A Matter of Timing

December 2013

A Matter of Timing

Across the profession, opinions are changing about the need to gain four years of experience before taking the PE exam.


A Matter of Timing PE Magazine CoverFor years, one of the cornerstone beliefs about PE licensing has been that candidates must gain four years of work experience between passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam and taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam.

Some exceptions do exist. California allows graduates of accredited engineering programs to take the PE exam after gaining two years of experience. And in 2005, Nevada became the first state to allow graduates to take the PE anytime after passing the FE. The four-year experience requirement remains, but it can be fulfilled after a candidate takes the second exam. Yet, the state faced skepticism—even derision—in making the change, according to PEs involved with the effort.

However, in recent years the attitude toward the early taking of the PE exam has shifted. So much so that in August, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) voted to amend its Model Law, the set of best practices recommended to states, to remove the requirement that the traditional four years of experience be earned prior to the exam. NSPE had advocated for the change; in July the Society’s board of directors approved a position statement supporting flexibility. But similar steps at both organizations had previously been rejected. So, what changed?

A Bold Move
Eight years ago, Nevada took its groundbreaking step in an attempt to boost the number of engineering graduates who become licensed. Explains Patty Mamola, P.E., a member of the Nevada State Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors and 2013–14 NCEES president, the thinking was that the sooner candidates took the PE before getting settled in careers that may not require it, the more likely they would be to pursue the license.

Nevada faced criticism for the decision, however. One who said he was “adamantly opposed” was Gene Dinkins, P.E., NCEES immediate past president. “I probably thought [the four-year requirement] was the way it should be done because that was the way I had to do it,” he admits. But after doing some research, he could find no valid reason why a qualified person should not be able to take the exam early.

Then Dinkins started looking into the advantages, and “there are many,” he says. He and other proponents of the early PE point out that engineers in industry may decide to get licensed if they take the exam before their work becomes more narrowly focused. The same is true for engineers in academia and specialized fields.

Mamola, NCEES’s first female president, points out the benefit to women who may get married and start families a few years after graduating, and then be reluctant to go back and relearn material when they have time to take the test.

In a 2005 NSPE Engineering Times article on Nevada’s change, the state licensing board’s executive director, Noni Johnson, said that the PE exam is mostly theory-based and becomes more difficult to pass years after graduation.

But this brings up the debate over whether the PE exam, which is designed to measure practical knowledge gained through practice, is truly a test of experience. Many who opposed Nevada’s move believed candidates shouldn’t be able to pass the PE exam until they had been working for four years.

According to NCEES Executive Director Jerry Carter, this is why the organization’s membership rejected previous motions to amend the Model Law to allow early taking of the PE.

In 2003, the Engineering Licensure Qualifications Task Force (ELQTF), made up of representatives from technical and professional societies including NSPE, released a report with suggestions on the evolution of licensing. One was the early taking of the PE exam. A recommendation to amend the Model Law was then presented to NCEES’s Licensure Qualifications Oversight Group (LQOG), which backed the move.

NSPE Past President Monte Phillips, P.E., F.NSPE, sat on the task force and chaired the oversight group. He believes the earlier motions to amend the Model Law, in 2004 and again in 2005, were rejected because “some of the people, especially those who had been working on the preparation of the exam questions, felt absolutely to their core that you couldn’t pass the PE exam without experience.”

Within NSPE, there was opposition to early taking of the PE exam as well. The Society’s Licensure and Qualifications for Practice (L&QP) committee recommended in 2005 that licensure candidates be allowed to take the exam as early as one year after passing the FE exam, in order to provide candidates—particularly those in industry—more flexibility. However, the NSPE Board of Directors rejected the position.

“Change in engineering comes hard,” says Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE, 2012–13 chair of the L&QP committee and former member of the New Hampshire Board of Professional Engineers. There’s often a desire to keep doing what we’ve always done, he adds.

Numbers Talk
But one thing engineers believe in is numbers. David James, P.E., F.NSPE, immediate past president of the Nevada Society of Professional Engineers, represents the state society on the Nevada licensing board’s Professional Associations Liaison council. At the request of the council’s chair and Noni Johnson, he began analyzing data from the state’s PE exam in 2006 after the experience requirement was removed. 

According to James, after the first two post-change administrations of the exam, “we began to see that the early pass rate was trending towards either favoring early examinees or at least there was no difference.”

Now after 16 administrations, James says the data has fluctuated a bit. For instance, about midway through, he says it looked like there was an advantage to waiting for non-civil disciplines. But that ended in 2010, he says, when the difference—although remaining—became statistically insignificant.

That again brings up the issue of how practice-based the PE exam is. In a 2011 post on NSPE’s PE Licensing blog, Musselman points out that in disciplines such as civil and environmental engineering, much of the exam content is similar to problem sets included in academic curricula. But for other disciplines, such as control systems, much of the exam content is indeed information learned mostly from practice. “This variation has to do with the nature of the engineering disciplines and not the exam preparation,” wrote Musselman.

In disciplines such as control systems, waiting might make more sense, he says.

Overall, the data has settled into a pattern in which there is no statistically significant difference between the pass rates for early examinees and those with four or more years of professional experience, James explains.

In 2010, NCEES released its own analysis that showed pass rates higher after four years. Although James says it was a “pretty convincing data set,” after he analyzed it the same way he did Nevada’s data, he found no significant difference.

Mamola says NCEES’s data was comparing Nevada early test taking with the national average for four years of experience. That skews the results, she says, because Nevada typically has lower pass rates than the national average. If you compare only Nevada data, the results for four or more years versus less than four years of experience are nearly identical, she adds.

