One of the least understood areas of the engineering licensure process relates to the question of what constitutes acceptable qualifying engineering experience for the purposes of licensure.
Generally, a candidate for engineering licensure will graduate from a four-year ABET accredited engineering program, take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Examination during his or her senior year, start work in an engineering position immediately after graduation, and begin to accumulate qualifying engineering experience in order to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Examination at the earliest opportunity. The usual requirement is four years of qualifying engineering experience.
It is generally required that all of the candidate's experience be accumulated after graduation. If the candidate has worked while attending school, and if the work fits the criteria for qualifying experience, the candidate may qualify to take the examination less than four years following graduation. However, depending on circumstances, it may be difficult for the candidate to demonstrate that the pre-graduation experience constitutes true engineering experience.
If the candidate is not a graduate of an accredited four-year engineering program, the candidate will usually need more than four years of qualifying experience (often 8-12 years depending on the nature of the candidate's education) in order to be eligible for engineering licensure. Some states will not permit non-graduates to take the FE, no matter how much experience the candidate has. Each state engineering licensure board can provide the information on the number of years of experience, if any, that may be substituted for each year of education.
Many states allow for successful completion of graduate study leading to a master's degree or doctorate degree in engineering to provide for credit toward engineering experience, with one year typically credited for a master's degree and two years total for a doctorate degree including the one year for a master's degree. Some state laws permit the waiving of the FE examination for individuals in academia with doctorates. Candidates are encouraged to check with the state engineering licensure boards for more specific information.
Qualifying Engineering Experience
In order to constitute qualifying experience, the experience must meet a number of criteria. First, the experience should be from a major branch of engineering in which the candidate claims proficiency. Second, the experience must be supervised. That is, it must take place under the ultimate responsibility of one or more qualified engineers. Generally qualified engineers must be licensed professional engineers. However, some jurisdictions will accept experience supervised by a qualified unlicensed engineer in industry situations where there is no offering of engineering services to the public. Third, the experience must be of a high quality, requiring the candidate to develop technical skill and initiative in the application of engineering principles and sound judgment in reviewing such applications by others. The experience must be of a nature that the candidate develops the capacity to assume professional responsibility for engineering work. Fourth, the experience must be broad enough in scope to provide the candidate with a reasonably well-rounded exposure to many facets of professional engineering. Along with highly specialized skill in a particular branch of engineering, the candidate should acquire an acceptable level of competence in his or her basic engineering field, as well as the accessory skills necessary for adequate performance as a professional. Finally, the experience must progress from relatively simple tasks with less responsibility to work of greater complexity involving higher levels of responsibility. As the level of complexity and responsibility increases, the candidate should show evidence of increasing interest in broader engineering questions and continuing effort toward further professional development and advancement.
In assessing whether the candidate is sufficiently competent and responsible to be entrusted with or independently engage in engineering work or to supervise engineering work, state engineering licensure boards look for evidence of independent decisionmaking and assumption of personal accountability in design and application. In short, while the experience must be gained under the supervision of qualified professionals, it must also be professional in character.
Most of the functions that mark the engineer's work as professional revolve around various decisions that must be made in the course of a project. Examples include the comparison of and selection among alternatives for engineering work; the determination of design standards or methods; the selection or development of methods or materials to be used; the selection or development of testing techniques; the evaluation of test results; the evaluation of a contractor's performance, methods, and materials; and the development and control of maintenance and operating procedures. As an example, in mechanical engineering, the following types of experience may be considered "professional experience":
- the design of machines, machinery, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment, power plant equipment, engines, tools and processes, mill or industrial layouts, mechanical systems for commercial and institutional facilities and/or the supervision of the construction of any of these;
- the development of industrial plants and processes and/or consultation or contribution to such development;
- operation, control, and testing of major mechanical installations, manufacturing plants, and power plants;
- the writing of technical reports, manuals, and the like;
- full-time teaching at an accredited college-level engineering school.
In contrast, mechanical engineering experience that is generally considered subprofessional would include the following:
- construction and installation of machinery, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning equipment, and other mechanical structures;
- operation of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment, power plants, stationary machinery, mechanical manufacturing plants, and foundry and machine shops;
- drafting, tracing, detailing, laying out, and checking shop drawings;
- designing tools, jigs, and fixtures;
- recording data and routine computations under supervision and inspection of materials;
- maintenance and repair work; and
- teaching as an assistant without full responsibility in an engineering program.
