What Engineers Need to Know and When They Need to Know It

January/February 2014

What Engineers Need to Know and
When They Need to Know It

By President Robert Green, P.E., F.NSPE

By President Robert Green, P.E., F.NSPEOver the last few months, NSPE has been active on two important and related issues: the requirements to practice as a licensed professional engineer and the process of obtaining that license.

The Licensure and Qualifications to Practice Committee has developed the Engineering Body of Knowledge, which is a compilation of topics that an engineer needs to know to effectively practice as a PE. Several engineering organizations have developed bodies of knowledge specific to their disciplines, but this is the first that addresses those issues related to professional practice.

We all know how important mathematics and science are to the practice of engineering, but the EBOK also addresses other areas, such as public policy, risk and reliability, the societal impact of engineering, leadership, ethics, and communications, to name just a few. Some of these topics are also mentioned in the discipline-specific bodies of knowledge, and their inclusion here merely reinforces their importance.

Publishing the EBOK will allow NSPE to work even more closely with engineering colleges and ABET in ensuring some of this content is included in college-level work. It will also help give prospective engineering students a source to consult when they are considering engineering as a possible major. Right now, we typically tell students that engineering is a major for them only if they are good at math and science; and this message often unintentionally limits the thinking of many students who might consider engineering if they knew there were areas other than math and science in which they could work.

The EBOK could also be useful to employers, particularly nontechnical managers, by outlining the skills they should expect of their engineering employees. The next time they are thinking about a promotion to a managerial position, they might consider an engineer employee if they understand engineers have skills beyond math and science.

Perhaps the greatest use of the EBOK will be by fellow engineers involved in mentoring. This document lists the skills we should help develop in our mentees to make them productive and effective members of the profession. Many of the topics listed in the EBOK are not and likely will not be most effectively taught in college, but rather will be developed through real-world practice. Colleges can teach communication basics, but we become more effective communicators through practice and mentoring. Humanities and social sciences taken in college form the foundation for understanding the impact and role of engineering in society, but it is by attending regulatory and oversight committee meetings that we can learn of the true impact on a personal level.

Being an effective mentor is important today, but it will be even more critical in the future as a result of NSPE-supported changes to the Model Law published by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. After much review, discussion, and analysis, NCEES has determined that it is best to allow licensure candidates to take the PE exam immediately after passing the FE exam. NCEES has recommended that states begin the process of making this change in state laws. The requirements to obtain a PE license will remain the same but, instead of first gaining four years of experience and then taking the PE exam, NCEES has recommended that engineers be allowed to take the PE exam prior to obtaining the four years of experience.

Making this change was not done without data. Several states have been allowing engineers to take the PE exam early, and an analysis of the data shows that those who take the exam closer to when they graduate from college have a higher pass rate than those who wait four years or longer to take the exam. This recommendation also recognizes that the licensing process is more than simply passing exams—mentoring and recommendations are also important. This will place an even greater importance on what happens during those four years between graduation and licensure. We, the profession, will be expected to provide effective mentoring to ensure future PEs understand and learn what is required to work as a professional. When we write letters to the state boards recommending licensure for an individual, we will know that our letters play an even greater role than they have in the past.

And this is where the two issues connect. While mentoring a young engineer or preparing a letter of recommendation, we now have the Engineering Body of Knowledge to use a benchmark. We can consult the EBOK and make sure we have helped our mentees learn the material they need to know to be successful.

The first edition of the Engineering Body of Knowledge is available online at www.nspe.org/ebok. This is a first edition and the expectation is that NSPE will release a second edition in the not-too-distant future. Input is still welcome on this publication (e-mail comments to aschwartz@nspe.org), and all input will be considered for the second edition. Download your copy now, read it, and most importantly, use it as you mentor and hire engineers.