NSPE Today: Outlook
Changing the Conversation on the Value of the PE
BY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR MARK GOLDEN
NSPE was saddened to learn of the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University on March 16, 2018, and the tragic loss of life. NSPE immediately offered its deepest condolences to the victims, their families, and Miami’s citizens. We are closely monitoring the investigation into the collapse. By determining the root cause, PEs can help prevent crises like this from occurring again.
Just four days later, there was another fatality—this time, a pedestrian in Arizona was struck and killed in the first fatal crash involving a fully autonomous vehicle. Again, NSPE publicly expressed its deepest condolences to the victim’s family and all involved in this incident.
Of course, there is no absolute guarantee that could prevent tragedies like this. After all, human drivers are involved in pedestrian fatalities too. And even with the appropriate PE involvement in a project, structures can fail. Nonetheless, both cases are sobering reminders of why the commitment every professional engineer makes to hold public health, safety, and welfare paramount is more than mere rhetoric. This ethos and the professional knowledge, skills, and experience needed to earn the license contribute immeasurably to reducing the chances of problems occurring in the first place and to learning from failures to prevent them from occurring again.
But it is precisely because PEs live their oath to protect the public that the distress these incidents caused went so deep. The rather cold, abstract phrase “engineering failure” doesn’t begin to cover it. This is profoundly personal to our community. Regardless of whether the cause is human error, the failure to include PEs in the process (or nonengineers who ignored their professional advice), or circumstances beyond anyone’s ability to foresee or control, the bottom line is the same: These are the incidents the PE license aims to prevent.
Even within some parts of the engineering field itself, there is a widely held, oft-repeated, and totally erroneous view that the PE license is really relevant only to civil engineering. This is not only deeply insulting to PEs in other areas of practice, it is flat out wrong. Significantly more than a third (41%) of those who passed the PE exam in the last reported cycle were in disciplines other than civil; those who self-identify as civil, although the largest single cohort within NSPE membership, are still under 50%. A PE practicing in a noncivil field is no less critical to public health, safety, and welfare, and he or she certainly does not take the ethical obligations any less seriously.
Contributing to this misperception is the fact that a very large percentage of PEs are involved in the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the built environment (facilities design and construction), which are viewed as civil works. But even in these areas, a multitude of electrical, mechanical, and other disciplines are also vitally involved.
The perspective gets muddier still when you expand the conversation to those who work in the design, manufacture, and operations of products (e.g., vehicles, consumer products, computer technologies, software). These areas just aren’t thought of as involving the practice of professional engineering. But the failure to see the PE’s relevance to these fields is a failure of imagination, not of fact. After all, doesn’t engineering that has the potential to impact the public health, safety, and welfare involve much more than the built environment? Increasingly, this type of engineering is software-based or created by the introduction of products into the infrastructure of our lives. When we worry about the power grid’s vulnerability, are we worried only about physical system failures, or is it cyberattacks or control system (software) failures that keep us awake at night? When cities across the country race to put autonomous vehicles on our public roads (euphemistically characterizing them as mere “tests”), are the safety implications any less severe than with design of the physical roads and transportation systems?
We need to change the conversation. Current law and regulation, including PE licensure rules, emerged from, and too narrowly reflect, an obsolete, early 20th century paradigm that equates engineering with the built environment. How do we, as the PE community, communicate the value to public health, safety, and welfare (and yes, to corporate health) that PEs could bring, even to areas where they are not a legal mandate?
The experience of the NSPE Autonomous Vehicle Task Force is relevant here. In the PE community there is a strong consensus that PEs should play a critical role in the design and manufacture of autonomous vehicles, and that everyone would benefit from their knowledge, experience, and ethical perspective. But, despite great effort, PEs have failed to establish a foothold because industry views licensure as a legally defined obligation and simply does not recognize the value PEs could bring to their companies and the public. In large part, due to the pernicious application of industrial exemptions to licensing laws, to industry employers the PE is merely a legal requirement that does not apply to them.
But what is the cost to public health, safety, and welfare (and to industry itself) when a PE’s contributions, even when they’re not legally required, are not taken advantage of?
That is the challenge as well as the opportunity.