Aiming for True North

September/October 2017

NSPE Today: Outlook
Aiming for True North



As NSPE ends one fiscal year and starts a new one, the typical focus for this column would be to talk about the past year’s activity. That is worth doing: We have a good story to tell, and NSPE’s 2016–17 accomplishments are something we can all take pride in. But that would be repeating a story that you have already been told, as it was happening. (See NSPE Year in Review: 2016–17.)

So, for this final column of the program year, I’ll focus on a higher level, on a significant cultural change the Society is embarking upon.

Culture is defined by values: foundational, unchanging principles that define what we believe and that determine the choices we make in our ever-changing day-to-day reality. It is our compass, if you will.

CompassThe actual course we chart may need to change in the face of external realities beyond our control, just as a storm may require a ship to take a different route than the one originally planned. But true north remains a constant.

Culture trumps politics, rules, legislation, structure, even strategy. No amount of tinkering with a law, procedure, or regulation is sufficient if a culture has been abandoned, forgotten, or has become unhealthy. Progress and improvement are absolutely necessary, but possible only if grounded in a culture that remains relevant and is informed by our shared, timeless, and unchanging values.

NSPE’s founders understood this.

It has become commonplace to observe that NSPE was founded to unite a community to establish PE licensing laws in all 50 states and US territories. But this mistakes a means for an end. Licensure is merely the outward form that makes our core values and beliefs tangible in our world.

Those values are summed up nicely in NSPE’s Statement of Principles: Being a licensed professional engineer means more than just holding a certificate and possessing technical competence; it is a commitment to hold the public health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations.

That is not to say that we don’t need to continue our effort to define, promote, and protect licensing regulations and laws. With the very concept of licensure under increased attack, those regulations and laws demand our constant vigilance.

But it is instructive and useful from time to time to take our eyes off the licensure tree and remind ourselves of the forest we seek to nurture, grow, and preserve: the professional community that is NSPE.

The new membership business model, overwhelmingly approved by the NSPE House of Delegates in Atlanta in July, is another one of those means that should never be mistaken for an end. But the means are important. Decisions on policy, strategy, and, yes, even the mundane administrative and financial details of the organization have consequences.

For NSPE’s elected leadership at the national and state levels, crafting this new approach required balancing the needs of a diverse membership and each member society in a manner that best serves the whole community. National and state leaders also had to resolve myriad internal operational matters that, if sometimes tedious, were tied to a higher purpose and intention.

The new membership business model is a new vehicle, intended to reenergize, reinvigorate, and restore a culture and ensure its efficacy in a world that has changed much since the Society was established in 1934. But it is a vehicle that remains aligned to true north. It is directed toward the same timeless truths that motivated the founders: that NSPE exists

  • To protect engineers (and the public) from unqualified practitioners;
  • To build public recognition for the profession; and
  • To stand against unethical practices.

The model recognizes that although the technical problems of each engineering specialty are divergent, the professional problems faced by engineers are alike. And that, while the technical societies are divided by discipline, this division into separate organizations prevents an effective united effort for the interests of the profession as a whole. Those aren’t my thoughts, or the current board’s. They are the principles articulated by NSPE’s founder, David Steinman, in 1934.

He went on to conclude that a “single national professional society, with solidarity of purpose and concentration of strength, is needed to provide effectively for the professional interests of the engineering profession” and that, to be successful, “unity and geographical organization are the essentials. The national society, the state societies, and the county chapters are closely and reciprocally integrated, and all are regarded of equal importance, with membership in one meaning membership in all.”

The new business model marks an evolution that revitalizes NSPE as a system of partners that are neither national-centric nor state-centric, but PE-centric.

The new membership model is not perfect—no product of fallible humans could be. But it is the product of a serious and careful effort over the past year and a half to make the best decisions possible. And to the army of state leaders (staff and volunteer) for the hundreds of hours they have invested in designing the model, my sincere thank you.

And to all the members of the professional engineering profession, whether members of NSPE or not, we’re just getting started. We’ve retooled our craft. We remain resolutely aimed at true north. And we intend to blow you away with what we accomplish next.