A trend among states to allow early taking of the PE exam is accelerating. For many years, California has allowed candidates to take the PE exam in preparation for licensure after only two years of engineering experience. In recent years, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico have allowed candidates to take the PE exam after receiving a BS degree from an EAC-ABET accredited program, and having passed the FE exam. Now, in the past year, Illinois has instituted the same practice, allowing the early taking of the PE exam. In these states, the licensure candidate still needs to accumulate the requisite years of experience prior to being licensed.
What is the benefit? There are several. Allowing early taking of the PE exam provides a measure of convenience for potential licensees. This is particularly important for engineers in industry whose work experience might be narrowly focused, and who might be more apt to take the exam earlier. This could encourage the licensure of more engineers. For a young engineer who passes the exam early, the likelihood that he or she will become a professional engineer is significantly increased. And that young engineer’s qualifications are strengthened because employers can be confident that he or she will become a professional engineer. The benefit is substantial flexibility and convenience for those who are potentially on a track to become a professional engineer.
What is the effect on pass rates? David James, Ph.D., P.E., of the Nevada Society of Professional Engineers prepared a report for the NSPE Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee detailing the PE exam results in Nevada from 2005 through 2011 for civil and non-civil exam takers. The data spans seven years and 12 administrations of the PE exam. For civil engineers, the pass rate in Nevada for those taking the exam with less than four years of experience is 50%, and for those with 4+ years of experience, it is 46%. For all disciplines other than civil (“non-civil”), the pass rate over all 12 administrations in Nevada is 50% for early takers and 61% for those taking the exam after 4+ years of experience. For non-civil engineering disciplines, the pass rate appears to be somewhat higher for more experienced engineers.
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying has presented data in the past showing pass rates after various numbers of years of experience. In my recollection, that data showed that pass rates are highest after four years, and somewhat, but not substantially, lower with fewer years of experience and lower still for those who wait many years to attempt the exam.
The exam content in each discipline is different. In civil and environmental engineering, much of the exam content is similar to problem sets that are included in academic curricula. It should be noted that the examination is in principles and practice. The principles portion is based on the academic background. There has been some discussion in the engineering community as to whether civil engineering is more rooted in its academic background for the first four years post graduation. In some other disciplines—control systems is a good example—much of the content is information learned in practice, not in school. This variation has to do with the nature of the engineering disciplines, and not with the exam preparation.
What is the downside? There are a number of issues that have been discussed within the engineering profession over the years. Each issue, with its associated counter, is discussed below.
- Comity: There are a number of states with statutes that require that the PE exam be taken after the requisite years of engineering experience have been attained—even 20 or 30 years after the fact. This has historically been a problem for engineers first licensed in California under the early-taking provision. This needs to get solved in all states, regardless of whether or not the early taking trend spreads, particularly now that Illinois, a state with a population of nearly 13 million in the middle of the country, is allowing early taking of the PE exam. Someone who can pass the PE exam after two years of experience can reasonably be assumed to be capable of passing the PE exam after four years of experience. From a qualifications standpoint, this is a non-issue, in my opinion.
- Experience Required for Licensure: Some engineers voice the concern that if the PE exam is allowed to be taken early, there will be a push to license engineers with fewer years of engineering experience than is currently required. This has not been the case to date, and need not be the case.
- Studying for the Exam after Four Years is Good: Some engineers contend that studying for the PE exam after four years of experience helps to tie together academic training and engineering experience. By that same argument, one could contend that perhaps we should require engineers to take the PE exam every four years throughout their careers, an idea which almost no one would advocate.
- Practice Exam: In some engineering disciplines, engineering experience is more critical to passing the PE exam than in others. However, the early taking of the exam is voluntary. If a control systems engineer wants to wait for three or four years to take the exam, he or she may do so.
In my view, there is upside to the spread of the early-taking trend to more jurisdictions as it may provide less of an obstacle to licensure for some engineers. The downside primarily pertains to comity, which needs to be resolved whether or not additional jurisdictions allow early taking of the PE exam.
Editorial input provided by Bernard Berson, P.E., F.NSPE; L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE, and Jeff Greenfield, Ph.D., P.E.
Published August 1, 2011 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE