Second-class status unacceptable

By Tom Stout

An octogenarian, like me, does a lot of thinking. I reflect on past satisfactions and disappointments, wonder what lies ahead, and puzzle over how to dispose of physical "stuff" I've collected so far and how to share what I've learned with those coming along.

This column offers an opportunity to pass along an assortment of information on engineering credentials, a field that has been my hobby for close to 40 years.

First, know these terms:
• Registration is a sign-up procedure for some purpose such as military service.
• Licensing is a government-operated program leading to permission to practice a trade or profession affecting the public health, safety, and welfare.
• Certification is a privately operated program leading to the right to use a title attesting to skill in a specified field. • Accreditation is a process of evaluation for institutions, such as schools or hospitals, attesting that they meet prescribed standards.  

These are legalistic definitions; common usage may be quite different. "RN" and "CPA" are titles for licensed persons. Engineers are "registered" in many states, although the preferred and more accurate term is now "licensed." People regularly confuse "accredited" with the other terms.

There are five national organizations concerned, in one way or another, with engineering credentials:
1. NCEES (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying - is a federation of state licensing boards that prepares and scores exams; it also promotes uniformity of licensing procedures among the states.
2. ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology - is an association of engineering technical societies to evaluate and accredit programs at colleges and universities.
3. NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers - is a society to promote the business interests of licensed professional engineers.
4. CESB (Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards - is an organization of certifying bodies to provide quality assurance for certification programs in engineering and related fields. 
5. ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education - is an organization of engineering educators that publishes statistics on enrollment, degrees, and the like as well as profiles of engineering and engineering technology institutions.

NCEES has tried to promote uniformity of licensing procedures by creating and periodically revising a "Model Law" and accompanying regulations. No state has adopted the entire model law verbatim, but sections exist in many state licensing laws.

In all states, an engineer with a four-year degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, four years of acceptable experience, and adequate references can be licensed by passing two examinations, the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) and PE (Principles and Practice of Engineering). 

However, requirements vary widely for engineers with no degree, a related-science or foreign degree, or other non-standard backgrounds.

California, where I live, has a unique law. All licensed engineers are "PEs" but the PE Board regards civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering as "practice branches." All others are "title branches."  

Definitions of allowable practice areas give a much larger scope to the "practice" branches. A reading of the law does not support this distinction; the PE Board says it is "common usage."

A serious effort took place in 2006 to amend the law to eliminate the second-class status of the so-called title-branch engineers. A bill for this purpose, initiated and supported by the PE Board, passed in the Senate but stalled in the Assembly. 

Politicians took out key elements of the bill, and it finally passed in both houses, making some minor changes in the law desired by the Board but leaving the state's unique licensing law in place.

This column may or may not be a "Final Say" or last word from me. I want to work to help with passage of a bill improving the California engineering licensing law.

Thomas Stout (, Ph.D., PE, is a fellow and honorary member of ISA. He worked for TRW and Profimatics Inc. on early process control computer applications and has worked with all five of the credential organizations referenced here.