Statement on the Gulf Oil Spill and Licensed Professional Engineers

Statement on the Gulf Oil Spill and Licensed
Professional Engineers

By NSPE Executive Director Larry Jacobson

As we watch the Gulf Coast oil rig disaster unfold and the search for causes continues, it's critical to reflect on how to avoid a repeat, not only in the oil industry, but in any industry that can cause serious harm to people, their livelihoods, and the environment.

One of the most sensible and least expensive means is to simply require engineering plans to be signed and sealed by a licensed professional engineer whenever a project involves safeguarding life, health, or property. This is particularly reasonable in industrial settings, where all employees, engineers included, have a duty of loyalty to the employer.

Professional engineers are gover nment licensed to protect the public and must reach a minimum threshold of competence to receive that license. Th e license serves to maintain an acceptable standard of competence for the good of the public—the ultimate beneficiaries of that competence. Nobody would think of hiring a physician or an attorney who wasn't licensed. Their work is so critical to the lives of their patients and clients that the only way a doctor or lawyer can practice is to be licensed by the state.

But engineering is a different story. Most people don't know that only about 10% of this nation's four million engineers are licensed. Only about 10% have demonstrated through education, experience, and examination that they have met the minimum competency requirements put in place by law to safeguard the public. Only about 10% have taken an oath to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Only about 10% have an affirmative ethical duty to place their professional practice ahead of profit.

Is it any wonder that most industries don't hire many licensed professional engineers?

Employees all have a duty of loyalty to their employer. The employer, in turn, has a duty to its owner, and a big part of that duty is to produce a profitable return on the owners' investment of capital. When the owners are shareholders, their motive is return on investment, and it is that return that establishes the value of the shares. The result: Managers of publicly traded companies tend to put profit first to ensure their share prices are supported and their shareholders are happy. All employees are expected to further the goals of the company, and profit is high on that list.

Now consider the engineer's position. Almost all industrial processes and construction begin with the engineer who does the design. The engineer is under enormous pressure to help create profit for management, and those severe pressures influence choices—choices between the safest and most prudent design and the design that sacrifices safety in the name of cost. Lower cost usually means higher short-term profit for the company.

At bare minimum, all engineers who provide any engineering service or creative work that involves safeguarding life, health, or property must be licensed professional engineers. That's the only way the government and the public can have any assurance that industry is doing even the minimum to put the public ahead of profit. To do otherwise is patently and recklessly irresponsible behavior.