March Prism - 2002
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Last Word

Time for a Change

By Stephen W. Director

Last summer I was asked to address the annual meeting of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). Since I am not a registered PE and have been, like many of my academic colleagues, openly critical of NSPE's relentless drive for “professional” registration, I was reluctant to accept this invitation. The conference organizers assured me that it was because of my views that I was being invited to speak and they hoped my remarks would stimulate discussion about the future of NSPE. Frankly, I was surprised by the positive reception that my comments received and now feel somewhat optimistic that NSPE might alter its primary mission and join other organizations in focusing on some of what I consider to be the real issues facing us as engineering educators. I share the remarks I made at this meeting in the hopes that others might enter this dialogue with NSPE.

Yogi Berra, the famed New York Yankees catcher, once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Well, it seems to me that the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) has come to a fork in the road. The choice facing it is whether to remain on its current course, continuing to focus on “licensure,” or to take a different course that focuses on “professionalism.” Following the latter path will certainly mean change; staying on the current path may mean extinction.

To set the stage, consider the report issued two years ago by the National Science Foundation's Division of Science Resources Studies, indicating that in 1995 there were about 1.6 million individuals who were employed as engineers. Of those, 400,000 did not hold engineering degrees. Furthermore, there were about 1.2 million individuals who held engineering degrees and whose principal occupation was not engineering.

In spite of the large number of practicing engineers, only 60,000 are members of NSPE. The most likely engineering graduates to seek licensure are those with degrees in civil engineering. However, for at least the last seven years, enrollment in most civil engineering degree programs has been declining. And the most popular disciplines—computer engineering and science, industrial engineering, and electrical engineering—produce graduates who work in industries that do not consider professional licensing relevant. To compound this situation, engineering graduates today have a much wider choice of job opportunities than ever before. In fact, many students who pursue a B.S. degree in engineering do so because they value the skills they will learn but intend to pursue a career in a different profession. In this sense, the engineering degree is becoming the “liberal arts” degree of the 21st century.

Even graduate engineering education is undergoing major changes. For example, there is growing interest in degree programs such as software engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, and financial engineering. And it is unlikely that those pursuing such degrees would value the PE license.

So, there are fewer and fewer individuals graduating with engineering degrees who would consider licensure as something worth seeking. But, as clearly stated on NSPE's Web site,, its primary mission is to be “the Champion for Professional Licensure. Promoting the PE license and protecting the professional engineer title have been top priorities for NSPE for more than 60 years.” As long as licensing remains the primary focus of NSPE, it will attract fewer and fewer new members.

If NSPE decided to focus on professionalism, it could pursue activities that directly enhance the engineering profession, including working with organizations such as the American Society for Engineering Education and universities to promote K-12 education in science, engineering, math, and technology. It could promote learning opportunities for students through co-op programs and internships, support affirmative action programs, and help the public and lawmakers to understand the importance of an engineering education and engineering research.

NSPE might also want to reconsider its relationship with colleges of engineering. While it is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect that all engineering faculty be registered PEs, NSPE continues to push for such registration, especially at public institutions, in most states. Moreover, NSPE's attempt to restrain the creation of new degree programs like “financial engineering” simply because it feels the word engineering is to be reserved for areas it deems appropriate is counterproductive and probably won't succeed anyway. The fact that engineering is encompassing an ever increasing number of activities is to be celebrated, not feared.

NSPE is indeed at a fork in the road. I hope it makes the choice to work more closely with engineering colleges and focus more of its energies on engineering professionalism rather than on the licensure of professional engineers.


Stephen W. Director is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering
at the University of Michigan.
He can be reached by e-mail at