Engineering regulations and licenses are set up by different jurisdictions around the world to promote the general public’s public health, protection, well-being, and other interests and to determine the licensing process by which an engineer is allowed to practice engineering and/or provide the public with professional engineering services.
As in many other occupations, in some jurisdictions, the professional status and actual practice of professional engineering is legally defined and covered by the statute. Also, some jurisdictions allow only licensed engineers (sometimes referred to as registered engineers) to “practice engineering,” which requires careful description to solve possible overlaps or ambiguities for any other occupations that may or may not be regulated themselves (e.g. “scientists,” or “architects”). Also, jurisdictions licensing unique engineering disciplines need to carefully identify these limits so that practitioners understand what they are required to do.
In certain cases, only a licensed/registered engineer from the state or province has the right to assume legal responsibility for engineering work or projects (typically via a seal or stamp on the relevant design documentation). Regulations that require that technical documents, such as reports, plans, engineering drawings and estimates for study estimation or valuation, or design review, repair, servicing, maintenance, or supervision of engineering work, process, or project, may only be signed, sealed, or stamped by a licensed or registered engineer. In situations involving public safety, property, or health, an engineer may be required to be licensed or registered, although some jurisdictions have an “industrial exemption” that allows engineers to work without a license internally for a company as long as they do not make final decisions to release the product to the public or provide engineering services directly to the public (e.g. consultant).
In court or before government committees or commissions, expert witnesses or advice can be provided by experts in the technical field, which is often provided in some jurisdictions by a registered or licensed engineer.
Becoming an engineer is a worldwide process that differs widely. The use of the word “engineer” is limited in some areas, but in others, it is not. There are specific processes and requirements for obtaining registration, charter, or license to practice engineering if engineering is a regulated occupation. These are received from the government or a charter-granting body operating on its behalf and these bodies are subject to oversight by engineers. There are voluntary qualification programs for different fields, in addition to licensing, which require exams approved by the Council of Engineering and Technical Specialization Boards.
Registered engineers enjoy considerable control over their legislation due to occupational closure. They are also the authors of the applicable ethics codes used by some of these organizations. In their work, engineers in private practice are most often found in conventional professional-client relationships. On the other side of the relationship are engineers working in government facilities and government-run industries. Despite the different emphasis, engineers face similar ethical problems in industry and private practice and draw similar conclusions. The National Society of Professional Engineers, an American engineering society, has tried to apply a single professional license and code of ethics to all engineers, regardless of the field of practice or the job sector.
Registering in the United States
The registration or licensing of technical engineers and engineering practices in the United States is limited by individual states. Each license or registration is valid only in the state in which it is issued. In more than one state, some licensed engineers hold licenses. Comity, also known as reciprocity, allows engineers licensed or registered in one state to receive a license in another state without complying with the usual stringent proof of testing certification. This is done by the second state acknowledging the legitimacy of the licensing or registration process of the first state.
History of PEs
In the state of Wyoming, licensing in the United States started when attorneys, notaries, and others without engineering experience submitted poor-quality applications to the state for permission to use state water for irrigation. In 1907, a bill was introduced to the state legislature by Clarence Johnson, the Wyoming state engineer, which mandated registration for anyone identifying themselves as an engineer or land surveyor and established a board of examiners. The 52-year-old engineer and mineral surveyor, Charles Bellamy, became the first practicing engineer accredited in the United States. After passage, Johnson would write wryly about the impact of the legislation, writing, “A most astonishing change took place within a few months in the character of maps and plans filed with the applications for permits.” Louisiana, followed by Florida and Illinois, would become the next states to require licensing. In 1947, Montana became the last state to enact licensing legislation
Registration Requirements for Engineers
Licensing specifications differ, but are usually as follows:
- Graduate of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)-accredited four-year college or university degree program in engineering (e.g. Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Science in Engineering, Master of Science in Engineering, Master of Engineering) or graduate of an ABET-accredited four-year college or university degree program in engineering in some states
- Complete a standard written overview of the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE), which tests candidates for a broad understanding of the basic principles of engineering and, optionally, certain elements of an engineering specialty. The completion of the first two phases usually qualifies applicants as an engineer in training (EIT) for certification in the United States, often also called an engineer intern (EI).
