Team Players

Jan/Feb 2010

Team Players

NSPE has a 50-year history of working closely with technicians and technologists and supporting their valuable roles on the engineering team.


In the early and mid-1950s, the engineering profession and the nation were facing a huge problem. Industry was booming. Technology was improving efficiency in the manufacture of automobiles, airplanes, air conditioners, and plastics. As the nation came to rely more heavily on machines and the power of automation, one thing became clear: There was a growing need for skilled workers who could support the work of engineers. It was the beginning of a whole new career path for engineering technicians.

The problem was so severe that in 1956, President Eisenhower formed a committee of leaders in science, business, education, government, and labor to define the problem and come up with solutions. NSPE was involved in the committee's work and was an early proponent of technicians as part of the engineering team. In 1961, NSPE's support of technicians led to the creation of the Institute for the Certification of Engineering Technicians, which became the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies 20 years later.

Today, the long tradition of teamwork between PEs and technicians and technologists continues. As a wholly owned service of NSPE, NICET certifies 200-300 new engineering technologists and technicians each month, and since its founding, the institute has issued more than 127,900 certifications.

NICET offers certification in 26 technical areas across six major fields: fire protection, construction materials testing, transportation, geotechnical, underground utilities, and security systems.

Certification by NICET demonstrates not only technologists' or technicians' knowledge, but also their commitment to the field and to continued learning, since recertification requires ongoing professional development. NICET board member Wade Abbott, a senior engineering technician and a designer at transportation firm H.W. Lochner, explains that "certification means to me what a PE means to an engineer: it is a mark of professionalism. It states that I am serious in excelling in my chosen profession and career."

Active NICET Certificants

Roles of Technologists and Technicians
Engineering technology combines engineering knowledge with technical skills to support engineering activities. As an NSPE issue brief explains, the engineer generates the design and the engineering technologist or technician implements it.

NICET certification as an engineering technologist requires a bachelor's degree from an ABET-accredited engineering technology program, at least five years of related work experience, and two endorsements by professionals, such as a PE or NICET-certified technologist, who are familiar with the quality of the applicant's work.

After graduation and prior to gaining the necessary experience, technologist-certification candidates can obtain an associate engineering technologist grade, similar to the EI or EIT designations for PE candidates who have not yet earned the experience necessary to become licensed.

Engineering technicians work on the engineering team with technologists and engineers. According to NICET, they are knowledgeable about components, operating characteristics, and limitations of engineering systems and processes in their particular areas, such as highway materials or automatic sprinkler system layout. Certification requires passing a test and providing documentation, including a work history and recommendations.

Engineering technicians are certified at four levels, from trainee (I) to senior level (IV), in their area of specialization. In addition to passing the tests, technicians must obtain work experience to apply for most levels—for example, certification in highway construction at Level II requires two years of experience, at Level III, five years, and at Level IV, 10 years.

According to NICET policy, neither technician nor technologist certification is intended to enable individuals to perform engineering services defined in state laws or regulations as the "the practice of engineering." A 2000 NSPE position statement explains that the Society and NICET recognize that there are "significant differences between the competencies, roles, and responsibilities" of licensed PEs and certified technicians and technologists.

The talents of technicians and technologists, NSPE states, lie in applying practical skills to successful project completion under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer.

The NSPE position statement says that certified engineering technicians and technologists "strive to harmonize their professional activities with those of licensed professional engineers and avoid actions and activities that place them in an adverse relationship with licensed professional engineers or with the interests of the engineering profession."

As James Wathen, P.E., senior engineer for EA Engineering, Science, and Technology Inc. and former chair of the NICET Board of Governors, puts it, "NICET plays a vital role in strengthening the engineering team."

Uses and Benefits of Certification
In certain sectors, such as the government and military, technician certification may be required. For example, many fire marshals require NICET certification for technicians in the fire protection industry.

In Texas, designers of commercial fire alarm systems have been required to pass NICET exams since the early 1980s. An additional NICET exam requirement for fire sprinkler system inspectors took effect at the beginning of 2009, due to the increase in technology and the need for corresponding skills and knowledge for people working on those systems.

As assistant state fire marshal and director of licensing for the state fire marshal's office, Mark Redlitz, P.E., is responsible for making sure Texas systems are designed and installed correctly. However, he doesn't have the manpower to physically inspect every installation, so requiring passage of NICET exams ensures that work is done right, he says.

Bill Aaron, recording secretary on NICET's Board of Governors and senior project manager at fire protection engineering firm Code Consultants Inc., is certified in fire alarm systems. He explains that those who aren't certified have to continually prove their expertise to bosses, clients, and authorities. Certification removes the need for that. "Once I obtained the NICET certification," he explains, "I didn't have to prove I knew how to work on a project." He was able to focus on the project rather than proving himself, a change which he calls "almost invaluable."

Phil Gaughan, chair of the NICET Board of Directors and partner at All State Design Group, points out that NICET certification helps employers understand a technician's level of experience and education. For instance, NICET Level III certification requires five years of experience.

The clear career path of certification also enables an employer to easily set pay scales, Gaughan explains. As an employee moves up the levels, the going rate for a technician at that level can be predetermined.

Many state transportation agencies also require or recommend certifications for technicians. Om Popli, P.E., president and managing principal at multidisciplinary A/E firm Popli Design Group, explains that NICET certification is required for the construction supervision his company performs for the New York State Department of Transportation and the New York State Thruway Authority, as well as many other clients, such as municipalities.

Popli's company also employs NICET-certified inspectors because the staff's experience levels are key to the selection process. While the overall reputation of the firm might be one key factor in being chosen for jobs, he says, the specific personnel the firm employs may earn them certain numbers of points. "A firm might be good," Popli notes, "but if you don't have good people, you stand less of a chance."

The Robert B. Balter Co., a geotechnical and environmental engineering company, also tries to compete on the basis of credentials. "We really strive to get qualified people," says Lloyd Tillman, aviation quality assurance/quality control manager, and NICET certification helps the company achieve that goal.

Tillman says that the certifications the employees hold enable the firm to be accredited at a higher level than virtually all of its competition. "It's been our experience that NICET-certified people are far superior in both technical knowledge and experience to [people certified through other organizations]," says Tillman.

While NICET certification is not required company wide, Tillman mandates it at the Washington Dulles International and Reagan National airports where he works for Balter.

"The difference between NICET-certified people and other certified people is very obvious where I sit," he explains. It's good to be able to pass a test, but there's no substitute for experience, Tillman notes. NICET certification ensures the combination of experience with technical knowledge.

In addition, Tillman ranks NICET's testing far above that of other organizations or agencies. While the institute tests general knowledge in addition to technical knowledge, other certifications are not as comprehensive. NICET-certified employees also have deductive reasoning skills and know how to fill out reports. The technical knowledge, general knowledge, and experience all combine in someone who's NICET certified. "It's really night and day," Tillman says.