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To License or Not to License: That's the Question PUBLIC ACCESS

While Some Debate the Virtues of a National License, Many U.S. Engineers Question the Value of P.E. Designation.

[+] Author Notes

Emily M. Smith is managing editor of ASME News.

Mechanical Engineering 121(05), 58-60 (May 01, 1999) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.1999-MAY-3

Abstract

This article discusses the importance of Professional Engineering (PE) license in the United States. The debate in United States was sparked by a proposal last year to create a single US license for each of the engineering disciplines. The proposal was made to enhance the ability of engineers to transport their expertise across state lines as well as across national borders to better compete in the global marketplace. The high number of industry exemptions also contributes to the decline of licensed engineers. Although those exemptions are considerable for most engineering disciplines, in Texas and New York, for example, the number of exemptions is highest among electrical and mechanical engineers. Between 1993 and 1998, the number of engineers taking the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, a precursor usually required to apply for a PE license, shrank significantly. While most companies include money to support the professional growth of their employees in their annual budgets, licensing appears to be held in a separate, unrelated category.

Article

While working toward her aerospace engineering degree at UCLA, Amy Hoist was only vaguely aware of what a Professional Engineering license was. After she graduated in December 1992, Hoist applied her engineering know-how toward the needs of a large company, which had an industry exemption that eliminated the need to obtain her P.E.

In the six years since she's been employed at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., Hoist hasn't encountered a licensed Professional Engineer to make a career-relevant case for obtaining the designation. And since she doesn't expect to go into business for herself, Hoist has no plans to apply for the P.E. designation.

That decision puts Hoist and thousands of other engineers like her at the center of a licensing debate that is beginning to build in the United States.

The debate was sparked by a proposal last year to create a single U.S. license for each of the engineering disciplines. The proposal was made to enhance the ability of engineers to transport their expertise across state lines as well as across national borders to better compete in the global marketplace.

But in questioning the need for such a national license, critics point out that the proposal overshadows a larger issue, a licensing trend that has developed among U.S. engineers and is embodied by Hoist: Licensing of engineers in general is down.

" Licensure is the biggest portability problem in the nation today," said John R. Speed, P.E., who is executive director of the Board of Professional Engineers in Texas, which issues engineering licenses for the state. "And it's not just portability of a license," he said of the issue involved, "it's portability of a career."

Between 1993 and 1998, the number of engineers taking the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, a precursor usually required to apply for a P.E. license, shrank significantly. Among mechanical engineers, for example, the figure was down nearly 60 percent, to 5,576 in 1998 from 13,455 in 1993.

The numbers also dropped in the chemical, civil, and electrical engineering disciplines. Chemical exam takers were 45 percent fewer between 1993 and 1998. The civil engineers tied mechanical engineers, with a 60 percent decline in turnout, while electrical engineers showed the greatest drop, 65 percent.

The number of mechanical engineers who took the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam during that time was down almost 25 percent, to 5,083 in 1998 from 6,732 in 1993. Although the number for electrical engineers was comparably lower (down 28 percent), and was worse for chemicals (down 44 percent), figures actually increased slightly among civil engineering test takers (about 2 percent). And the downturn may sharpen for all disciplines in the next few years as the low number of FE exam-takers breaches the standard four-year lag time between the FE and PE exam periods.

The downslide in exam- takers has officials scratching their heads at the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, which administers the tests.

"We haven't been able to make sense of it," said John Adams, P.E., who is the director of exam development at NCEES.

In the past, exam numbers usually corresponded to the number of students graduating with engineering degrees. The greater the number of graduates, the greater the number of people taking the FE exam and, four years later, the PE exam.

But numbers from the American Association of Engineering Societies, which tracks the degreed engineers who graduate each year, indicate that the normally straight line connecting graduates with exam-takers is off track. Although the number of students graduating with a B.S. in mechanical engineering is down, the number of graduates taking the FE has shrunk by as much as triple that rate.

This reduction in exam-takers seems to point to a larger question that American engineers are asking: Just how valuable is a PE. designation?

In times of a strong economy, which the United States is currently experiencing and has been enjoying for at least the past five years, the answer, judging by the turnout for the exam, is "not very."

Although slight variations may exist from one state to another, the economy has a direct effect on the balancing act between job stability and licensing. "Licensing invariably goes down when the economy goes up," Speed explained. "Whenever there are plenty of jobs, engineers say, 'Who needs a license?' "

In the late 1980s and the early '90s, en" the economy stunk in Texas but licensing was up;' Speed said. Although the Texas economy is doing well now, he said, the numbers of exam-takers remains high because of the credibility that the PE. designation carries ill Mexico. "We're unusual because we have a little more of an international community," he said. That community expanded soon after the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in December 1993.

"Licensure is the biggest portability problem in the nation today. And it's not just portability of a license. It's portability of a career," -John R. Speed, P.E.

Grahic Jump Location"Licensure is the biggest portability problem in the nation today. And it's not just portability of a license. It's portability of a career," -John R. Speed, P.E.

A license seems to carry weight with prospective contractors in Mexico and Canada. "We have heard stories from companies that the PE. translates well," Speed said. "It means a whole lot more than some little Twinkie certification from a company."

The state of any economy is precarious at best. And the letters "PE." have been proven to carry con1l11ercial value when the job market gets tight, as unlicensed engineers in New York were a bit late to discover in the early 1990s, when they were caught in the national downsizing trend among large companies.

Numerous engineers in the state who were laid off by employers had the chance to be hired back on a part-time basis or as consultants. But working in either capacity required a license. Many engineers who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity called Thomas W. King, PE., who is the executive secretary for the New York State. Board for Engineering and Land Surveying, to ask whether their engineering experience would enable them to bypass the exams and go directly to licensure.

