ASEE Today - Presidentīs Letter

Letīs Make Engineering A Profession

By Ernest T. Smerdon

Ernest T. SmerdonLooking at the title of this letter, you may think, "Wait a minute, isn't engineering already a profession?" Let's think about it. What does it mean to work in a profession, i.e., a field that involves professional practice? A person may work in astronomy and earn a living at it. So that person is a professional astronomer as opposed to an amateur astronomer. But is astronomy a profession? You'd probably say no.

But if I ask you, "Is pharmacy a profession?" you would likely immediately answer yes. Why? At least partly because you know that a person cannot work as a pharmacist without being licensed to practice pharmacy. This person works with the public, and the license certifies that she/he is competent to dispense drugs and give advice on medications. The license also guarantees that this person has had the necessary education in chemistry and biology as well as the education/training in professional pharmacy practice deemed necessary to assure that the public is protected. That professional education, which comes after receiving a baccalaureate degree, is in a "professional" school.

We think of fields where ethics definitely enters the equation, such as medicine, law, pharmacy, and nursing, as professions, largely because a person must by law or regulation have a legal certification, usually in the form of a license, to practice. In other words, a person must be "licensed to practice" in his/her profession. So the word "practice" takes on a special meaning.

The Current Situation

A major problem for engineering as a recognized profession, then, is that only about one-fifth of working U.S. engineers are licensed professional engineers (P.E.). The rest work in industry or government and through state approved industrial/government exemptions are not required to be licensed. In fact, companies may give the title "engineer" to anyone, regardless of whether that person is educated as an engineer.

I do not advocate changing the industrial or government exemption provisions. The system has worked well and the conflict and misunderstanding that would occur if any group advocated eliminating these exemptions would be divisive to engineering. Though I happen to be a P.E. and among the 20 percent of U.S. engineers who are licensed to practice engineering, I am no better qualified than the 80 percent who are not licensed.

However, I do believe it is in the best interest of the engineering community to promote licensure as one way to improve the field's professional stature.  But how can we do this?

A way to start would be to insist that all new engineering graduates be on the engineering licensure track. I also advocate that companies employing engineers strongly encourage them to become licensed professionals, and promote professionalism and good engineering ethics. And state boards of engineering licensure should seek ways to facilitate the process while not compromising technical and ethical standards.

I also strongly believe that faculty members should be role models of professionalism, and that it would help if more were licensed professional engineers. By comparison, you will not find any faculty members who teach the practice of medicine or pharmacy who are not licensed (an exception is those who teach basic science, but they do not claim to be medical doctors or pharmacists). State boards could also facilitate the licensing of doctorate-holding engineering faculty members, recognizing that these are highly qualified, well-educated engineers and that engineering education is one type of engineering practice.

A first step toward accomplishing these goals would be the  state boards' adoption of the elements of the licensure model recently proposed by a task force of ASEE/NSPE/ABET/NCEES.

Protecting Our Image

These recommendations are principally made to promote a sense of professionalism. Engineering ought to be thought of as a professional field in the eyes of everyone, and without question. The word "engineering" should mean more than maintenance or plumbing, which is not always the case. It is a "professional" field.

The U.S. Department of Education does not recognize engineering as a professional field because it does not consider any four-year baccalaureate degree program as adequate for a professional degree. This may call for a move to establish the master's degree as the minimum education necessary to enter the profession.

 believe that engineering is a profession, and that engineering colleges are professional schools. But until we take steps to fulfill the requirements that recognized professions already meet, engineering will remain a notch below them in the public consciousness. A recent experience drove this point home for me.

As I walked down the hall in a hotel, I observed a man in coveralls, ladder beside him and replacement light bulb in hand, knocking at a guest room. Through the door he said, "Good morning-engineering here."

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