The Federal PErspective
BY BENJAMIN ROODE
When the U.S. Department of the Interior needed to shore up subsea oil drilling rules in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, part of their solution involved turning to professional engineers for their expertise and ethical commitments. Specifically, PEs must now sign plans for the casing and cementing of deep-sea wellheads.
But even though PEs must sign off on cement structures underwater, the blowout preventer—the device experts said failed to close the failing well as designed—does not require PE inspection or oversight. Nor does the mixture of cement that investigators say wasn't dense enough to keep oil from spewing out of the broken wellhead.
This case and others show that even though professional engineers play a significant role in the federal government, their importance to the public health, safety, and welfare is not universally recognized or understood in Washington.
The federal government, as a matter of constitutional law, is not required to follow state law, including PE licensing laws. That exemption means federal departments and offices have the flexibility to decide whether they want PEs in selected positions. Departments and offices that are familiar with engineering issues may require PEs in certain cases as a matter of policy. It's not uncommon, however, for departments that are unfamiliar with engineering licensure to omit such requirements.
Officials in fields populated by engineers often value and require PEs in various positions. However, it sometimes takes disasters like Deepwater or a crane accident, for example, for federal regulators to eventually tap PEs for oversight and safety considerations.
A look at when licensed PEs do fill federal positions sheds some light on how the PE fits into the federal government.
What's Good for the Goose?
When it comes to federal projects, PEs are usually required to oversee design work and act as engineer of record despite the federal exemption.
For federal buildings and facilities, the General Services Administration requires engineers hired for design projects to hold a state license, says MaryAnne Beatty, GSA spokesperson. GSA cites NSPE's reasoning for including PEs on projects: "In hiring engineers to provide professional services on the design of its projects, GSA seeks the highest standard of competence. It is also a public safety issue. It helps ensure design meets a professional level of quality and the [licensed] designer accepts responsibility for the design when he/she applies their stamp to the drawings." Certain GSA positions also require PE licenses despite the federal exemption, she says.
The PE license is also emphasized in the Air Force and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Air Force engineering officials actively encourage their employees, both civilian and enlisted, to obtain a PE license and require staff members and deputy Civil Engineer Squadron commanders to hold a PE, says the USAF's Civil Engineer Timothy Byers, who oversees base support functions for 166 USAF bases worldwide and who's currently working toward his PE. About 10% of the 1,250 Civil Engineer Squadron officers are licensed PEs, says spokesman David Novy, P.E.
"I see it not only as a mark of experience and achievement, but a significant quality indicator...it identifies a specific commitment to the technical side of our business," he says. Government employees, to be good stewards of the public dollar, need to be "brilliant at the basics," he says. Earning a PE is one of the steps toward that goal.
In the Army Corps of Engineers, PEs oversee each of the nine subordinate commands (those offices under the Corps's commander) and area offices, says spokesman Bruce Ware, P.E. The Corps also follows state PE licensure laws as often as possible: Design drawings and construction are also overseen by PEs. The Corps employs about 1,500 PEs to fulfill state and its own oversight requirements. That's about 25% of active employees in the engineering and construction commands.
Why the emphasis? The Corps knows what PEs offer to systems planning and execution, Ware says. A professional license means engineers have both the commitment and training to protect the public health, safety, and welfare they're expected to preserve.
"You want to be professionally credentialed in the work that you do," he says. "If we do design work [for example], we want to be professionally credentialed in that line of work."
And that's not just talk—it's codified. Engineering Regulation 690-1-1212 states that licensure is "strongly encouraged" for Corps staff members above a certain scale and that supervisors determine when PEs are needed. Anyone who approves final designs or engineering aspects of contract awards must hold a PE as well.
Finding PEs used to be difficult, though the recent economic downturn has been somewhat of a boon for the Corps, Ware says. Roadblocks like the federal and industry exemptions have played a role in the fact that the number of PEs is lower than the number of unlicensed engineers, he says. Layoffs that put some PEs out of work have made qualified, committed professionals available to work on public waterways and other Corps projects, he says.
While the number of licensed PEs is increasing in some federal agencies, like the Corps of Engineers and the Air Force, it can still be unclear when a PE is required for a federal position.
The Right Person for the Job?
Despite an emphasis on PE licensure by some in the federal government, determining who at the federal level is licensed can be difficult.
Federal agencies and departments sometimes choose to require a PE for engineering and oversight positions but often recruit for "professional engineers" when a valid license is not required. The Office of Personnel Management oversees the lion's share of federal employees and sets standards for hiring for those positions.
A search in late November of USAJobs.gov, the federal government's employment Web site, showed about 400 open positions with "professional engineer" in the title or description. Holding a valid PE license, however, appeared to be only one of several options to qualify for the positions; PE licenses were not required for the majority of the open positions reviewed, though degrees from ABET-accredited schools almost always were. At least three positions with the Army Corps of Engineers listed in the search required a PE license. The majority of those positions listed were with the armed forces, with more coming from the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.
That's not just a case of mistaken identity: OPM's standard requirements for positions with "professional engineer" in the title all cite a PE license as an option for qualification, not a requirement.
