The higher levels. especially the last two, can be attained only through extensive experience and are characterized by less rational deliberation and greater emotional involvement.

However, when confronted with an unfamiliar set of circumstances, even experts inevitably revert to the behaviors of novices and advanced beginners. They must fall back on rules and maxims because they lack the kind or amount of experience that would enable them to discern the appropriate course of action.

How does the Dreyfus model apply to engineering? Formal education, including most continuing education, primarily conveys the rules and maxims needed by the novice and advanced beginner.

Competence is achieved only when an engineer has been practicing long enough in a particular technical area to be capable of employing independent judgment to focus on what really matters and converge relatively quickly on a viable solution.

Genuine Experts

Although it may just be an accident of terminology, this third level appears to be where the bar is currently set for engineering licensure. But is competence, as defined by the Dreyfus model, really enough to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public?

Given the increasing complexity of the task environment for today's engineers, perhaps the minimum qualification should not be mere competence, but proficiency—or even expertise.

The engineering profession arguably owes this caliber of skill to its clients and to society as a whole. After all, many people likely operate under the reasonable assumption that all licensed engineers in every discipline are genuine experts in their field. Are they mistaken?


Jon A. Schmidt, PE, SECB, is an associate structural engineer at Burns & McDonnell, a Kansas City engineer-contractor. He can be reached at 816-822-3373 or