Licensure among engineering faculty members has been on the decline in many institutions for decades. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are as follows:
- Blurring of engineering and science. Many faculty members with Ph.D.s in engineering have academic backgrounds in science rather than engineering. The need for interdisciplinary backgrounds will likely increase in the future.
- Differences in engineering disciplines. A higher percentage of civil engineering faculty are typically licensed engineers in comparison to certain other disciplines, such as mechanical and electrical engineering. This is due to the fact that most civil engineers are licensed, and most mechanical and electrical engineers are not. Additionally, licensure is mentioned as an ABET program criterion for civil engineering, but it is not a program criterion for many other engineering disciplines.
- More than half of the engineering Ph.D. degrees in the U.S. annually are now awarded to foreign born graduates, many of whom attended universities in their home country for their undergraduate education, and thus were not likely exposed to engineering licensure or the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination.
- Lack of Incentive. Academic success, compensation, and tenure are dependent predominantly upon research and research revenue in most engineering programs. Success, compensation, and tenure aren’t predicated on licensure, typically.
- Many states do not include the teaching of upper level undergraduate engineering courses with design components as being within the legal definition of the practice of engineering.
What can be done to reverse this trend? That is a good question, without easy answers.
The benefits of having faculty licensed are many. Licensed faculty members are a good model for engineering students, and are more likely to encourage students to become licensed. They are also more likely to impart the professional and ethical obligations of the licensed practice of engineering.
Several years ago, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) formed a Faculty Licensure Task Force to consider changes in theModel Lawto encourage faculty licensure. After much work, this task force developed an alternative pathway to licensure for those with an earned Ph.D. in engineering, who have acceptable engineering experience, and have passed a professional practice examination, similar to the Canadian exam. This flexibility would have applied to faculty as well as to practitioners who have a Ph.D. in engineering. This potential Model Law change “went over like a lead balloon.” It was a fine idea in the opinion of some, but it was not close. PE boards in general are not willing to cast any pathways into the Model Law that do not include passing of the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam.
So, what can be done to encourage faculty licensure?
Some states define the teaching of upper level undergraduate engineering courses with design components as being within the practice of engineering, thus requiring a PE license. In those states, the enforcement of such requirements is not always, shall we say, thorough. Some professional engineers contend that this Model Law provision ought to be encouraged in all states, and that states with such provisions might consider a phase-in of such requirements over time, if full compliance is not part of university practices to date.
Some professional engineers are beginning to think about the concept of requiring engineering licensure for principal investigators in responsible charge of engineering research that has impact on public health, safety, and welfare. This would certainly provide incentive. Some things, however, are easier said than done.
Perhaps there are other approaches. If you have comments concerning current constraints to faculty licensure, or if you have in mind a potential solution to encourage more faculty to be licensed, make a comment in the box below.
Editorial input for this piece was provided by Bernard R. Berson, P.E. and L. Robert Smith, P.E.
Published May 10, 2011 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE