The View From Here
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
NSPE’s 2018 Engineering Outlook survey recently gave more than 1,260 professional engineers, engineer interns, and students the opportunity to share their views on licensure, ethics, education, and other debate-worthy topics. Ninety-four percent of the survey participants are NSPE members. Ninety-four percent of participants are licensed engineers and 3% are engineer interns. The survey was conducted January 2–16, 2018.
Should more states eliminate their industry exemptions? Are there ways to improve licensure mobility and stop the erosion of the PE license? These are just a few of the issues facing the professional engineering community. Through the 2018 Engineering Outlook survey, PEs across the nation were able to speak their minds on these topics.
To kick off the survey, participants revealed that choosing to pursue an engineering career was the right decision, and the job market for engineers remains sound. Fifty-six percent of participants strongly agree and 29% agree that if they had to do it all over again, they’d still become an engineer. More than 51% agree that the current job market is good for engineers while 31% strongly agree. In the 2015 Engineering Outlook survey, 54% of participants agreed that the job market was good, while 23% strongly agreed. The majority of 2018 survey participants (52% agree and 21% strongly agree) are also satisfied with opportunities for professional advancement in the engineering field.
One topic the Engineering Outlook survey addresses is the public’s perception of the engineering profession. The vast majority of survey participants believe that the public perceives the engineering profession as ethical, with 58% agreeing and 26% strongly agreeing that this is the case. Yet, when asked about the public’s knowledge about the profession, the views shift. Nearly 54% agree and 28% strongly agree that despite increased attention given to STEM education in government policy, media, and outreach efforts, the public still doesn’t know enough about the engineering profession compared to other learned professions (medicine, law, architecture, accounting). Many PEs find this to be an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
There is a poor understanding about how engineers contribute to the public’s quality of life, says Michael Malloy, P.E. “They see the improvements in their communities, but they are taken for granted by much of the population,” says the principal engineer at an engineering services firm in New Mexico. “Engineers are in the public’s eye when a disaster occurs, but for the wrong reasons.”
Rebecca Rogers, P.E., attributes some of this lack of knowledge to a failure to effectively communicate about engineering. “As a result, engineering is somewhat mysterious,” says the Tennessee environmental engineer. “Even my kids and their friends are confused sometimes. They ask, ‘Do you drive a train, design a landfill, or build a building?’”
Legislative and Advocacy Challenges
When asked if issues affecting the engineering profession are well understood by public officials and government leaders, 54% of survey participants disagreed and 19% strongly disagreed. Over the past few years, NSPE has ramped up its efforts to protect the PE because of a growing movement by government officials and legislators that targets occupational licensure and highlights their misunderstanding of licensure’s important role in protecting the public health, safety, and welfare. This lack of understanding poses great challenges for licensed engineering professionals. “The current political antiregulation climate reflects a lack of appreciation for and understanding of the value of professional licensure, not only in engineering, but the other learned professions,” says Jon Nelson, P.E., a past president of NCEES.
Thomas Smailus, P.E., who specializes in application development and software research, indicated in the survey that he strongly disagrees that issues affecting the engineering profession are well understood by public officials and government leaders. “The fact that boxing, dog grooming, and landscape licenses and engineering licenses are bundled in some states and frequently show up in bills to weaken licensing requirements underscores that public officials and legislators have no clue.”
The lack of understanding about the importance of professional engineering licensure also affects other key advocacy areas for NSPE, such as qualifications-based selection and the PE’s role in the development of autonomous vehicles.
The majority of participants (49% agree and 38% strongly agree) support the expanded use of qualifications-based selection for engineering projects that affect the public health, safety, and welfare. “If the issues were well understood, public officials and government leaders would not seek to eliminate qualifications-based selection procedures,” says Beth Schatz, P.E., an aviation manager at a New Mexico engineering firm. “Our industry does itself a disservice when professional services are procured through a free-for-all bidding war.”
Embracing its Grand Challenge to foster ethical innovation, NSPE is advocating that professional engineers serve as a leading voice in ensuring that the same attention to safety and reliability that went into the built transportation infrastructure is incorporated into autonomous vehicles and smart transportation systems. Forty-three percent of participants strongly agree and 41% agree that licensed professional engineers should play a key role in the development, testing, and safety certification of autonomous vehicles.
