January 30, 2015

The Evolving Future of Engineering Licensure

Blaine Leonard, PE, D.GE, Pres.10.ASCE

As engineers, we have all spent considerable time, effort, and capital developing the expertise needed to engage in our profession competently.  Engineering school was a challenge, and the early years of our careers were filled with long hours as we honed our skills, learned from mentors, turned theory into practical tools, and prepared for licensing exams. With the changing face of science and engineering, it is necessary to continue to learn and adapt. In just 30 years, we have gone from using slide rules and log tables to GPS, sophisticated modeling software and tablets. Change will continue to happen, most likely at a heightened pace.

It is now clear that the complex challenges facing 21st century society will require professional engineers to advance their technical excellence and professional leadership even more than we have in the past in order to continue to protect the public and improve its quality of life.  The profession will be not just about the science of engineering but about the whole science of society and how engineering best serves society.

Despite the continual improvements in the quality of undergraduate engineering education, financial pressures at U.S. universities, have caused a typical engineering program of 145 semester hours to decrease to 128 over the past several decades, with most of that decrease depleting upper level technical design courses. A National Academy of Engineering report stated that "It is evident that the exploding body of science and engineering knowledge cannot be accommodated within the context of the traditional four year baccalaureate degree" (Educating the Engineer of 2020, 2005).  The engineering education of the present will not be sufficient to prepare professional engineers for those future responsibilities.

The engineering profession has been struggling with this challenge for over two decades. Every other learned profession, faced with a similar explosion of knowledge, has concluded that post-baccalaureate education is required for professional practice. And, as they have done so, their professions have thrived and advanced. In 1998 the ASCE Board of Direction adopted a policy supporting advanced education as a pre-requisite for licensure. This policy (No. 465) states that ASCE supports "the attainment of a Body of Knowledge (BOK) for entry into the practice of civil engineering at the professional level" through "appropriate engineering education and experience". That "body of knowledge" for civil engineering has been well defined by ASCE's publication Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century, 2nd Edition. Policy 465 goes on to define the necessary educational path as a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering plus a "master's degree in engineering, or no less than 30 graduate or upper level undergraduate technical and/or professional practice credits or the equivalent." The flexibility of pursuing either a master's degree or the alternative of an equivalent 30 credit hours provides two viable paths to meet the needed educational requirements of the future.

ASCE leaders continue to believe that "raising the bar" on engineering education requirements for future licensure is the correct approach to dealing with the challenges that will face us. (Those who are already licensed once a future law takes effect would not be impacted.) Efforts are moving forward to adopt this important change in licensure laws around the United States. The ASCE Raise the Bar committee is working with engineers in several states to educate stakeholders and get state licensing laws changed. In such a process, those engineer "champions" set up a local steering committee, and then the members of the committee meet with their licensing boards, universities, local firms, and other colleagues to explain the issue and seek buy-in. ASCE provides training and tools for their work, including flyers, talking points, and other support. Ultimately, legislative sponsors are secured, legislation is drafted, and local members prepare to testify before boards and committees.

Meeting societal needs and enhancing economic growth through new and sustainable infrastructure, technologies, and services will require future professional engineers to apply an ever increasing breadth and depth of knowledge, leadership, and vision. Professional engineers with enhanced technical, professional, and leadership skills will contribute to new and more adaptive solutions. