In Focus: Legal Briefing
The debate over licensing structural engineers goes to the heart of how the practice of engineering should be regulated.
By Matthew McLaughlin
This year marked 65 years since the District of Columbia became the last jurisdiction in the country to enact an engineering licensure law. As such, 2015 also marked 65 years that professional engineering licensure has protected all Americans from the unqualified practice of engineering. While licensing clearly protects the public, the specifics of how licensing is carried out are often debated. Nowhere is this clearer than in the debate between NSPE and structural engineering groups.
For the better part of a decade, these groups, driven by the belief that PE licensure is inadequate for protecting the public from the unqualified practice of structural engineering, have been pushing for licensing of their discipline and more stringent testing through the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying 16-hour structural engineering exam. NSPE, meanwhile, has opposed SE licensure on the grounds that PE licensure works and any discipline-specific licensure would hurt practicing PEs and the profession as a whole.
“NSPE supports the licensure of engineers only as professional engineers and opposes licensure status by designated branches or specialties,” says NSPE President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE. “The PE system recognizes that the line between disciplines and practice areas can at times be difficult to demarcate, so rather than controlling the practice of engineering by rigid and bureaucratic means, it makes the professionals liable for their work, thereby protecting the public while also avoiding complicated barriers in the practice of engineering.”
In 2012, the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, the Structural Engineering Certification Board, and the Council of American Structural Engineers of the American Council of Engineering Companies formed the Structural Engineering Licensure Coalition. Since then there has been considerable legislative activity pertaining to whether there should be a separate license for structural engineers.
NSPE, for its part, has been opposing efforts to enact discipline-specific licensure during this recent flurry of legislative activity, which culminated in a coordinated call to action that successfully defeated an NCEES motion that would have changed the Model Law’s provisions on the practice of structural engineering. State societies have also defeated concerted efforts to push through SE requirements in Texas and Georgia. In Florida, a partial practice SE licensure bill was passed by both houses of the state legislature but was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott in June due to its grandfathering clause.
At the same time, however, proponents of SE licensure have made inroads. An increasing number of states have formed licensure committees to organize and advocate for the enactment of state laws. Hawaii and Illinois have long had full practice restrictions for structural engineering, and the number of states with partial practice restrictions is now up to six.
Proponents of SE licensure are also confident the number of states with partial practice restrictions will soon be seven. “There will be more conversations, and I suspect within two years, if not next year, it will get through in Florida,” says Susan Jorgensen, P.E., member of NCSEA’s licensure committee and board of directors. “The governor was not against structural licensure, but he didn’t believe the transitioning process they had put into the legislation would be effective.”
Despite the continued debate and recent legislative activity, no definitive research on the merits of structural licensing or the inadequacies of general PE licensing has been completed by either proponents or opponents of SE licensure. Anecdotal evidence and common sense observations, on the other hand, are not in short supply.
The PE System
The first question anyone unfamiliar with the SE licensure debate is likely to ask is whether the PE licensure system is broken or inadequate to protect the public from the unqualified practice of structural engineering. The answer is different depending on who you ask.
“Part of being licensed is practicing within your area of expertise, and there are some ethical guidelines and even requirements and regulations that require people to do that,” says NSPE member Paul Schmidt, P.E., F.NSPE, past chair of NSPE’s Licensure and Qualifications for Practice Committee, which was incorporated into the Society’s new Committee on Policy and Advocacy in July. “Overall, the [PE] system does work.”
“It’s not working as good as it should,” contends NCSEA President Barry Arnold, P.E., S.E. “I wish with every fiber of my being that every engineer was as ethical as NSPE thinks they are or should be, but I just keep seeing cases and problems coming up.”
“I’ve seen engineers who are not qualified to design structures and yet they are practicing structural engineering,” Jorgensen adds. “It scares me. It makes me extremely concerned about how many others are out there practicing that really don’t have the qualifications, background, or experience to do it.”
A consulting structural engineer who has done plan reviews for local governments, Arnold says it’s plain to him, from doing such plan reviews, that the PE system doesn’t work. He adds that his firm, ARW Engineers in Ogden, Utah, frequently sees substandard structural engineering work.
It should be noted that substandard structural engineering work is more than just dangerous designs. It includes poor designs that increase maintenance costs and overdesigns that increase construction costs, which structural engineering groups believe can also be reduced through SE licensure.
Regardless of how substandard structural engineering is defined, NSPE disputes claims that it is a frequent occurrence. “Proof of the success of the current system is all around us,” Austin says. “Tens of thousands of superb structures have been designed and built across the US. Far from doing the public harm, they have been a great benefit to the public.”
