Licensure of Structural Engineers: A Workable Solution

The following is personal opinion. It is neither NSPE policy nor does it reflect an NSPE position.

Engineers are at odds in a number of states over a proposition advocated by structural engineering organizations to change licensure laws in states that have historically licensed engineers only as professional engineers. Structural engineers have been advocating the establishment of a separate license for structural engineers, and the limitation of the use of the title “structural engineer” to those having such a separate license. The separate license would require passing of the NCEES 16-hour structural engineering examination.. The separate license would be required in order for an engineer to be in responsible charge of engineering activities for buildings above a defined threshold, typically larger and more critical structures encompassing about 15% of buildings. This advocacy is opposed in many states by NSPE state societies contending that engineers should be licensed only as professional engineers and that the other 85% of buildings are also designed by structural engineers who would no longer be able to call themselves structural engineers. In some state legislatures, these conflicting views have resulted in active opposition among engineers.

This is easily resolvable in states that license engineers only as professional engineers.

Instead of establishing a separate and/or additional license for structural engineers and attempting to control the use of the title “structural engineer,” state PE boards could require, with a simple statute change and a modification of rules, that the engineering for all buildings above a defined threshold be under the responsible charge of a professional engineer who has passed the NCEES 16-hour structural engineering exam. In a defined transition period, experienced engineers would be afforded the opportunity to be “grandfathered” by providing the state PE board with their qualifications and structural engineering experience with buildings above the defined threshold. After this transition period, all future structural engineers would need to pass the 16-hour exam to be qualified to design buildings above the threshold. This could be called a “structural endorsement,” a structural “roster designation,” or a “PE board structural certification”; it would simply be a PE who has passed the 16-hour structural exam.

Structural Engineering “Endorsement”
It would work as follows.

a) A structural engineering endorsement to the professional engineering license would be required to perform engineering-related tasks for “threshold buildings” (i.e., buildings that exceed the threshold requirement defined in the PE board rules, about 15% of buildings).
b) The design and engineering of all other structure types (i.e., nonthreshold buildings—the other 85%, all bridges, etc.) would require a professional engineering license as per the existing state statutes, and would NOT require a structural engineering endorsement to the professional engineering license.
c) The structural engineering endorsement to the professional engineering license would require successful completion of the 16-hour NCEES structural engineering examination.
d) The state rules could authorize the use of the words “structural endorsement” on the professional engineer’s stamp.
e) The state PE board’s online roster would clearly indicate those professional engineers who have attained the structural endorsement.

This concept would be applicable only to states that license engineers only as professional engineers. It would not be relevant to states that currently license structural engineers separately.

Threshold Buildings
The states that have established building thresholds have defined widely varying thresholds to date. Example thresholds include buildings of more than four or five stories; of greater than 45, 60, or 100 feet in height; for occupancies of more than 300 or 1,000 people; for hospitals or schools; for parking garages with capacities of more than 1,000 vehicles; or widely varying gross square footage of floor area. To date, these thresholds have been set on a state-by-state basis; there is no consensus yet on an appropriate threshold definition. Bridges are generally not included in the threshold definitions, as the design of significant bridges is generally subject to state DOT and Federal Highway designer procurement processes that provide added assurance of engineering qualifications. As an alternative to specifying many sizes and types of buildings, the threshold could be set at OSHA Building Occupancy Categories III and IV (click here) as referenced in the International Building Code and in ASCE Standard 7-05, Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures. These two categories cover buildings where more than 300 people congregate in one place as well as hospitals; schools; emergency facilities such as fire, rescue, and police; support facilities such as aviation facilities, power plants, water storage and treatment, and wastewater treatment plants; and buildings that house hazardous chemicals. This is a simple threshold definition that is well defined.

If more jurisdictions adopt building thresholds, reaching a consensus on a standardized threshold would be appropriate. There are business interests at stake in the setting of the threshold, with varying interests among engineering firms that design larger buildings, and firms that generally design smaller buildings. These business interests are not relevant to PE boards, which represent only the interest of the public. Perhaps an NCEES task force would be most appropriate to consider and propose a Model Rules provision in this regard.

An Alternative to Separate Engineering Licenses
This is an interesting approach to consider in states that have historically licensed engineers only as professional engineers. What this approach DOES do is:

a) Protect the public: Critical and certain large structures are required to be designed by a professional engineer who has demonstrated advanced capability in structural engineering.
b) PE license: It maintains the PE license as the only license required for the practice of engineering.
c) Broad professional support: It may allow state engineering organizations to form a unified coalition in addressing this issue.

What this approach DOES NOT do is:

a) Create a separate or additional license with its significant added administrative burden and cost for both PE boards and licensees. Structural engineers won’t want to maintain multiple licenses in multiple states.
b) Create the potential for confusion if and as other engineering disciplines and subdisciplines develop similar requirements in the future.
c) Create confusion and opposition by requiring the professional engineers who are structural engineers and who design the OTHER 85% of structures to stop calling themselves structural engineers (in the final analysis, this would undoubtedly be deemed unconstitutional, anyway. See the constitutional issues raised in the court decision referenced here.

This issue is reasonably resolvable in a manner that fully protects the public health, safety, and welfare in states that license engineers only as professional engineers and in a fashion where engineers could begin “rowing in the same direction.” Nothing could be simpler.

Review and input on this article has been provided by L. Robert “Larry” Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; Bernard R. Berson, P.E., L.S., F.NSPE, and L.G. “Skip” Lewis, P.E., F.NSPE.

Read a previous article on the status of licensure of structural engineers.

Published February 21, 2013 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE

Filed under: Licensing, Structural Engineering,

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