The answer was no.

And in plotting the recovery of their careers, those engineers discovered that they had made some other pretty serious- and common-miscalculations, King said. The more experience they had, the more time they needed to invest in studying the technical material on which they would be tested, because they had been out of school for so long. And the greater the passage of time since college graduation, the greater their chances of failing the exam.

That's because time dulls the sharpness of test-taking skills. While the FE tests basic engineering concepts and mathematics, the PE tests an engineer's ability to assimilate math and the physical sciences and apply that assimilation to a problem. While experienced engineers have the knowledge to pass the exam, they likely don't have the ability to explain the solution in the time allotted to finish either exam, particularly the PE.

In 1994, at about the time King started receiving calls from engineers, 63 percent of mechanical engineers who took the PE exam failed. In 1995, the failure rate was close to 65 percent. Although the failure rate improved by 1998, more than half of those engineers who took the exam that year-57 percent-failed.

Had she taken the exam last year, Hoist predicted that she would be among those failing. She doubts that her seven years of steady employment at the Jet Propulsion Lab would be sufficient to bridge the gap between the present and her graduation date. "At this point, I'm sure [passing the exam] would be a bit of studying," Hoist said. "And cracking a textbook might kill me."

While waivers for the FE are granted occasionally by states, waivers for the PE exam are rarely granted, King said. Responses to a 1998 survey of the state licensing offices, the most recent one done by NCEES, showed that only 13 of the 55 U.S. jurisdictions that issue licenses have a provision for long-established practice. And of those 13, only three-Louisiana, North Carolina, and Ohio-require fewer than 10 years of experience to grant the waiver.

Along with the state of the economy, several other factors have been known to influence the number of engineers taking the FE and PE exams.

The higher-than-usual exam numbers in Texas can be traced to another source besides cross-border credibility, Speed said. Speed's office has a program that encourages engineering school deans to make a strong case for timely licensure to their students. "We have a pretty good, active working relationship with the deans of universities," which he said is a key to Texas' higher-than-average FE exam numbers.

There was a lot of legalese ... If you want me to take the exam, use language I can understand, instead of Greek.

NCEES doesn't track exam rates between states. Although verifying Speed's claim was difficult, Hoist illustrates his point. In remembering her days at UCLA, she was able to recall only one professor-of civil engineering- extolling the benefits of a license.

The high number of industry exemptions also contributes to the decline of licensed engineers. Although those exemptions are considerable for most engineering disciplines, in Texas and New York, for example, the number of exemptions is highest among electrical and mechanical engineers.

Speed said that, although outreach to industry would likely yield the same positive result as the outreach to academia, extending that outreach would be far more daunting because few companies see an immediate economic benefit. Having licensed engineers on staff would minimize the potential to experience the kinds of ethical problems that can create costly liability problems for companies, and "scares the dickens out of most CEOs," Speed said. However, "industry tends to want to minimize all regulatory requirement."

The benefits of reducing, if not eliminating, industry exemptions in favor of increased licensure would have to be slowly spoon-fed to industry in what Speed calls "the castor oil treatment."

Two states have started to take steps down that path, Adams said. Louisiana has worked on limiting industry exemptions. Missouri has talked about it.

King, however, doubts that any mention to industry of increasing licensing among engineers would leave room for even the castor oil treatment. As soon as any hint of eliminating industry exemptions appeared at the state level, he said, industry lobbyists would overwhelm state legislators.

Even if lobbyists were unsuccessful, some additional education would have to be done at the individual engineer level. At the Jet Propulsion Lab, Hoist said that projects are put through so much internal review- conceptual design review, critical design review, and risk review-that the need for oversight by licensed engineers appears unnecessary.

But, as Hoist also indicates, a small window of opportunity may exist within industry that would allow P.E. supporters to shed some light on the benefits to industry of employing more licensed engineers.

While most companies include money to support the professional growth of their employees in their annual budgets, licensing appears to be held in a separate, unrelated category.

"JPL doesn't push getting licensed," Hoist said. "They push getting higher degrees."

Adams, King, and Speed think that the emergence of ABET 2000, a revised list of requirements that colleges and universities must meet before their engineering programs can be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, will have a more direct and lasting impact on the number of engineers taking the FE. ABET 2000 calls for institutions of learning to do more student assessment. While the schools will decide what assessment tools to use to measure student performance, the FE is an obvious one.

And NCEES is exploring ways to work with academia to heighten the awareness of using the FE to help institutions of higher learning satisfy the outcomes assessment that is required under the revised ABET 2000, Adams said.

But even if engineering students started taking the FE in droves and industry saw some benefit in employing licensed engineers, the decline of PE's wouldn't necessarily reverse course. Jeremy Adams graduated in 1994 and passed the Engineer in Training exam, as the FE was previously known. Intending to take the PE in 1998, he sent for a package that NCEES sends out to help engineers prepare for the exam.

Adams, an ASME member who understands the benefits offered by a PE., was so disheartened by the voluminous information that accompanied the material NCEES sent, he has yet to take the exam.

"I looked at some of the rules and guidelines, but I didn't understand the process," said Adams, who works for Nortel Networks, in Richardson, Texas. "There was a lot of legalese and old English verbiage. A lot of 'whereas this,' and 'whereas that.' If you want me to take the exam, use language I can understand, instead of Greek."

To help solve that problem for himself and other similarly confused engineers, Adams is working with Hoist, who is also an ASME member, to organize a career enhancement program for younger engineers that will be held in Dallas and Los Angeles in early June and October. For that program Adams said he intends to invite representatives of NCEES to explain the process.

Copyright © 1999 by ASME
Topics: Engineers , Licensing
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