It’s not as though engineers who work outside their area of expertise are off the hook within the PE system either. State licensing boards exist to protect the public through regulating the practice of engineering. “And if substandard work is in fact being done,” Austin adds, “licensed engineers are required to report those instances to their licensing boards.”
Structural engineers see the PE licensure system as reactive when it comes to substandard structural engineering work, however, whereas they see SE licensure as proactive. “Personally, I would like to believe every building I walk into had a qualified structural engineer design it,” Jorgensen says. “Do you know the qualifications of the structural engineer that designed your children’s school? Wouldn’t you rather it be a licensed structural engineer who has the qualifications and not just a generic PE who may or may not?”
“We all want to protect the public—it’s the purpose of licensure—and the current licensing system has been very successful at doing just that,” Austin says. “Where is the evidence to show that it has been unsuccessful?”
The SE License
In the same way that structural engineering groups think the PE licensure system is flawed and SE licensure is preferable, NSPE believes SE licensure is flawed and generic PE licensure is preferable.
“We believe [SE licensure] is the best way to protect the public,” Jorgensen says. “Having a generic PE is fine, except that our industry, not just structural engineering but all engineering, has become very specialized.”
Despite the increased specialization of engineering, NSPE asserts that the regulatory answer lies in the current licensing system, not in creating a new license for every discipline.
“As we face increasingly complex challenges, 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,” Austin says. “Layers of licensing requirements would cloud that perspective and create uncertainty, which would damage public trust in any discipline that requires a PE license and, as a result, its ability to protect the public. If we go further down the path of discipline-specific licensing, where does it end? Beware of the unintended consequences.”
Another area of significant concern for NSPE is that SE licensure can create unintended practice barriers for PEs. “As responsible as discipline-specific licensure may sound, all of the practice models I have seen in which the statutes attempt to define the specific thresholds and practice restrictions that go with discipline-specific practice act licensure, in one way or another, create unintended barriers,” says structural engineer Skip Lewis, P.E., F.NSPE. “It is the responsible application of an engineer’s extensive body of knowledge, regardless of the manner in which the body of knowledge is accumulated, that provides the public protection that engineering statutes are intended to address. Through multiple decades of practice, I have found that generic licensure best provides those protections, and it does so in a way that does not create unnecessary barriers that inevitably occur with discipline-specific licensure.”
Additionally, concern about unintended practice barriers is magnified by the lack of uniform thresholds in the practice restrictions that have been passed thus far. “There are so many differences between the practice restrictions which now appear in the laws of such states as Illinois, California, Washington, Hawaii, and a few others who have enacted, in some measure, structural engineering licensing laws,” Lewis says. “The lack of harmonization in some rational manner only complicates the practice of engineering, especially for professional engineers who may unknowingly cross the practice barrier set up in the act.”
Arnold doesn’t disagree that current SE licensure laws are not uniform but contends that adding SE licensure to the NCEES Model Law would be the first step to creating uniformity. Therefore, he also contends, NSPE has contributed to the problem.
NSPE’s third significant concern with SE licensure is that discipline-specific licensure would hurt the engineering profession’s unity. Under one general PE license, on the other hand, unity is improved.
“The biggest risk moving forward, if you start going down this path with structural engineering [licensure], is you’re going to fragment the profession and confuse people,” Schmidt says. “It’s always been a complex specialty within engineering and it’s changed, but other aspects of engineering are equally complex and critical and are changing.”
“I believe it will make [the profession] stronger,” Jorgensen says. “If your client is hiring a structural engineer and they have an SE…they know for sure they’re hiring someone qualified. If they’re just hiring a PE, you have to trust their word.”
However, that’s the kind of thing NSPE is concerned about. “Discipline-specific licensure would damage public trust in any discipline that requires a generic PE license and, as a result, its ability to protect the public,” Austin says. It’s the opposite of the professionally unity and strength NSPE wants to protect.
“When you fragment [the profession] into various discipline-specific areas, you tend to weaken the persuasive powers of the engineering community as a whole,” Lewis says. “Communication in the political process, I think, is weakened when you have fewer voices in multiple segments, particularly if those voices are in opposition to one another.”
For 65 years, the health, safety, and welfare of all Americans has been protected by the licensing of professional engineers and, in the large majority of states, without the additional licensing of structural engineers. Now, the debate over a separate license for structural engineers is at its hottest point yet. With no signs of a cool down in sight, the engineering profession should prepare for more turbulence ahead.
Where do you stand on the licensing of structural engineers? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.