License to Drive, License to Engineer

October 13, 2022

Even though today’s commute might make you wonder, not just anyone can get behind a wheel these days.


Activities that represent significant risk to the public—like driving an automobile—often require a license to ensure a base level of competence. Since 1936, Texas drivers have needed to obtain a license before hitting the streets.


That same idea is at work in professional licensing. Beyond registration or certification, professional licensing specifies requirements individuals must fulfill before entering certain fields. The aim is to increase public safety, protect citizens from those without proper training, and provide financially responsible and sustainable designs for public infrastructure. The case for thorough licensing is obvious in many professions. Such standards for medical providers and lawyers give their patients and clients confidence in their abilities.


Some feel that licensing has gotten out of hand, as in the case of licensing requirements for barber shampoo apprentices or bingo unit managers, which were abolished in 2017. One license that continues to show its value in protecting public safety, however, is the Professional Engineer (P.E.) license, says Becky Carroll, Vice President at Pape-Dawson Engineers “The main purpose of P.E. licensing is to protect the safety and welfare of the public.”


The steps to attain a P.E. are rigorous, she says, and they ensure a level of proficiency and professionalism. “The process confirms the education, experience, and ethics of each engineer.” Attaining a P.E. requires listing references who are also P.E.s. “It’s important that other licensed engineers will vouch for you,” says Becky. “That gives the necessary credibility for the engineer, in terms of work experience and ability, as well as character.”


Sometimes the requirement for professional licensing of engineers is called into question. Some ask Can’t we just use social media? Although customer feedback can be a differentiator when choosing engineers, engineering is more than a popularity contest, counters Becky. “Without a strong P.E. licensing system, engineers and lookalikes could end up selling themselves, advertising straight to the public without any assurances they could safely do what they’re offering.” Short of standards-based licensing, the public would be left on their own to choose. Unfortunately, most of the public is ill-prepared to navigate the complex world of engineering, just as they are the technical areas of medicine, law, or accounting.


Consider the real-world consequences of allowing unlicensed practitioners to conduct engineering work: unsafe buildings, dangerous roads, flimsy bridges, inadequate water lines, risky electrical distribution, and hazardous cars, trains, and airplanes. To prevent that, state licensing boards, themselves run by experienced engineers, take on the task of confirming that aspiring engineers have the skills and expertise to carry out the technical work. After approval, a P.E. gets a personal stamp that allows them to approve design work. Although many engineers may take part in the design process for a structure or apparatus, a single engineer takes responsibility for the final result—the P.E. whose personal stamp is on it.


The P.E. license is not a one-time-only achievement, either. P.E.s take continuing education to keep current in the field. That means that today’s engineers not only attained the standards years ago, but also dedicate themselves to the ongoing progress of their discipline.


A P.E. herself, Becky has served in various leadership roles in the Texas Society of Professional Engineers (TSPE), culminating in her recent two-year term as State Director for the Bexar Chapter. As a torchbearer for the P.E. license, she considers advocacy an important part of her mission. Part of that includes educating the public and advocating before lawmakers on topics that deal with engineer licensing. But just as important, she says, is reaching out to another important audience: future engineers. “A crucial way we can protect our industry is supporting interested youth.” The TSPE supports MATHCOUNTS middle school math competitions to encourage interest in STEM fields, for example. “Engaging the next generation of engineers early is not just a way for us to give back,” she adds. “It’s also the best way to keep the engineering future bright.”

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