Celebrating Professional Licensure in Engineering

You might not realize it, but each time you use public infrastructure, such as when you drive your car down the road, go over a bridge, stop at a traffic light or park in a parking garage, you have confidence they were designed and constructed safely because a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) or Professional Surveyor (PS) had a role in the placement, design process and construction of all the elements involved. Professional licensure protects public health, safety and welfare through standards that restrict practice to qualified individuals who have met specific requirements in education, knowledge and experience.

Earlier this month, we celebrated the fifth annual Professional Engineers Day sponsored by one of our own member societies, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). PE Day is an opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate licensed Professional Engineers while raising awareness about the impact PEs have on improving our everyday lives.

Licensing of professional engineers in the U.S. began in 1907, when the state engineer of Wyoming, Clarence Johnston, presented a bill to the state legislature requiring registration for those who wish to represent themselves to the public as an engineer or land surveyor. The bill was later enacted, making Wyoming the first state in the U.S. to register engineers and land surveyors. PE Day coincides with the awarding of the first professional engineering license to Charles Bellamy in August 1907.

Why did Johnston present the bill in the first place? Every day, numerous engineering decisions are made that affect our lives, and he reasoned the public must be confident in the engineering profession — one practiced by qualified and ethically accountable professionals. California later followed Wyoming’s lead after the 1928 St. Francis Dam Collapse, which killed at least 431 people. It is considered one of the worst man-made disasters of the 20th century and resulted in the state instituting licensure the next year.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash.

One of the unique aspects of professional licensing in the U.S. is that it’s not universally required in all disciplines. As an electrical engineer, I didn’t need to add the “PE” after my name to practice, and in fact, the majority of electrical engineers in the U.S. are not PEs. I earned my B.S., M.S.E. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and then while serving as a member of the faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy, decided that attaining licensure was the next obvious step in my career as a professional. Not because I needed it, but because it demonstrates my commitment to the profession of engineering.

Achieving the status of Professional Engineer requires the attainment of technical knowledge while also adhering to the highest ethical and professional standards. Becoming licensed as a professional engineer or surveyor is not easy. After graduating from an ABET-accredited program, candidates must pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam to become classified as an “Engineer-In-Training.” While each state licensing board is different, most require several years of qualifying engineering experience before becoming eligible to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering examination, and upon successful completion, becoming a Licensed PE.

Although California didn’t institute engineering licensure until after the dam collapse, it was the first state to pass legislation requiring land surveyor licensure in 1891. As more states enacted legislation regulating engineering and surveying credentials, U.S. licensing boards began to see a need for a national council to help improve uniformity of laws, advance licensure and facilitate mobility among jurisdictions. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) was created for these reasons. Along with NSPE, NCEES and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) are both ABET member societies.

California recently became the first state to recognize graduation from an ABET-accredited program as one of two pathways toward eligibility for Professional Geologist (PG) and Geologist in Training (GIT) licensure. The educational quality assurance ABET accreditation provides is valued across industry with graduation from an ABET-accredited program increasingly becoming a required minimum credential for professional recognition. While ABET does not provide licensure, registration or certification services, throughout our history, we have contributed significantly to the education of students who later seek official recognition of their qualifications to serve the public.

As I reflect on PE Day and the many dedicated professional engineers who came before me, I have more hope than ever for the continued health, safety and well-being of our planet.

To learn more about ABET’s role in licensure, registration and certification, click here.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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