I am a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and a past president of its local manifestation, the Pennsylvania Society of professional Engineers Philadelphia Chapter. 

The purpose of this organization is to encourage state legislatures to require those practicing engineering to be licensed and to maintain a level of professionalism for the betterment of the public health, safety, property and welfare.

An incident of our national experiment of federation of fifty sovereign states is that each enabling legislation may be slightly different and each may provide an exemption from the need for licensure for certain types of engineering, or performed for certain classes of entities, or by certain individuals.

These are commonly known as the “Industrial Exemption.”


A common rationale for the exemption is large manufacturers have institutional governance structures with levels of supervision that remove the need for the personal responsibility implicit in the licensure scheme. 

In some instances these structures lead to one individual who assumes responsibility that subordinates are acting upon proper engineering advice (such as requirement of several states that the public utility exemption still requires one professional engineer be in general supervision of standards to be used by those subordinates practicing engineering without a license).

In others the structure merely points to those with a fiduciary duty to stockholders (and specifically above any duty to the public).


As part of a presentation made at our chapter meeting earlier this March (and to then be used by attendees towards mandated continuing education), I discussed the Industrial Exemption and noted the recent news reports of issues of an engineering issue involving GM. The headline of the day was “GM Data Now Shows Switch Problem Dates Back to 2001.” Apparently many members of our large society are not happy; GM has more recently announced it will “take a charge” of $300,000,000 to address these issues. (Now $300MM may sound like a lot, but is but a few days profit for GM).

We next considered the likely societal response if a solo professional engineer, much less a firm of hundreds or thousands of professional engineers, had actual knowledge that a wall switch or outlet specified for hundreds of thousands of homes, apartments, office buildings, had a non-negligible risk of internally shorting, risking shock to users or fire. And sat on that knowledge for fifteen years while a dozen people died (other injuries not currently reported). 

When one engineer failed to adequately review a shop drawing, resulting in a number of deaths when a walkway collapsed at the Kansas City Hyatt in 1981, a criminal investigation was launched, and the individuals involved (including supervision) were stripped of licensure never to again be an engineer. See also the ASCE ethics review of this incident. But then imagine if instead of an accidental omission, the engineer had known of the issue and remained mum for years until the disaster occurred.  

Certainly GM has "engineers" and levels of "engineers" and from time to time even has a president with a degree in engineering. In my talk, I coined the phrase "one professional v governance by many - which better suited to protect the public health, safety, property and welfare?"

And THIS is the core value of our society.