Licensure of Structural Engineers: Current Status

This is the first in what will likely be a series of pieces addressing issues related to the licensure of structural engineers in the U.S. This article addresses how we currently license structural engineers and what initiatives are underway by various engineering organizations to maintain or change current licensure practices. Future articles will address the questions posed herein and alternatives that might be considered. This is a controversial topic within the engineering profession at the moment. This article, and those in the future, are not intended to be controversial but rather, perhaps, thought-and-reaction provoking. Getting these issues “on the table” for discussion may be worthwhile.

Most licensure jurisdictions in the U.S. license engineers as professional engineers, and require all professional engineers to practice within their areas of competence.

The practice of licensing structural engineers separately in some jurisdictions began long ago. In 1907, Illinois began licensing structural engineers before they started licensing professional engineers. The regulatory tradition in Illinois is therefore different from most states in that a separate license as a structural engineer is required in order to design any structure (one Illinois structural engineer has been heard to say, in jest, “even a doghouse”). PEs in Illinois can practice engineering within their areas of competence, except that they cannot practice structural engineering without an SE license (although it appears that licensed architects can, a relic from long ago).

California began the discipline-specific licensing of engineers in 1925, it appears at least partly due to the legislative language chosen when they started to license “civil engineers” instead of “professional engineers” from the get-go. This led to differentiation of licensure requirements for different engineering disciplines as other disciplines were added in later years. Years later, structural engineering was added in California as a post-PE (civil) credential required to design public schools or hospitals.

The jurisdictions that currently require a separate license for the practice of structural engineering have different thresholds of structure sizes and types, above which the SE license is required. Those thresholds are summarized in the table below, prepared by NSPE General Counsel Arthur Schwartz. Illinois and Hawaii are the two states that require a separate SE license for the design of all structures. The thresholds in the other five jurisdictions that delineate practice rights for structural engineers differ. The design of structures below the designated thresholds in each of these states can be under the responsible charge of either a PE or an SE. Above the threshold, an SE license is required. The states vary as to whether or not bridges are included.

There are several additional states that provide a separate title for structural engineers but do not place any practice limitations on PEs as to what structures they can or cannot design. These are so-called “title act” states, as opposed to “practice act” states. The title act states include Arizona, Idaho, and Nebraska. Because there are no state practice right limitations, those states are not listed in the table below.

State By State Summary of Structural Engineering Threshold Requirements for States which have Separate Licensure for Structural Engineers
Prepared August 2012
State Requirements
IL SE required for all structures
HI SE required for all structures. Hawaii statutes require the seal of a licensed SE on construction documents in order to obtain a building permit
CA SE required for public schools and hospitals
NV
SE required for structures requiring special expertise, such as radio towers and signs over 100 feet, and buildings more than three stories or 45 feet in height.
OR SE required for certain buildings and structures (Oregon statutes require the S.E. license for hazardous facilities, special occupancy structures, essential facilities over 4,000 square feet in ground area or 20 feet in height, structures with irregular features, and buildings over four stories or 45 feet in height)
UT
SE required for complex structures.
WA SE required for “significant structures (tall buildings, long bridges, hazardous facilities, essential facilities, hospitals and air traffic control towers (e.g., Washington statutes require the S.E. license for hazardous facilities, essential facilities over 5,000 square feet in ground area and 20 feet in height, structures exceeding 100 feet in height, buildings of five or more stories, bridges with a total span of more than 200 feet, piers with a surface area greater than 10,000 square feet, and structures where more than 300 people congregate in one area)

There are a number of states that license engineers only as professional engineers but which have statutory provisions and rules that have formal procedures for designating a licensed engineer’s discipline after board review of their qualifications. These states also specify limitations on engineering practice rights based on that discipline designation. These “hybrid” states include Rhode Island and Alaska. There may be others.

The U.S. structural engineering organizations would like all states to adopt separate licensure requirements, and separate licensure, for structural engineers. Four organizations, ASCE’s Structural Engineering Institute (SEI), ACEC’s Council of American Structural Engineers (CASE), the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations (NCSEA), and NCSEA’s Structural Engineering Certification Board (SECB), have joined together to form a new coalition called the Structural Engineering Licensure Coalition (SELC).The coalition has drafted a position statement which was distributed to PE Board representatives at the NCEES annual meeting in August. This draft indicates the threshold to be “significant structures,” a broad term. It is significant to note (no pun intended) that representatives of the structural engineering organizations have indicated recently that the appropriate defined threshold in their view would encompass roughly 15% of structures, with 85% of structures to be designed by either PEs or SEs.