- Accumulate a certain amount of engineering experience: the minimum is four years in most nations, but in some, it is lower. The minimum number of years may be higher for engineering technology graduates.
- Complete a written review of Principles and Experience of Engineering (PE), which measures the expertise and skills of the applicant in their chosen engineering discipline (civil, electrical, automotive, mechanical, etc.) as well as engineering ethics.
For standardization, a central body, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, writes and grades FE and PE examinations (NCEES). However, the criteria for taking the tests, as well as the passing score, are independently set by each state’s board of professional engineers. For instance, before they can take the PE exam, applicants in some states must have professional references from several PEs. For FE and PE tests, there is a reasonably wide variety of examination pass rates, but the pass rate for repeat test takers is substantially lower.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have engineering boards represented by the NCEES that administer both the FE and PE exams.
Degree standards are changing in the United States. The NCEES model will require additional credits beyond a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree effective January 1, 2020. NCEES is designing the types of creditworthy practices that will meet the additional criteria for education. Civil engineers have obtained some support for this.
It is still possible for a person to bypass several of these steps as of 2013. In Texas, for example, people with many years of reliable experience still have access to both FE and PE exam waivers.
It is still possible for a person to skip Phase No. 1 in a few states and apply to take the registration tests, as long as the applicant is supported by a PE, since work experience can be replaced by academic experience. The need for years of experience can vary as well. For example, a PE exam with only two years of experience after a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree or one year of experience after a Master of Engineering degree can be taken in California. Candidates may take one of the PE exams directly via NCEES in other states, in some cases immediately after graduation, but they still have to wait until the requisite experience has been obtained before obtaining a license. There are also state-specific exams in some jurisdictions. California requires two additional tests for civil engineering applicants in land surveying and earthquake engineering, and several states have examinations based on their particular laws and ethics standards.
Generic technical engineering licenses are issued by some states. Others referred to as discipline states, grant licenses for particular engineering fields, such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering. In all cases, however, engineers are ethically obliged to restrict their work to their field of specialization, which is typically a small part of a discipline. Although this restriction is not always imposed by licensing boards, it can be a factor in litigation for negligence. Registered civil engineers can also do land survey work in a few states.
In addition to the license of the person, most states require that companies that provide engineering services be allowed to do so. For example, the state of Florida requires companies providing engineering services to be registered with the state and have a trained engineer licensed in Florida to qualify the company.
A substantial number of licensed technical engineers are civil engineers. For example, in Texas, about 37 percent of licenses are for civil engineers, with more than half of the exams taken are for civil engineering exams. Many of the rest are mechanical, electrical, and structural engineers. Some engineers in other sectors, however, receive licenses for the right to serve in the court, before government commissions, or just for prestige as expert witnesses, even though they might never actually sign and seal design papers.
Although the control of engineering activities is carried out in the United States by individual states, the areas of engineering involved in interstate trade are largely unregulated. These fields cover a significant part of mechanical, aerospace, and chemical engineering and maybe expressly exempted from an ‘economic exception’ from regulation. An industrial exception includes engineers who design goods that are marketed (or have the potential to be sold) outside the state in which they are made, such as vehicles, as well as the machinery used to manufacture the product. An industrial exception is not protected by structures subject to building codes, although small residential buildings also do not need an engineer’s seal. The roles of architects and structural engineers overlap in some jurisdictions. Generally speaking, an architect is the main professional responsible for constructing habitable buildings. The architect signs and seals construction plans for houses and other buildings that could be used by humans. A structural engineer is hired to provide a technical structural design that ensures the overall structure’s stability and protection, but no states currently allow engineers to practice professional architecture without being licensed as an architect.
“Most private companies hire non-graduate staff with engineering titles such as “test engineer” or “field engineer” in technical roles. At the discretion of the employer, as long as the company does not specifically provide engineering services to the public or other companies, such positions do not require an engineering license.
However, a distinction between a “graduate engineer” and a “professional engineer” needs to be made. Anyone who holds a degree in engineering from an approved four-year university program is a ‘graduate engineer’ but is not licensed to practice or provide services to the public. Unlicensed engineers typically work for a corporation as employees or as professors in colleges of engineering, where they are regulated by the industrial exemption clause.