Joe A. Schmidt

The National Society of Professional Engineers has a longstanding policy in favor of generic licensure. According to its Position Statement No. 1737, “NSPE endorses the [National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying] Model Law definition of the ’practice of engineering’ … and encourages enactment of Model Law provisions. NSPE endorses and supports the concept of licensure of engineers only as a ’Professional Engineer’ and opposes licensure status by designated branches or specialties.”

But the NCEES Model Law definition of a professional engineer (PE) states, “The board may designate a professional engineer, on the basis of education, experience, and examination, as being licensed in a specific discipline or branch of engineering signifying the area in which the engineer has demonstrated competence.” This provision concisely captures why discipline-specific licensure is needed to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public.

Education, experience and examination—the traditional three E’s of licensure—are the (objective) means by which an individual has demonstrated competence in a specific discipline or branch of engineering. By contrast, generic licensure relies on (subjective) self-assessment to establish whether someone is competent in any particular technical field. Once a person has passed the PE exam—any PE exam—it is then completely up to that person to define his or her own limits of practice.

Proponents of generic licensure believe decisions in these matters are rightly made by each engineer on a case-by-case basis. After all, the purpose of licensure is to identify those who have achieved the minimum level of competence to protect the public, not to differentiate those who have more advanced qualifications in a specialty. As licensed professionals, engineers are legally bound by a code of ethics that explicitly requires them to perform services only within their competence.

Minimum Competence

Given the current U.S. system of licensure, this line of thinking raises several important questions. If engineers are really the best judges of their own competence, why are they required to pass a PE exam at all? If the test is simply meant to set the bar of minimum competence across the board, why does NCEES administer 24 different PE exams? And once they become licensed professionals, how exactly can engineers accurately determine their areas of competence so that they can conscientiously fulfill their obligation to stay within them?

Granted, a certain amount of self-regulation is inevitable. For one thing, passing an examination and receiving a license to practice does not relieve engineers of their responsibility to continue building up their expertise throughout their careers by means of additional education and experience. As an example, it presumably takes a greater capability to design the structural, mechanical or electrical systems for a 100-story tower than to provide the same services for a single-story building.

However, the fundamentals of each discipline are the same for both projects, and that is precisely what the structural, mechanical and electrical engineering exams evaluate. When an engineer passes one of these exams, it indicates he or she is competent to ascertain whether it would be appropriate to accept particular assignments within that discipline—but only within that discipline.

In other words, licensure is already discipline-specific—entirely discipline-specific—when it comes to the PE exams.

The logical next step is to make licensure discipline-specific when it comes to actual practice, using the NCEES specification(s) for the PE exam(s) that an engineer has passed as the basis for designating the area(s) in which that person has demonstrated competence and requiring the engineer to practice only within the corresponding domain(s).

Specialization is a firmly entrenched reality in the engineering profession today. Every discipline is becoming increasingly complex while overlapping less with others that may have been closely aligned with it in the past. Rather than bemoaning this trend or pretending it does not exist, engineers should acknowledge it and work to adapt the licensure laws accordingly.