What Makes a PE?

January/February 2014

What Makes a PE?

What knowledge, skills, and attitudes should every PE have? NSPE has published a paper that takes a first shot at answering that question.

By Danielle Boykin

A decade ago, the National Academy of Engineering recognized that the engineering community would need to evolve to adapt to rapid changes in technological innovation and the social, economic, and cultural forces that would affect engineering. The release of the report The Engineer of 2020 set the stage for shaping the “engineer of the future” and called on engineering societies to play a critical role. NSPE realizes that the future professional engineer will need to be someone who is not only creative and innovative, but able to adapt to changes on a global scale while maintaining a commitment to the public health, safety, and welfare. To offer its perspective on shaping the future of professional engineering, the Society recently released the Engineering Body of Knowledge.

The Engineering Body of Knowledge is the first concerted effort to provide a common ground to developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to practice as a professional engineer across engineering disciplines, says Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE, who served as chair of the EBOK Committee during its development. The key elements of the EBOK are contained within 30 capabilities that focus on basic or foundational knowledge, technical skills, and professional practice. These capabilities include mathematics, design, safety, societal impact, sustainability, communication, ethical responsibility, global awareness, and leadership.

Musselman believes that one of the strengths of the EBOK is that it is not a strict prescription for individual engineers and the profession. It serves to function as a common denominator among all engineers of all disciplines. The capabilities can be achieved through a combination of formal education, experience, and lifelong learning. “We encourage each individual and organization that reviews the EBOK to decide what it means to them in terms of how they should function in the future,” says the president of CMA Engineers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

If the engineering profession in the US doesn’t create its own future, other forces will, says Stuart Walesh, P.E., F.NSPE. “You’re either in charge or you’re subject to the whims of others,” says Walesh, who currently chairs the EBOK Committee.“The Engineering Body of Knowledge is a way for engineers to be in charge.”

Aspirational and forward looking is how Walesh describes the EBOK. Yet, he believes that currently practicing professional engineers and engineers-in-training can benefit from the EBOK by using it to gauge their knowledge and skills. “There are some engineers today who can hold their own in all 30 areas,” says the owner of S.G. Walesh Consulting. “We need more who can, and the EBOK can help to make that happen.”

Walesh also agrees that the appeal of the EBOK is that it doesn’t stipulate the balance of formal education versus prelicensure experience necessary for an engineer to build his or her capabilities. “The civil engineers have said that the basic engineering degree should be a master’s degree or its equivalence,” he says. “NSPE was cautious to indicate that while that may be applicable for civil engineering for now, it is not necessarily what chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, or other engineers want to do, given that other pathways are or may be available.”

The Guiding Principles
In 2011, NSPE’s Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee began developing the EBOK by reviewing The Engineer of 2020 report in addition to civil engineering and environmental engineering body of knowledge reports. The EBOK subcommittee developed the content of the 60-page document based on reviews and recommendations from various stakeholders, which included members of NSPE’s interest groups and partner engineering organizations and societies.

The EBOK was designed to address the following guiding principles that will shape the future of engineering:

  • Engineering practice and professionalism will increasingly require the ability to draw upon a broad and comprehensive body of knowledge to make focused discretionary judgments about optional solutions to unique, complex problems in the interest of enhancing the public health, safety, and welfare.
  • Engineers from well-developed countries will increasingly be challenged to provide innovative, higher value-added services and products and to do so in a leading-edge manner.
  • As globalization of engineering practice expands, leadership in the ethical practice of engineering and the need to hold paramount the public health, safety, and welfare will become more critical.
  • Through both education and training, engineers will need a broad background to understand and manage the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal (i.e., sustainable) context.
  • The increasing need to incorporate societal impact considerations in engineering decision-making will require better communication, management, leadership, and other professional practice skills on the part of engineers. Collaboration with nonengineers will be critical.
  • The rapid and accelerating pace of technological innovation will increase the need for continuing professional development and lifelong learning.

The Stakeholders
The EBOK was developed for use by a broad audience, which includes accreditation organizations, engineering faculty and students, engineering interns, employers, engineering societies, licensing and certification boards, and practicing engineering supervisors and mentors. “We hope the EBOK will inspire all stakeholders to think about their area of responsibility and zone of influence and possibly do something different because of it,” says Walesh.

Engineering students and young professionals who develop the EBOK capabilities will have an advantage in the workforce, says EBOK Committee member James McCarter, P.E., F.NSPE. “As leaders of consulting firms, we want to see the engineers who are not only capable in the STEM areas, but who also have the ability to communicate,” says the executive vice president of H2L Consulting Engineers in Greenville, South Carolina. “If you want professionals who are going to be the next generation of leaders, development of these knowledge, skills, and attitudes will be an asset for both engineers and their employers.”

