What's in a Name?
BY MATTHEW McLAUGHLIN
“What’s in a name?” Juliet muses from her bedroom window in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
It’s a famous and beautiful bit of prose to be sure, but not necessarily a true one. Names avoid confusion and are inextricably linked to reputations. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a florist wouldn’t sell as many on Valentine’s Day if he instead told everyone he had plenty of lilies. Likewise, a florist with a surplus of carnations might sell more if he called them Greek roses.
The engineering community has recognized this power in names for more than a century, beginning with the push for licensure laws. “Engineers’ registration laws are, of course, necessary for the safety of the public,” NSPE founder David Steinman, P.E., said. “But they are also necessary for the protection of the good name of the profession.”
There’s no question public health, safety, and welfare has been better served by preventing unqualified persons from calling themselves engineers, and the good name of the profession has ensured public trust and the continuation of licensure. Recently, though, the question of how far the engineering community should go to protect the profession’s good name, and by extension the public, has been raised in the press and in the courts.
In an article published last fall in The Atlantic titled “Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers,” Contributing Editor Ian Bogost criticized the tech industry for what he called “engineerwashing” and defined it as “leveraging the legacy of engineering in order to make their products and services appear to engender trust, competence, and service in the public interest.” The Atlantic received a lot of feedback on the piece, prompting a follow-up article on the response.
“Ninety-nine out of 100, probably even more than that, when it comes to nonlicensure-type complaints, are errors from not knowing the law.”
—Andrew Ritter, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors
More recently, Alabama-based automotive service provider Express Oil Change & Tire Engineers has begun challenging state licensing boards in states where the word engineer is protected and reserved for licensed engineers and businesses that employ them. The company has taken the fight to court in at least one state.
The protection given to names or words like engineer and engineering is not the same across all states, but some states have a long history of protecting such words. However, challenges to those protections often arise.
Equivocations and Exemptions
Bogost’s indictment of the tech industry in The Atlantic serves as an example of what can go wrong when companies and engineers are allowed to operate without oversight, as well as what can go wrong when words like engineer and engineering are used without regard for the meaning and history they carry.
“The respectability of engineering, a feature built over many decades of closely controlled education- and apprenticeship-oriented certification, becomes reinterpreted as a fast-and-loose commitment to craftwork as business,” he writes. “To engineer is to jury-rig, to get something working more or less, for a time. Sufficiently enough that it serves an immediately obvious purpose, but without concern or perhaps even awareness of its longevity. Engineering in this sense embodies MacGyver scrappiness, a doggedness compatible with today’s values of innovative disruption. But then, no reasonable person would want MacGyver building their bridges or buildings. Or software!”
Following the publication of Bogost’s article, NSPE President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, submitted to The Atlantic a letter to the editor. In it he too pointed out the disservice done to the public by what he called “the cheapening of the ‘engineer’ title.”
“For more than a century, the licensing of professional engineers in the US has protected the public from unqualified actors performing engineering services,” Austin wrote. “The ‘engineerwashing’ of software development is just the latest example of an industry pilfering the engineer title to create the appearance of credibility at the public’s expense.”
There’s a catch, however, to passionately and stringently protecting the profession’s good name, at least in many states that do so. Sometimes engineers working in industries exempt from licensure laws, who do engineering work, aren’t allowed to call themselves engineers unless they are licensed. Even having the title engineer on their business card can run them afoul of their state’s licensing board.
Denying the title of engineer to graduates of ABET-accredited engineering programs who do engineering work doesn’t sit well with NSPE Past President Dan Wittliff, P.E., F.NSPE. “It’s a shameful and unproductive waste of time to pretend like these engineers don’t have a right to call themselves engineers,” he says. “We have a stick and we’re beating people about the head and shoulders, and all it’s doing for some is annoying them.”
On the other hand, a path to licensure is open to almost all engineers, even software engineers. Thanks to NSPE, the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, and other members of the Software Engineering Licensing Consortium, a path to licensure was opened to software engineers in 2013 when the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying administered the first PE exam in software engineering.
Not every state board is focused entirely on disciplinary action either. In North Carolina, the state licensing board has shifted its focus from one of discipline first to one of helping bring engineers and businesses into compliance with the law first.
“Ninety-nine out of 100, probably even more than that, when it comes to non-licensure-type complaints, are errors from not knowing the law,” says Andrew Ritter, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors. The board’s response: “Let’s get these people licensed.”
Wittliff’s solution, though, goes further than simply offering engineers a way to become PEs. Instead, he would prefer to license all engineers who graduate from ABET-accredited engineering programs the same day they are handed their diplomas.
Engineers would still need to earn their PE license to do work that requires a PE, but granting an engineer license to every engineer includes rather than excludes them. State licensing boards would also be better connected to them, and it’s like giving every engineer stock in the profession.
“You’ve got to bring people into the culture sooner,” Wittliff says. “We have to focus on building relationships and educating these folks into the culture as practicing professionals.”
Advertising and Allusions
The case of Express Oil Change & Tire Engineers is an example of businesses and individuals using the engineer title for unrelated commercial activities, in this case automotive service.
In Texas and some other states, businesses don’t get to do that. But Tire Engineers has fought the law and will likely continue doing so in other jurisdictions where it has been asked to stop using its name, such as Mississippi.
The prevailing reason for such laws is to protect the public from being misled into believing that products or services are designed or carried out by qualified engineers. In North Carolina, where the licensing board is not bound by the law to prohibit use of the word engineer in all circumstances, Tire Engineers was still denied the use of its name after an initial review for this reason.
Because there are wheel and tire engineers and because tires are a designed product, the board feared some members of the public could be misled into believing they were being sold something specially designed by a qualified professional. But Tire Engineers was given an opportunity to convince the board otherwise. It did.
“You look at the storefront and it’s your typical oil change company,” Ritter says. “We said, yeah, the public can’t be misled, so we let them use the title.”
Unlike the North Carolina licensing board, the Texas and Mississippi boards don’t have the option of using their own discretion.
“Our statute doesn’t actually allow us the flexibility of drawing that line somewhere,” says David Howell, P.E., deputy executive director of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. “There’s no discretion in there. If someone’s using the word engineering in the name of their business and they’re not a qualified firm and they don’t have PEs and all that good stuff, they can’t do it.”
Some boards fear that unqualified businesses bearing the names engineer or engineering could damage the profession’s good name and harm the public’s trust in it. “We’ve cultivated this image that the word engineering and the profession is to be respected and looked up to,” says Heather Richardson, executive director of the Arkansas State Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors. Businesses may want to inappropriately borrow that good name and trust, she adds, even though they don’t meet the profession’s standards and qualifications.
In addition to the damage a business with engineer in its name could do to the public’s trust in engineers, it’s misleading to the public, even if no one thinks they employ licensed engineers. Richardson uses the example of a business called Auto Painting Engineers. The name implies that they’re more than just artists and painters, she says. “In reality they’re probably excellent artists and they’re probably excellent painters, but they’re not engineers.”
Wittliff agrees with the argument. “If the goal is to elevate their standing,” he says, “I think that’s misleading.”
Like the florist who decides to call his carnations Greek roses, there’s an obvious benefit to a company like Tire Engineers in co-opting the name of the profession. For that reason alone, the challenges will, in all likelihood, continue.
“It’s extremely difficult for us to protect words in the English language … especially when you have those entities that are trying you and challenging you,” says Mark Humphreys, executive director of the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors. “All jurisdictions are facing these challenges and don’t have an awful lot of support other than our professional societies.”
“We have to focus on building and educating these folks into the culture as practicing professionals.”
—NSPE Past President Dan Wittliff, P.E., F.NSPE