Becoming a Professional Engineer

We’ve discussed the importance of building codes and professional licensing in promoting the health, safety, and welfare of the public in previous blogs. But what does it take to become a Professional Engineer, and why does it matter?

Hammurabi's Code is inscribed on a stele.
Hammurabi wrote his code “to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.” It included a number of professional liability laws. Shutterstock image.

An ancient building code

If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.—Hammurabi

Regulation of engineering has a long history. Hammurabi’s Code, a compendium of laws predating Moses, had a lot to say regarding various professions. There were regulations for physicians, surgeons, veterinarians, builders, shipwrights, and sailors. That is, people whose work risked the destruction of life or property needed to be held accountable.

If a builder build a house for some one, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.—Hammurabi

Most of the laws dealing with builders were essentially professional liability laws. Apparently Hammurabi’s idea of justice was of the “eye for an eye” variety. It would certainly have protected the public from incompetent builders, if only because they wouldn’t survive long.

Licensing engineers in the US

The licensing of engineers in the United States dates back to 1907. The state engineer of Wyoming noted that too many unqualified people were filing for rights to irrigation water. As a result, he and his staff had great difficulty in allocating the water. He approached the state legislature with a proposal for licensing engineers. The resulting law established a state board of examiners for engineers. Anyone representing himself as an engineer in Wyoming had to register with the state. Once the law was in place, “a most astonishing change took place within a few months in the character of maps and plans filed with the applications for permits.”

The idea spread to other states. At first each state had its own rules, and states didn’t accept each others’ licenses. That posed a problem for anyone who wanted to practice in more than one state. In 1920 the Iowa State Board of Engineering Examiners invited their counterparts from the other nine state boards to harmonize their requirements. They formed what would later become the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). The purpose of the council was to examine all the states’ requirements and recommend a common standard for the Professional Engineer.

In 1932 NCEES established its Model Law, which included uniform licensing guidelines and standards for record keeping. These measures made it much easier to obtain licensure as a Professional Engineer by comity.

Professional Engineer examinations

By 1947 every state had a licensing board. However, the requisite examinations varied widely from state to state. Some were oral, others written. Some required an understanding of logic, but not necessarily engineering. None of them really demonstrated that the examinee had mastered engineering. Eventually the state boards agreed on one 8-hour examination of mathematics, physics, engineering economics, and other fundamentals of engineering. The FE exam takes place shortly before the student graduates with a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited engineering curriculum.

A second 8-hour exam, the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE), comes after a number of years of experience in the profession. Different states have different requirements for that experience; typically it’s four years of increasing responsibility under the supervision of a Professional Engineer. Some states give credit towards that experience if one has an advanced degree. To be eligible to take the PE exam, applicants must document their work and have their supervisor or other knowledgeable person attest to it.

All this works best for engineers who attended US or Canadian universities and obtained their experience in this country, as I learned when I wanted to take the PE exam. I’d spent a year doing research at Norges tekniske høgskole (now NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway, and then three and a half years as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. None of that counted because my supervisors weren’t licensed in the US. By the time I had enough eligible experience to qualify, it had been more than a decade since I’d taken any kind of exam. I took a review course and was very glad I did. The course was mostly about test-taking strategies—selecting which questions to answer and making the best use of the time. The actual content of the exam was secondary.

Licensing by comity

NCEES maintains records for engineers who need licenses in multiple states. Assembling the record requires painstaking effort, as NCEES carefully vets everything you submit. It’s best to start when you’re young and maintain it throughout your career. Going back years later to fill in the gaps can be quite an ordeal, as you may have lost touch with former supervisors or colleagues.

Continuing education is vital for keeping up with changes to building codes and best practices. Different states have different requirements. Some want a certain number of hours (usually one per year) of engineering ethics instruction. Others such as Illinois don’t count ethics training in the total. Some limit the hours of online training. Because different states have different renewal dates, it’s best to keep up your continuing education throughout the year.

When you apply for licensing in a new state, you can request NCEES to send your record to that state’s board. They may accept all or part of it. Some states have additional requirements. Because they all have different laws, it’s fairly common to have to take an examination of local laws and professional ethics. Most are rather dry regurgitations of the relevant statutes, but the Texas exam is a series of actual case studies to which you have to apply the laws. Washington’s is the most stringent, requiring a score of 100% to pass.

To verify that your experience wasn’t just one year of experience repeated several times over, some states require submissions of sample work. I found Massachusetts’ requirement most remarkable. In answer to a frequently asked question about how much documentation to submit, “The Board advised that the amount of documentation should not exceed one pound (1 lb.) in weight…” I’m not sure how to measure it, as all documentation must be submitted electronically.