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A Primer on Credentials for Engineering and Related Fields


There are commonly held misconceptions regarding credentials in engineering and related fields. Some of the misconceptions lie in the incorrect application of the words used in the credentialling field; i.e., licensing, registration, certification, and accreditation. Engineers use the term "registered" interchangeably with "licensed" which contributes to the confusion since the two words have sharply different meanings to the public.

 A license is authorization granted by a government to perform a function or service, e.g., a driver's license, an engineering license, etc. Licensing is founded on the police powers of government to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. It requires the demonstration of the minimum degree of competence needed to perform the authorized function.


Registration is listing with and by some entity. It can be a governmental or non-governmental entity that does the registration, e.g., registering with Selective Service. Registration grants no authority, nor does it address an individual's qualifications.


Certification is a voluntary act which, according to some organized procedure, measures an individual’s qualification to perform a particular function. Because it is voluntary, it conveys no authority or privilege, i.e., one need not possess the certificate to legally perform a function or service, albeit custom or market forces may require it. Certification exists today in many professions and trades.


The term Specialty Certification is properly applied to programs which identify a special capability where a primary general credential exists. For example, licensed physicians are specialty certified when they demonstrate a particular expertise, e.g., surgery.


Accreditation is like certification in that it is voluntary and measures capability to perform. It differs in that it applies to institutions and programs, not individuals. A familiar example is the accreditation of education programs.


Engineers are not alone in the misapplication of these four words. Throughout American society the misapplication abounds and has been institutionalized by encoding them in laws and regulations.


The Roots of Engineering Credentials

Modern engineering is a far cry from its roots in designing the engines of war for medieval battles. The first specialization to occur was to separate civil engineering from military engineering. Today, Who's Who in Engineering lists more than 100 different engineering organizations, each with its own special interest.


In 1907, Wyoming was the first state to exercise its constitutional powers to regulate the practice of engineering. Between then and 1947, all states passed licensing laws for engineers, and by 1970, all 50 states and 5 legal jurisdictions of the U.S., e.g., Puerto Rico, had laws that regulated engineering practice in some way. These regulations were adopted to protect the public from those not properly equipped by virtue of education and experience to make the judgments necessary in the construction of products and useful facilities. Unlike medicine and law, these regulations contained exemptions allowing persons to practice engineering without a license. The result of these exemptions is that today about 80% of the two million practicing engineers in the United States are not licensed.


The lack of a universal requirement for a license mandated by the government and practical differences of opinion between licensing boards and certain practice groups led many engineering specialties to eschew licensing and pursue other forms of self-regulation, be they association membership or certification. These differences, and a host of underlying factors, personalities, and power struggles are other primary contributors to the ongoing debate regarding licensing and certification in engineering.


Certification and Specialty Certification in Engineering

The environmental engineering profession pioneered specialty certification in engineering. In 1955, leaders of that profession formed the American Academy of Sanitary Engineers (the termed then used to describe those referred to today as environmental engineers) to certify and, thus, distinguish those licensed civil, chemical, and mechanical engineers who had the special capabilities required in environmental engineering. This specialty certification program embraced the same principles found in the certification of medical specialties -- formal training at the college level, a state license to practice engineering, a prescribed amount of practical experience, a review of qualifications by peers, and examinations.


Like the general license to practice a profession, specialty certification seeks to identify those with the capabilities necessary to practice a particular specialty. This peer-based identification is provided to aid the public in obtaining specialized services from those uniquely qualified.


The argument over universal licensure for engineers precluded many disciplines or specialties from the benefits professionals accrue from licensing. As a result, certain engineering disciplines or specialities within the disciplines or scientific disciplines involved in the delivery of engineered products and facilities developed certification programs as a means by which those uniquely qualified could be identified from the large cross-section of technologists.


Decades later, there are many other engineering and engineering related organizations operating certification and specialty certification programs. There are 66 organizations operating one or more certification programs listed in the Directory of Engineering, Engineering Related, and Engineering Technician Programs (CESB 1998).


Regulation of Certification in Engineering

Concurrent with the growth in the number of certification and specialty certification programs was increasing concerns about this form of credentialling. The primary concerns were that certification would detract from licensing and that certificates would be issued without appropriately rigorous examinations.


In 1988, the National Society of Professional Engineers organized the First National Conference on Engineering Specialty Certification. Representatives of twenty-three engineering and technical societies explored the pros and cons of specialty certification vis-a-vis professional licensure and concluded by issuing a joint statement agreeing that "...specialty certification for engineers, properly conceived and administered, can be valuable to both the public and the engineering profession."


The outgrowth of this conference was the formation on April 24, 1990, of the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB). The purpose of CESB is to instill some uniformity in engineering and technical certification programs and to accredit those credible programs on which the public can rely. The by-laws of CESB define its goals and objectives as the improvement of engineering practice for the public benefit through:

  1. The establishment of professional criteria and monitoring of qualifications used to recognize special capabilities in engineering and related fields of practice through certification.

  2. The encouragement of continuing professional development as a condition for continued certification.

  3. The encouragement of ethical practice as a condition for continued certification.

To recognize the technical diversity in the delivery of engineering services, CESB has established four categories of specialty certification:

  • Professional Engineer

  • Graduate Engineer

  • Engineering Related

  • Engineering Technician

All categories must adhere to certain prescribed minimums regarding the structure and resources of the certifying body, the operation of the certification program, public disclosure, and periodic recertification. Additionally, the CESB accreditation guidelines prescribe responsibilities accredited programs owe to applicants, consumers, and the public.


The four categories are distinguished principally by their prerequisites:


  • Professional Engineer -- Applicants must be licensed as Professional Engineers and possess 6 years of experience in the specialty following the baccalaureate degree of which at least two years must be obtained after they have been issued a license. The title "Diplomate" is used to denote licensed professional engineers who have been granted specialty certification.

  • Graduate Engineer -- Applicants must be graduates of an ABET-accredited engineering baccalaureate degree program and possess four years of experience after graduation in responsible charge in the specialty being certified. The title "engineer" is limited to use by certificants in this category and by those in the Professional Engineer category.

  • Engineering Related -- Any field not titled engineering, but related in some way to the practice of engineering is covered by this category. Applicants must possess an accredited baccalaureate degree and four years of professional level experience in the specialty being certified.

  • Engineering Technician -- Applicants must possess an accredited two-year associate engineering technology degree or equivalent training and two years of work experience relevant to the specialty being certified.


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