Some types of experience may be classified as either professional or subprofessional, according to the other types of work they are performed in conjunction with. If performed in conjunction with other professional work, they may qualify as professional experience. If they constitute the whole job, or are performed in conjunction with subprofessional work, they may not qualify. In mechanical engineering, these borderline tasks may include the following:
- calculations of heat transfer, fluid transport, etc.;
- the preparation of flow charts or logic diagrams;
- the design of components and parts and the design of simple systems (e.g., fire protection and noise control);
- reliability analysis;
- installation of control, production, or environmental systems;
- the laying out of plant equipment.
Sales work can be credited as qualifying experience only if it can be conclusively demonstrated that engineering principles, knowledge, and skill were used in the work. Selection of equipment from a catalog or similar activities cannot be counted as engineering experience.
In general, the greater the complexity of the engineering work and the greater the responsibility it entails, the more likely it will be counted as professional experience. It is important for an engineer-intern to seek opportunities to perform more complex work and to undertake greater responsibility, so that within a few years time, the candidate will be operating fully at a professional level.
Documenting Your Experience
In applying to your state board for licensure, you will have to document your experience and show that it meets the required criteria. This documentation consists of two parts— your own statement of what you have done and verification by your supervisor or supervisors of the nature and extent of your experience. Contact information for persons who can verify the experience, such as a supervisor, is required. Most state boards will provide forms for the candidate and the supervisor, if applicable, to use in documenting experience. Specific requirements for descriptions of experience should be confirmed with the appropriate licensing board. Experience descriptions should generally include:
- Title or position
- Level of responsibility
- Concise and specific descriptions of the work performed, the duties performed by the candidate, and the magnitude and complexity of the work
It is not unusual for experience to be disqualified because the experience has not been described in a way that could be evaluated by the board of examiners. Therefore, particularly with regard to describing internship experience, it is important that both you and your supervisor, if required, use the terminology and formulations that will be of greatest assistance to the state board.
Before filling in the portion of the application forms pertaining to experience, write a rough draft of what you want to say. Then review the draft for ambiguities and weak points. If possible, have someone who has experience and familiarity with the licensure process review it also.
The following is a list of five common mistakes candidates for engineering licensure make in attempting to document experience:
- Job titles aren't enough. No matter how impressive a job title may sound, it should be accompanied by a detailed description of your duties and responsibilities in the position. This description must make clear the nature and extent of the engineering experience involved in the job.
- Avoid vague generalities and ambiguous phrases. "I was involved in," "I worked on," "I was engaged in" and other similar phrases are uninformative unless they are followed by a specific description of duties. Instead, use specific terms, such as "I designed," "I reviewed," "I recommended," and similar phrases. "I worked on the design of a cooling system for XYZ Factory" does not tell the engineering board whether you worked as a designer, draftsman, print coordinator, or something else entirely, or whether you did different jobs at different times during the project. Another type of vague phrase is "I was responsible for" or "I had full responsibility for." It is much more useful to specify your duties precisely.
- Avoid vague formulations regarding the amount of time you have spent performing each type of work. If you spent only a part of your time on a particular duty, indicate the percentage of your time that was devoted to that task. If you worked on a particular task on a full-time but intermittent basis, indicate the number of weeks or months that you spent on that activity.
- Try not to hide deficiencies in your experience through the use of vague, general language. It is better to wait until your experience is sufficient to qualify.
- The application form is not a place for modesty. Do not assume that the full range of your duties, or the full extent of your responsibility, will be obvious from the job title or the brief summary. Failure to explain fully can lead to the rejection of your application. Go into detail, making sure that you give yourself credit for all that you have actually done. Be honest. You may be surprised to find that a single job may encompass a number of engineering functions required by many professional judgments. You should point out each of these functions and mention the types of judgments you were required to make, giving examples for major points.
In considering your application, the engineering licensure board must come to a decision as to whether your education and experience qualify you for licensure. This means that the evaluation committee must be able to understand, evaluate, and verify the facts as you present them. A specific, detailed summary of your experience, written in clear, forceful language, will greatly increase your chances of qualifying for the Principles and Practice of Engineering Examination.
Candidates are encouraged to contact their applicable licensure board to obtain specific experience and reporting requirements and to obtain forms for reporting their experience. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) maintains contact information for the various boards.