Seatbelts and Binary Outlooks

January/February 2019

NSPE Today: Outlook
Seatbelts and Binary Outlooks



It always seems to happen. NSPE is able to report a positive development in its efforts to promote and protect professional licensure. Like when, in response to a fatal pipeline explosion in Massachusetts, the National Transportation Safety Board recently urged elimination of the exemption that allowed the pipeline to be designed, built, operated, and maintained without the involvement of PEs.

It even happens when members of the profession get into discussions about some detail in the terms for earning and maintaining the PE, such as the role of continuing education, or the curriculum requirements for ABET accreditation.

Someone, and surprisingly it is usually a PE, essentially asserts that the license and its requirements are meaningless. They have seen unethical PEs and PEs who have made terrible mistakes. They’ve seen non-PEs who are ethical paragons and more technically qualified than any PE they ever met. They have never themselves gained anything valuable from any continuing education course they attended.

Anecdotally, perhaps true enough.

Another PE jumps to the license’s defense, often making equally sweeping pronouncements about how PE involvement or a specific licensing requirement is some kind of magic bullet.

Still, I always try to filter out the personal bias in these exchanges and mine them for lessons on improving licensure—no one would suggest it’s beyond improvement. And NSPE’s mission isn’t to promote and protect the status quo in licensure.

NSPE was founded to create a licensing system that would protect the public health, safety, and welfare by providing a credible, consistent, and effective mechanism (note, I did not say “perfect”) to reduce (note, I did not say “eliminate”) the risk to the public, where those risks can have massive consequences. Since the establishment of engineering licensure in all states and territories, the association’s mission has been an effort of continuous improvement to that system to ensure it meets the changing needs of the society it exists to serve. It’s an inherently frustrating effort. It moves so slowly. There are too many interrelated moving parts: change something here and it will have consequences (intended or unintended) there. It has too many independent decision-makers and decisions that must be aligned. But it is a process we will never give up on.

Still, whether the doctrinaire assertions are for or against the PE or its terms, it’s a great mistake to reduce these discussions to binary absolute: asserting that since it isn’t perfect, it isn’t worth bothering with; or, overstating the efficacy of the system, making claims for it that it cannot meet.

No one is suggesting that PE involvement guarantees that bad things will never happen. Or conversely, that using a non-PE guarantees that ethics, professionalism, competency, or concern for the public will be absent.

But wearing a seatbelt in a car is no guarantee that an individual will escape harm in an accident. It should be patently obvious, however, that, given the high potential for harm if an accident does occur—and they will occur—an individual is better off having used these devices than not.

Where the analogy fails if extended too far, and certainly in the case of engineering, is that the persons harmed by an engineering failure have no capacity to manage their own risk. A driver can choose not to wear a seatbelt, and they foolishly but knowingly assume the increased risk. It’s all on them. When that utility explosion occurred, however, none of those injured or killed had a say in how well those facilities were designed, constructed, maintained, and operated. The increased risk they faced came from decisions made for them by someone far removed from the consequences.

There can be honest differences of opinion over whether, how, and where licensure regulations are applied. However, there should be no argument that, although the PE licensing system can always be improved, it has served the public health, safety, and welfare well for nearly a century in the US. The public welfare is better off than it would have been without such a system.

Holding the PE is not an end state. It is a lifelong obligation to stay current and constantly improve your knowledge and skills, through formal and continuing education, through individual study and effort, through practical experience. But always be mindful that there is too much at stake for that development to be gained through trial and error.

Exemptions from such requirements are akin to weakening the integrity of the public’s seat belts. Maybe you can get by with less protection, but....

And if loopholes exist that increase the likelihood that the practice of engineering—whether in design, construction, maintenance, or operation—will lead to public harm, those loopholes need to be closed.