Smailus also believes that the failure to grasp the importance of engineering licensure is negatively affecting the development of autonomous vehicle technology across the nation. The Washington Society of Professional Engineers has been reaching out to the state on autonomous vehicles, he says; however, public officials have been slow to engage the PE community on shaping AV policy and law.
It’s worth noting that most survey participants (46% agree and 32% strongly agree) believe that more professional engineers should run for elected office on the local, state, and national levels to improve engagement and public policies on these issues.
Improving Access to Licensure
The journey to become a licensed professional engineer is not easy, yet it’s one that’s rewarding in so many ways for NSPE members. Most participants (50% agree and 35% strongly agree) support the current engineering, education, experience, and examination system for engineering licensure. In addition to protecting the license, the Society seeks to ensure that current and prospective PEs have the information and resources they need to seek licensure and maintain the license.
Traditionally, licensure candidates have been permitted to take the PE exam after passing the FE exam and gaining four years of approved experience. However, to increase the number of engineers that get on the path to licensure, some states are allowing candidates to take the PE exam before gaining four years of experience. The four years of experience would still be required before a candidate can become licensed, but they would not be a prerequisite for taking the PE exam. As of November 2017, there were 14 states that allowed the early taking of the PE exam.
When asked if they support states that allow licensure candidates to take the PE exam prior to gaining four years of experience, respondents were closely divided. Fully 44% disagreed or strongly disagreed, while 37% agreed or strongly agreed. The remainder were undecided.
Mobility is an increasingly significant topic of concern for NSPE members. According to the survey, 45% of participants are licensed in more than one jurisdiction. Forty-seven percent of participants agree and 42% strongly agree that states should align licensing requirements to improve licensure mobility for professional engineers. The challenge for PEs licensed in multiple states often involves lack of uniformity in continuing education requirements, education and experience requirements, and fee structures.
Elaine Pickering, P.E., agrees that states should align requirements to improve mobility. The wide variation in continuing education requirements makes it difficult for PEs who are licensed in multiple states, says the civil engineering project manager in Texas. “For example, Tennessee makes it much easier by allowing those with a home state outside of Tennessee to comply as long as the individual follows continuing education requirements in their home state.”
As a sole practitioner and forensic engineer, Ross Curtis, P.E., says that the various requirements to hold multiple licenses can be a financial and logistical burden. “Having uniform licensing criteria that states would honor reciprocally or a nationally recognized license would be especially beneficial for forensic engineers, as well as engineers who, due to employers’ requirements, must practice in many jurisdictions.”
The Engineering Outlook survey also seeks to gauge the professional engineering community’s views on issues that aren’t specifically about licensure but may affect engineering practice. One of these issues involves professional development and leadership training and how they affect the future of the profession. When asked if undergraduate engineering programs should incorporate courses in leadership and managerial skills, 45% agreed and 32% strongly agreed that this would benefit students. “My undergraduate [curriculum] didn’t address leadership skills at all and after being in the field for 12 years, I wish that it had,” says Barbara McCrary, P.E., president of an Alabama consulting firm. “I also believe that basic business classes should be offered too as most PEs are in consulting or private practice.”
Rich Evans, P.E., strongly agrees that engineering students could benefit from leadership training provided while in school. “This remains an area where entry-level engineers lack adequate knowledge and skills. Many companies provide no training, and mentorship is entirely based on any given supervisor or manager who may or may not have strong managerial or leadership skills,” says the environmental engineer and senior vice president at a Pennsylvania consulting firm.
On climate change, 41% of participants agree and 25% strongly agree that professional engineers should be involved in addressing climate change issues. Fifty percent agree and 28% strongly agree that professional engineers should promote sustainable design and green infrastructure.
NSPE Past President Michael Hardy, P.E., F.NSPE, strongly agrees that PEs should be involved in addressing climate change issues. “While scientists can study climate change and its cause and effects, it takes engineers to combine the science with technology to put something together that makes a difference,” he comments.
Robert Fuchs, P.E., a mechanical engineer at a New York consulting and forensics engineering firm, acknowledges that there is often debate and uncertainty around climate change. He believes that professional engineers have a responsibility to improve the quality of life despite this debate. “Whether or not man can ‘solve’ the issue, I believe that engineers should promote sustainable design solutions under the conjecture that humans have a moral obligation to keep the planet clean and limit pollution,” he says.