Is it Time for a Professional Practice Examination Module?

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.

The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Examination and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Examinations have historically been used as a means to confirm an applicant’s engineering capability at the level of minimum competence required to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. Coupled with the education and experience requirements, these examinations play a significant role in the licensure process in the US, as many applicants are not able to pass one or the other. The current exams contain almost exclusively technical content, and do not address the full breadth of the body of knowledge required of engineers to adequately protect the public health, safety, and welfare. The current exams address technical engineering skills. A professional practice exam module would address additional areas of knowledge beyond technical skills, including topics such as legal aspects of engineering, contract documents, practice and project management, laws and regulations, public policy and sustainability.

We have an outstanding opportunity in the next several years to consider revamping the engineering examination process. The FE exam has converted to computer-based testing (CBT) as of this year, and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) intends to convert most or all of the PE exams to CBT in the coming years. Applicants for licensure in the future will be able to reserve a seat at a testing center on any requested and available weekday throughout the year. Converting the PE exams to CBT will open up the exam structure for reform, and a number of options might be considered.

The licensure exam for architects in the US, called the Architects Registration Exam (ARE), is administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the counterpart of NCEES for architects. Many of the combined architect/ PE licensing boards have significant experience with the ARE.  The exam is administered in seven modules. Six of those modules are technical, and one of the modules addresses professional practice topics, as briefly summarized in Table 1 below. Although these types of professional practice topics are as critical to engineering practice as they are to architectural practice, these important areas of knowledge and skills are not included in the current engineering examinations.

Table 1. US - Architect Registration Exam (ARE)
Examination Topics – Construction Documents and Services Module

(Download PDF)

  1. Codes, Regulations, and Permitting – requirements and procedures
  2. Environmental Issues – hazardous materials, air quality, and sustainable design
  3. Construction Contract Documents – contracts and specifications
  4. Project and Practice Management – cost estimating, scheduling, project delivery methods, procurement processes, and construction administration
  5. Contract and Legal Issues – risk management and liability, negotiation and conflict resolution, professional and ethical issues.

Architecture isn’t the only profession in the US that includes professional practice topics in its examination process. The examinations for certified public accountants are given in four modules, three of which are primarily technical, having to do with auditing and financial management, and one pertains to regulations and professional responsibilities.

Architects and CPAs in the US need to demonstrate competence in professional practice topics in order to become licensed. Why is that not the case for engineers?

A professional practice examination is also required to become a PEng in Canada. The topics covered in the syllabus for the Canadian Professional Practice exam are as summarized in Table 2.

Table 2. Canadian Professional Practice Examination for Professional Engineers
Summary of Topics Covered

  1. Professionalism – roles and responsibilities
  2. Ethics – codes, ethical decision-making
  3. Professional Practice – risk management, insurance, quality management, sustainability
  4. Communication – requisite skills, legal and practical aspects
  5. Law for Professional Practice – contracts, tort and environmental law, intellectual property
  6. Professional Law – engineering statutes and rules, codes of ethics
  7. Practice Regulation and Discipline Processes – discipline for unethical or incompetent practice

Competence in these professional practice topic areas is critical in practice as a professional engineer—I would contend that they might be as important in practice as technical competence. The conversion of our engineering examinations to CBT presents a marvelous opportunity to seamlessly incorporate professional practice topics in the licensure process, perhaps as an exam module. The topics listed in both Table 1 and Table 2 are consistent with many of the professional practice outcomes presented in the body of knowledge prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and in the Engineering Body of Knowledge (PDF) applicable to all engineering disciplines recently released by the National Society of Professional Engineers. Architects do it. CPAs do it. The Canadians do it for professional engineers. Perhaps demonstrating competence in these areas is as important for US engineers?

Is this an idea whose time has come? If these and similar topics are important to the competent practice of engineering, the time is now to consider how to incorporate professional practice topics in the exam process as we convert to computer based testing.

Follow new postings of these blog articles on Twitter: @CMusselman1.

Review and input for this article was provided by L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; Bernard R. Berson, P.E., P.L.S., F.NSPE; Monte L. Phillips, Ph.D., P.E., F.NSPE; and Jon D. Nelson, P.E., Dist.M.ASCE.

Published February 10, 2014 by Craig N. Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE

Filed under: licensure exams, PE Exam, FE Exam, Licensing, PE license; NCEES,


I'd like to see almost all engineers be licensed. That's my impression of doctors, lawyers, accountants, even teachers. I think it would advance the profession: skills, public perception, prestige, respect. But I also have the impression that most engineers work in industry, not in private practice. In private practice the connection to public health, safety, and welfare is very close and handled through the practice and the individual. In industry the connection to public health, safety, and welfare can be pretty remote. I worked for over two decades in defense and energy. The industrial exclusion meant I did not have to be licensed. The companies did not reward licensing, although a small percentage of engineers got licensed. Now I work in construction and am licensed. I'd like to know the percentage of engineers in each discipline who are licensed and/or subject to the industrial exclusion, and I'd like to participate in a discussion about the merits of the industrial exclusion. I understand that industry has a vested interest in the status quo and the money to defend it. My fear is that adding professional practice to the exam will reduce the number of engineers in industry who pursue licensing, which in turn will reduce the engineering profession overall, not advance it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 10:03 AM by James Patrick PE

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