May/June 2011

Certification and licensure: What is the difference?

By Gerald Wilbanks

In today's business climate, it is advisable for a technician, designer, or engineer to enhance their professional capabilities and technical knowledge. If an individual is fortunate enough to have a good job, it is in their best interest to advance their knowledge to keep up with technology and to qualify for an even better position in the future. If a person does not have a good employment situation, it is best to have a presentation of skills and abilities to attract an even better job with another company. Also, many people are finding it to their advantage to go into business for themselves as a way to improve their future. This can be accomplished with training classes, education, on the job training, and mentoring. What is the best way to present this expanded ability and skill set to a prospective employer or to the current company of employment?

There are two excellent means to express the ability to perform a job function and present this in a solid and factual manner. These are to obtain a certification or to become licensed in the area of automation and process control. The reasons to achieve a goal of certification or licensure are basically the same:

  • Increase pay or income
  • Qualify for advanced position
  • Gain exposure for achievements
  • Be recognized by peers
  • Open new doors of opportunity

There are specific differences in these two paths of expression of professional achievement and an individual should know the differences. Often, it is a question of which one to pursue, but many times it is appropriate to seek both.

Certification is often granted by an organization, such as ISA, and is obtained based on documented evidence of work experience, educational background, proper technical references, and passing an examination. ISA offers this as a Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST) and a Certified Automation Professional (CAP). Each of these certifications has specific educational attainments and experience qualification requirements as stated on the ISA website,, under the "Certification" section. ISA certification provides an objective, third-party assessment and confirmation of a person's skills, and gives them the opportunity to stand out from the crowd and be recognized. A person will need to determine which certification path to take based on their background and work content. The technician would typically strive for the CCST title, while designers or engineers would typically plan for the CAP designation. In other cases, some people might want to obtain both certifications and that would greatly enhance the projection of their capability and skill level. In both cases, a person who has the required education, experience, and references will be required to take a four-hour exam composed of 175 multiple choice questions dealing with the topical domains covered by the certification. Certification is not a legal license to practice the discipline, but it provides the recognition of the proficiency within, and comprehension of, a specialized body of knowledge at a particular point in time.

Licensure is the professional and legal recognition of a person who has met the qualifications as a Professional Engineer (P.E.) and is granted by a particular state. There are several discipline categories for the P.E. designation (e.g., civil, mechanical, electrical, industrial, etc.), and each of these is supported by a technical society. The Control Systems P.E. license is supported by the funding, staff work, and volunteer efforts of ISA through the National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (NCEES). This national organization is composed of all the various state boards of licensure and maintains a consistent and continual application of the PE licensing exams for all states. Each state has its own specific requirements for a person to sit for the professional engineer examination, but in general the qualifications are:

  • Graduation from a ABET accredited university engineering curriculum
  • Successful completion of a Fundamentals of Engineering Examination
  • Minimum of four years of qualified experience after graduation

A person must apply to a state board and be cleared through NCEES to qualify to take the P.E. exam, which is typically eight hours and multiple choice format. There are a total of 80 questions on the exam and all must be worked. Each discipline has a specific exam, and the applicant must designate the practice area (control systems, electrical, civil, etc.) for the testing to take place. The exams are offered in April and October of each year, but the control systems exam is only offered in October. The P.E. license is a legal document that allows a person to practice engineering in the particular state. Individuals with a professional engineer license are highly valued by engineering companies and those providing services to the public. Once the original license is obtained, an engineer may apply for reciprocity licenses in other states, which may be granted if equivalent qualifications have been met.

So, the decision is up to the individual, based on their experience, education, and job goals. The main point is to obtain a certification or licensure as a key move in professional and career development.


Gerald Wilbanks, P.E. (, is a principal with DES. He is a licensed professional engineer in four states and serves as an instructor for the ISA Control Systems PE Exam Review Course. He is a Life Fellow member of ISA and served as ISA President in 1995. In addition, he is an ISA Fellow and a Distinguished Engineering Fellow at Mississippi State University.