James’s analysis was passed around both at NCEES and within NSPE’s Licensure and Qualifications for Practice committee. The PE heard reports of “opposition and disbelief,” but as the years passed, the data didn’t change. “It clearly wasn’t a fluke,” he says.

Follow the Leader
As the numbers came in from Nevada, other states began to reduce the number of years of experience needed to take the PE exam. In 2009, Illinois also changed its requirements so that engineers could take the PE anytime after passing the FE.

Mamola believes that the results in Nevada helped change people’s attitudes. “It got people thinking about it,” she says. “Once they started thinking and couldn’t come up with a valid reason why not, they were inclined to support [the move].”

Dinkins was one of those people. When he became president of NCEES in August 2012, he charged a committee with studying the issue. The group unanimously recommended that the organization “decouple” the experience requirement from the taking of the PE exam.

Concurrently, Dinkins asked the NCEES Education Committee to review the exam and determine whether it was too focused on academics. “The findings were that the exam was not too academically oriented,” he says.

Dinkins points out that decoupling the requirement does not mean that test-takers must take the exam early. In fact, by Mamola’s report, most Nevada candidates don’t take the PE right after they graduate. They want to pass it, so they wait until they think they’re ready—at least two years, and sometimes even three or four, she says. “But at least we’re providing the person the option to make the decision themselves.”

According to NCEES Executive Director Jerry Carter, when decoupling the experience from the exam was again brought up at the council’s 2013 annual meeting, few voiced objections, and the motion passed overwhelmingly.

Within NSPE, the L&QP committee had informally advocated the change for years. According to Musselman, the data from Nevada showed that the move was feasible.

“I think this change needed to be discussed and have it settle,” says the former committee chair. “Once it [did], people realized there was a benefit to the profession and to licensure and really not much downside.”

When NCEES started to seriously consider the issue again, NSPE’s Licensure and Qualifications for Practice committee drafted a position statement for NSPE to present to the council before full deliberations started. The statement supporting flexibility for optional early taking of the PE exam was officially approved at the Society’s board meeting in July.

The two organizations’ moves were “in tandem,” Musselman explains, as with other issues the groups have addressed in recent years.

Benefits and Costs
According to James, another reason states have started to consider changing their PE exam requirements is a declining interest in licensure and erosion of the role of the PE license in public works and other areas.

Dinkins “strongly believes” early taking of the PE exam will significantly increase the percentage of engineering graduates who ultimately become professional engineers. “The end result will likely [be] a very favorable effect on protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” And there’s no risk, he stresses, because all three of the licensure legs (education, experience, and examination) remain in place.

But one issue that still needs to be resolved is that of comity. In his 2011 blog post on the issue, Musselman explained that states that require candidates to take the PE exam after gaining four years experience may present difficulty for candidates originally licensed in states that decouple the steps.

“This needs to get solved in all states,” he wrote, “regardless of whether or not the early taking trend spreads.”

As Mamola puts it, NCEES was formed to help provide consistency in licensing exams and aid mobility between states. “Ninety-three years later, we’re still dealing with mobility issues,” she says. “Somehow we need to figure out a way to get states on board and address this mobility issue.”

However, Musselman says that not many states have had a “clear statutory problem” with California candidates’ longtime ability to take the exam after two years of experience. Those that have experience requirements written into their rules or laws and want to make the change will have to go through the necessary channels to revise them, he says, but removing the constraint is not a major issue—“no more than the minor surgery that had to be done to the Model Law to make the change.”

Mamola predicts more and more states will take that step, based on feedback she’s heard.

Removing the constraint from the Model Law will encourage that, Musselman believes. “A lot of states don’t want to make a change not consistent with the Model Law,” he says. Then it will be up to the state society or the licensing board to take up the issue.

But, reiterating that change happens slowly in the profession, Musselman points to the beginning of the continuing professional development requirement in the 1970s. Now, in 2013, about 40 states and territories require professional development hours. “We’re not there yet,” he says.

Moving Forward
An NSPE task force is now looking at which states are moving forward with the early taking of the PE exam.

Utah is one state that is considering the change. It now allows candidates to take the PE after three years of experience, but based on the Model Law change and NSPE’s support, the state is moving towards allowing candidates to take the exam with no time restraint—pending a hearing and public comment.

Carter hopes that the added flexibility will be uniformly adopted by all NCEES member boards in order to bring more consistency to the U.S. licensure process.

He believes the ideal is still taking the PE after four years of experience. However, the council will continue to look at the data and results. According to Carter, the licensure model needs to be reevaluated regularly to make sure the requirements both protect the public and are not an impediment for those who want to get licensed.

The bottom line, James emphasizes, is that there’s no harm to taking the exam early. (A candidate who fails can always take it again later.) But he’d counsel candidates to consider their own personal circumstances in making a decision.

Will the change really result in tens of thousands of new PEs? asks Musselman. “I don’t know. Time will tell. But it will certainly provide more flexibility.”

But others believe revising the exam requirement could benefit the profession as a whole, if states follow the Model Law and the number of licensed engineers significantly increases. According to former NSPE President Monte Phillips, an increase in licensure could enhance the overall image of the engineering profession.

PE Pass Rates
Despite fluctuations, over 16 administrations and seven-and-a-half years, Nevada PE exam pass rate data for first time examinees does not show statistically significant pass rate differences between less than four-year and four-plus-year examinee data, when evaluated using three different statistical methods. This is true for civil examinees, non-civil examinees, and combined disciplines. For non-civil examinees, the four-plus-year pass rate data are slightly higher than early pass rates.

CIVIL 50% 45%
NON-CIVIL 52% 58%