NSPE Advocacy: Hard and Soft Skills

January/February 2016

NSPE Today: Outlook
NSPE Advocacy: Hard and Soft Skills



The process of becoming a professional engineer requires mastery of both the technical knowledge and skills related to the discipline of practice and the so-called “soft skills” of ethics and professionalism; communications; planning and organization; problem solving and conflict resolution; decision making in an interdisciplinary team environment; risk assessment; economics; business processes; law; government processes; and others. (Although I always chafe at the characterization of these skills, which are exceptionally hard to teach and to master, as in any way “soft.”)

Our constant effort to define, promote, and protect the PE license is not driven by self-interest. After all, the PE is more than just an occupational permission slip: It is a personal commitment to hold the public health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations. As such, the license exists to serve and protect the public, increasing the license’s relevance and importance beyond just the parochial interests of the professionals who hold the credential. That’s something worth investing the most serious of efforts in. And it was precisely the purpose and role that NSPE was created to fill.

And in exactly the same way that engineering competency relies on hard and soft skills, NSPE’s commitment to its advocacy mission involves a mixture of both as well.

A visit to the “Latest News” section of NSPE’s website always provides a snapshot in time of the hard tactics of professional advocacy. Over this past fall and winter, that narrative has included:

  • Reversing a recommendation in Indiana to eliminate the PE license in that state;
  • Opposing federal rules that would weaken the PE’s role, allowing unlicensed engineers from within the US as well as foreign engineers to be in responsible charge of design and construction of deepwater ports;
  • Bringing public and congressional attention to the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to involve any licensed professional engineers in its effort to remediate the abandoned Gold King Mine, which ended in a blowout and contamination of nearby rivers with a three million gallon toxic spill near Durango, Colorado;
  • Proactively and constructively engaging the EPA and the Department of the Interior to address the agency’s systematic lack of engineering expertise and rules mandating the role of the licensed engineer in its engineering projects;
  • Narrowly defeating proposed changes to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying’s Model Law that would have weakened and undermined the credibility of the PE license by creating a separate license for structural engineers;
  • Heading off potential liability problems for PEs by securing the full support of the American Association of Engineering Societies in successfully changing language in the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ proposed international model code of practice on climate change and infrastructure resiliency;
  • Successfully opposing a proposed amendment to the surface transportation bill that would have stripped qualifications-based selection from the legislation; and
  • Ensuring NSPE members and state partners were kept fully aware of these developments every step of the way, as they were happening, through a constant and multimedia flow of communications, including print, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Storify, LinkedIn, YouTube, and podcasts.

And there are many others.

But then there is also the soft side of promoting and advancing the PE license: filling and sustaining the pipeline of students, graduates, and young professionals who will assume responsible positions in engineering in the future, equipped not only with technical competence, but also the professional and ethical self-awareness necessary to make proper judgments on what they are qualified to do and their obligation to the public they serve, which is, after all, the essence of being a licensed engineer.

Encouraging and supporting STEM education and building appreciation for licensure begins early. It is the key to encouraging the next generation of engineers to enter engineering programs and to supporting those on the pathway to licensure to stay the course through to earning the designation.

NSPE has a long and storied history in this area, including establishing National Engineers Week in 1951, MATHCOUNTS in 1984, and the Future Cities competition in 1993. Currently, NSPE is strengthening its ties with the Order of the Engineer, and President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, has set the bold goal of ensuring that every graduating engineering student within the US is inducted into the Obligation of the Order by the year 2025 through Links that have been established at every US engineering college.

Focusing on the elementary and middle school levels through programs like the Future Cities and MATHCOUNTS competitions, and at the collegiate level through the Order of the Engineer, are just a few of the strategies for replenishing the population of PEs who appreciate the importance of licensure (beyond a mere regulatory, occupational requirement) and can advance and serve society into the future.

The hard and concrete part of NSPE delivering on the mission of defining, promoting, and protecting the PE is the goal of our advocacy efforts. Instilling a respect for and commitment to professionalism (through things like the Order of the Engineer) is also part of delivering on NSPE’s mission. To be successful, we have to do both. And do them both really, really well.