NSPE is encouraging individual professionals of all disciplines and experience levels and other stakeholders to take a look at the EBOK and to provide commentary and feedback for future editions. Is the EBOK too broad? Are there any capabilities that aren’t a part of your engineering practice? Is there a missing capability? “We are hoping that they will review this and see things that they hadn’t thought of before that are clearly a part of engineering practice and incorporate this into what they are doing,” says Musselman. “This is looking to the future, but it’s also looking at current practice.”

Walesh adds, “It would be great if faculty members do something different in their courses because of the EBOK or if a young person would choose an engineering career because they see these attributes and say, ‘I want to be like that.’”

NSPE is seeking feedback on the first edition of the Engineering Body of Knowledge and anticipates that a second edition will be prepared in the future to incorporate such input. Review the EBOK here (PDF) and send your written comments to NSPE General Counsel Arthur Schwartz at aschwartz@nspe.org.

The Professional Engineer of the Future

Today’s professional engineers certainly need attributes similar to the ones that made PEs of the past successful. But today’s PEs also face unique challenges and will need the following key attributes to remain relevant:

  • Analytical and practical;
  • Thorough and detail-oriented in design;
  • Creative and innovative;
  • Communicative;
  • Knowledgeable about the application of sciences and mathematics;
  • Thoroughly knowledgeable in a selected field of engineering and conversant in related technical fields;
  • Knowledgeable about and skillful in business and management;
  • Able to provide leadership with the ability to effect change in strategies, tactics, policies, and procedures in projects and other roles;
  • Professional and positive attitude;
  • Aware of societal and historical considerations in the global context;
  • Aware of and compliant with relevant laws, regulations, standards, and codes;
  • Licensed as a professional engineer and knowledgeable about engineering ethics and applicable codes of professional conduct; and
  • Dedicated to lifelong learning.


Engineering Body of Knowledge Capabilities

The Engineering Body of Knowledge contains 30 capabilities categorized in three areas: Basic or Foundational, Technical, and Professional Practice. The full Engineering BOK is intended to apply across the engineering profession, for each engineering discipline and employment situation. (The capabilities are featured in Appendix D of the report.)

Basic or Foundational

1. Mathematics >> Mathematics enables engineers to use logic and calculations to work on practical problems.

2. Natural Sciences >> Physical and biological sciences are the foundation of engineering.

3. Humanities and Social Sciences >> The humanities examine the “what” of human values and the societal sciences the “how.”


4. Manufacturing/Construction >> Manufactured products and constructed infrastructure are a major factor in determining the quality of life.

5. Design >> Design is the means by which ideas become reality and which enables useful products and projects to be manufactured and constructed.

6. Engineering Economics >> Economic analysis is essential in comparing alternatives.

7. Engineering Science >> Engineering science is the bridge from pure science to engineering.

8. Engineering Tools >> Engineers must keep abreast of the tools being used and developed in their area of expertise.

9. Experiments >> Experiments provide insight into cause and effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is changed.

10. Problem Recognition and Solving >> The essence of engineering is recognizing and solving problems.

11. Quality Control and Quality Assurance >> The measure of a project’s quality is how well the results conform to all requirements.

12. Risk, Reliability, and Uncertainty >> Risk, reliability, and/or uncertainty assessment is essential in engineering practice.

13. Safety >> In manufacturing, safety is an integral component of design to ensure the safety of workers and consumers of products.

14. Societal Impact >> An understanding of societal context is a critical aspect of most engineering activities.

15. Systems Engineering >> Systems engineering seeks to make the best use of personnel, material, equipment, and energy.

16. Operations and Maintenance >> The safe, reliable, and cost-effective operation and maintenance of engineered systems and works requires engineering supervision.

17. Sustainability and Environmental >> Engineers should focus on sustainable materials, processes, systems, and resource and energy use.

18. Technical Breadth >> In order to function as members of multidisciplinary teams, engineers need to have a working knowledge of other disciplines.

19. Technical Depth >> As technology advances, technical depth in a given field becomes more important.

Professional Practice

20. Business Aspects of Engineering >> Engineers work within a business framework and must recognize the related opportunities and constraints.

21. Communication >> An engineer needs to communicate effectively with technical and nontechnical audiences.

22. Ethical Responsibility >> Ethical values and principles manifest themselves in all engineering practice areas.

23. Global Knowledge and Awareness >> The effectiveness of engineers will increasingly be determined by their understanding of global developments and influences.

24. Leadership >> The engineer who is in a leadership mode moves a team or group into new areas.

25. Legal Aspects of Engineering >> Engineers working on projects must be aware of and comply with applicable local, state, and federal laws and regulations.

26. Lifelong Learning >> Lifelong learning is necessary in order to remain current in the midst of changes in knowledge, technology, and tools.

27. Professional Attitudes >> An engineer’s attitudes are important components of professionalism.

28. Project Management >> Project management is the process by which an engineering organization meets deliverable, schedule, and budget requirements and manages human resources.

29. Public Policy and Engineering >> Although public policy affects the various types of engineering practice in different ways, all engineers are impacted.

30. Teamwork >> Engineers serve on teams and must function effectively as team members.