Misuse of the title "professional engineer" is not a new problem. Last July, NSPE advised NASA to change the titles the agency used when advertising positions that did not require a PE license. Other licensed professions like architecture and law encounter similar problems.
While inaccurate job titles are one example of confusion about or disregard for PEs in the federal government, federal regulations also show a hit-and-miss application of licensure requirements.
Government regulations involving PE oversight can mirror Washington's inconsistent approach to licensing. It's sometimes unclear when federal rule makers and personnel managers want the ethical and accountability-based oversight that licensed PEs pledge to provide.
Despite numerous positions requiring a PE, government officials often fail to include PE oversight in new regulations, citing a lack of justification for the requirement. Those same regulations sometimes include PE oversight in different sections as a matter of course without the justification requested previously. While regulators and personnel managers require a PE in one instance, they omit them in others.
Overall, PEs are included in only a smattering of federal codes. The Code of Federal Regulations mentions "professional engineer" in only 120 parts (which can contain several regulations each). These mentions include: partial oversight of model manufactured home installation standards, approval of oil spill prevention and control plans, approval of plans to divert perennial and intermittent streams in regard to mining operations, qualification requirement for bridge inspection oversight program manager, and other references.
There are 50 title areas the code covers, with more than 200,000 regulations included.
Determining when a PE is needed for those regulations can sometimes seem arbitrary. For deep-sea drilling, one part requires PE supervision and approval, but other, equally important aspects do not.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement "is continuing to review whether there are additional measures to improve the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling operations in federal waters," wrote Bureau Director Michael Bromwich, in an e-mail message. Requiring PE oversight would "provide added certainty that the casing and cementing design would be appropriate for the well being drilled," he added.
Inconsistencies toward the use of professional engineers were also seen this past year during the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's revamping of crane and derrick safety rules. During the comment period for the proposed rule change, several people suggested a licensed PE should oversee various modifications and upgrades to crane systems. OSHA rule makers ultimately rejected those suggestions even though licensed PE oversight is required in several other parts of the new rule.
According to OSHA, whether a PE is required in a standard depends on the record developed during the rulemaking process. In some areas, non-PEs have knowledge, training, and experience that is equal to that of professional engineers. In these cases, OSHA believes it is the employer's responsibility to select the best person to provide the specified service.
Despite a lack of clarity regarding federal rules applying PE oversight, when asked about PE oversight, officials in OSHA, GSA, the Air Force, and other offices cited licensees as an invaluable addition to quality control for technical and ethical reasons.
The Best Work Possible
Ultimately, all parties involved in PE licensure at the federal level say they want the best people doing the best job for the public.
Federal PE requirements come down to transparency and accountability, says Craig Musselman, chairman of the NSPE Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee. The key difference that makes the PE stand out is their stated commitment to the public's health, safety, and welfare, he says.
"People who are PEs know their livelihood is on the line [when they work on a project] and that they have professional obligations they have to meet," Musselman says. "It's not that others are untrustworthy; it's that they don't have the positive, professional obligation to hold the public health, safety, and welfare paramount."
It's tough to say whether a commitment to safety or the public good is inherent in engineering in general, though ethics courses are required at all ABET-accredited engineering programs, says Jimmy Smith, P.E., director of the National Institute for Engineering Ethics at Texas Tech University. Ensuring a clear, concise definition for ethical responsibilities is one of the main reasons licensure organizations exist for doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
"I wouldn't assume that, if they aren't licensed, they don't practice ethics," Smith says.
Smith believes public employees do have an inherent, though not often clearly stated, responsibility to work in the name of the public good and trust. Licensure itself is not what makes people ethical, he says. Licensure, however, does ensure a process for redress if an ethical lapse or professional accident occurs, he adds.
Federal workers, whether engineers or not, are required to act in a manner that preserves the public trust and confidence in the integrity of the federal government, according to code. Specifically, all executive branch employees must "place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain" according to U.S. code. Employees must also "put forth honest effort in the performance of their duties." The pledges are not explicit about the public health, safety, and welfare, though some ethical codes in specific offices or departments may refer to such requirements.
But ethics isn't the only concern. The Air Force's Timothy Byers says licensing adds not only professional commitment to an employee's repertoire but also the skills to properly mentor up-and-coming engineers. The continuing commitment to stay current with technical training, and to expanding one's knowledge beyond a single field, instills an ongoing commitment to the best, safest work that protects not only those using USAF bases, but the entire country.
"As military professionals, we focus on developing leaders with both a technical edge as well as a military edge. It is why we don't focus solely on engineering registration, but for our broader engineering community, we also encourage [related] certifications and continuing professional military education," he says.
Federal officials in some areas are trying to include PEs in more oversight and supervisory roles.
The Corps of Engineers is working to both hire and produce more PEs by continually updating and evaluating position requirements and enticing existing employees to earn their license, Ware says. The Corps is even helping pay licensure and renewal fees for prospective PEs. Those investigating the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill have already made PEs a possible safeguard against future calamities by requiring their oversight on certain parts of the drilling process.
Anyone in government hoping to do a better, safer, and more complete job should make the commitments a PE makes and include PEs wherever applicable and whenever possible, Ware says.
"The government," he says, "does better if they have good, technically gifted people overseeing the work."