engineer be licensed?  Like many common process improvement solutions, the answer is, “Only where the benefits outweigh the costs.”

It does not seem that the benefits of licensed accountability for every engineer overcome the cost of the system and the myriad of complications that go with it for every engineering application. It seems, however, that in many regions, where the benefits of licensed accountability are important and valuable, the practice is already in place in diverse forms.

I admit, my conclusion sounds like a politician’s answer, “It is a good idea, when and where it is a good idea.” I know, but that’s the truth of many solutions to common problems. They are good for many, but not for all. I also admit that the above is the thought process of one individual, therefore, it is by nature biased. I invite commentary. In the mean time, take a look at your own engineering accountability challenges. It might not be right for everyone to be licensed, but it might be right for your corner of the field.

Stay wise, friends.

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