NSPE Today: Outlook
Ongoing Threats Prove Need for Aggressive Advocacy
BY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR MARK GOLDEN
From its very beginning, NSPE’s focus has been the license. The Society was created for the purpose of passing licensure laws in every state and territory. From the successful accomplishment of this goal forward to today, NSPE’s foremost priority is to serve as the advocate for licensed professional engineers and the vital role they play in society.
The price of victory in establishing a licensing regime that is now an integral part of professional and public life is sometimes a dangerous complacency. But the PE cannot be taken for granted and assumed to be inviolate. And the need for aggressive advocacy has never been greater than it is today, because we face ongoing challenges to the integrity of the PE license.
Most directly, the PE faces a threat from a general political trend to attack licensure as a barrier to employment and economic development. While the work of professional engineers—like that of doctors and attorneys—unequivocally affects the public health, safety, and welfare, when state legislators get into a debate over eliminating occupational licensure, it is not uncommon for them to lump PEs in with barbers, cosmetologists, pet groomers, and other licensed occupations. Whether the PE was the target or merely collateral damage, existential threats to the PE have been mounted in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota and continue to be introduced in other states.
The PE also faces subtler threats through efforts to fragment it into discipline-specific licenses. The current licensing system recognizes that the line between disciplines can at times be difficult to demarcate and, therefore, allows the individual professional to exercise the appropriate judgment, autonomy, and discretion, just as medical and legal professionals do. However, in recent years, concerted efforts, particularly by structural engineering groups, have resulted in an increased push to fracture the engineering profession by creating separate licenses by discipline. As we face increasingly complex challenges to the authority of the license, NSPE believes that the continued recognition of PE licensure as the defining qualification for practice is critical to guaranteeing the trust and protection of the public. Layers of licensing requirements would only cloud that perspective and create uncertainty.
At a subtler level still, although certifications serve a vital public purpose, their proliferation and commoditization can also create confusion about the status of the PE. This is particularly true when local ordinances are promulgated to require a particular certification in order to provide specific kinds of work within a municipality. Too often, such ordinances are made without reference to the definitions of professional practice contained in the state’s engineering licensure law. Municipal authorities are often unaware of these higher precedent requirements and neglect to incorporate them into their regulations.
New rules or regulatory amendments are one form of threat. But the PE is also diminished by a lack of effective enforcement of existing laws, whether as a result of a state board’s lack of effective enforcement authority, lack of resources, lack of clout within the state executive, or legal timidity. If state boards lack the necessary capacity to enforce licensure laws, we need to work with them to ensure that they get it.
President-Elect Kodi Verhalen, P.E., F.NSPE, and I had the opportunity to advocate these points before an important audience in early March. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying consists of the engineering licensing boards from each state and territory. Its Participating Organizations Liaison Council provides an opportunity for all the stakeholder organizations (groups like NSPE, whose members are regulated by NCEES member boards) to participate in information sharing and strategic collaboration discussions. Nineteen such groups, from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers through the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, participated with NSPE in this year’s meeting on March 5. We were given a generous amount of time on the agenda to raise our concerns and urge cooperation and support.
All of the other stakeholder organizations at the meeting represented vertical markets within licensed engineering. (Most, if not all of NSPE’s members are probably also members of one or more of these technical societies.) But NSPE, representing a horizontal swath that cuts across all those vertical markets, speaks from a unique perspective on the value of the PE and the interests of licensed professional engineers in all disciplines and technical specialties.
The meeting was an opportunity for NSPE to inform other stakeholders about how it has become an increasingly activist advocacy organization in the past few years, and to stress the need for all of our organizations to look beyond their purely parochial (state, regional, or discipline) interests to support efforts to protect the authority of the PE license.
- What happens in one state or municipality impacts us all.
- What happens to one discipline impacts us all.
We do well to remember that. And I encourage the technical societies and NSPE’s state societies to recognize that macroview. Engage with us and with the state licensing boards, who are the tip of the spear in licensure, to attack these challenges directly.