The long-standing current NSPE policy on licensure of engineers in this regard is as follows:
“Following licensure as a professional engineer, individuals may voluntarily have their expertise in a specified field of engineering recognized through an appropriate specialty certification program. Such certification must not imply that other licensed professional engineers are less qualified for practice in a particular field of specialty. Professional engineering licensure is the only qualification for engineering practice. NSPE and its state societies will actively oppose attempts to enact any local, state or federal legislation or rule that would mandate certification in lieu of or beyond licensure as a legal requirement for the performance of engineering services.”

Most PE boards that have historically licensed engineers only as professional engineers have not to date been receptive to the idea of licensing engineers of various disciplines separately. NCSEA has pursued the idea of changing state legislation to allow separate licensure of structural engineers in about 10 states in recent years, without any takers to date. In some states, the recent discussions have been brief and polite, and in other states, structural engineers and NSPE state societies are battling within the legislature, a sure prescription for legislative failure.

So, we have competing perceptions and objectives within the engineering profession without resolution on the horizon.

This year, the NSPE Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee has begun to grapple with the following questions. We are seeking help from structural engineers in formulating answers, particularly to the first two questions.

  1. What is the public health, safety, and welfare rationale for requiring advanced qualifications for the design of structures above stipulated thresholds?
  2. If there is a compelling rationale, what is the appropriate threshold above which such advanced qualifications are necessary and advisable for the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare?
  3. Are there ways in “generic” licensure states to accomplish these objectives, if appropriate, other than through the issuance of a separate license? (the answer to this question is yes – concepts can be developed)
  4. Are other engineering disciplines likely to develop the need for advanced qualifications levels in the future, or is structural engineering unique among engineering disciplines in this regard? Is it likely that desired engineering qualifications requirements may differ among disciplines in the future?
  5. If applicable, what education, experience, and examination levels are appropriate for such advanced qualifications for structural engineers?
  6. Is there any interest among structural engineers, NSPE, and PE boards in generic licensure states in cooperating in some fashion, or is it better to let legislatures hear out the competing views and for them to decide?

These are reasonable questions. The answers are harder.

Feel free to comment in the space provided below. All manner of comments on the issue are invited.

Review and input provided by L. Robert “Larry” Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; L.G. “Skip” Lewis, P.E., F.NSPE; Bernard R. Berson, P.E., P.L.S., F.NSPE; Jon D. Nelson, P.E., and Arthur Schwartz, JD, CAE.

Read asubsequent articlesuggesting a workable solution for the licensure of structural engineers.

Published September 12, 2012 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE

Filed under: Licensing, Structural Engineering,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Comments

This is a generally accurate and well-balanced article. One correction to the table is that Utah adopted more specific thresholds a few years ago, similar to the ones in Oregon and Washington.  I also find this statement to be somewhat misleading: "NCSEA has pursued the idea of changing state legislation to allow separate licensure of structural engineers in about 10 states in recent years, without any takers to date." Actually, the efforts to change state legislation are being spearheaded by state-level Member Organizations, and only assisted by NCSEA upon request. I am not sure which 10 states are in mind here, but Washington and Utah both recently changed their relevant legislation from a title restriction to a practice restriction.

Here are a few suggested starting points for answering the six specific questions posed above.

1. Components of the rationale for structural licensure include the discipline-specific nature of all engineering education, experience, and examination, in conjunction with the natural tendency of humans to overestimate their own capabilities; the increasing volume and complexity of structural codes and standards, which is reflected in the move by NCEES to a 16-hour structural exam nationwide, rather than the 8-hour exam that is used for all other disciplines; and the especially severe potential consequences of structural failures.

2. Structural licensure is advisable for the design of all structures, but each state licensing board is best equipped to establish appropriate thresholds for its jurisdiction based on local considerations.

3. Roster designation has been suggested in the past, but it does not accomplish the objectives of structural licensure, since it is even weaker than a title restriction. Discipline-specific licensure across the board is one alternative to structural licensure (only) that would do so.

4. This is a question that practitioners in other engineering disciplines must answer for themselves. Currently no other discipline already has distinct licensure in multiple jurisdictions, and no other discipline has a 16-hour NCEES exam.

5. A master's degree has been the effective entry-level degree for structural engineers for many years now, although it is not a strict requirement. No one is pushing to extend the minimum amount of experience beyond four years, although some states where the SE license is a post-PE credential mandate additional structural experience after PE licensure. NCEES has already determined that a 16-hour exam is necessary to gauge competence in structural engineering.

6. I am certain that SELC and its constituent organizations would welcome cooperation with any and all stakeholders, including NSPE.

Friday, September 28, 2012 11:55 AM by Jon A. Schmidt, PE, SECB

I just want to make sure I'm understanding this correctly. According to this article, in California I can seal and design water infrastructure and steel tanks with only a California PE? Even though they are essential facilities (occupancy IV) and potentially taller than 30 feet (provided it is within my area of competancy)? Thanks.

Monday, August 05, 2013 5:22 PM by Joel Anderson, PE

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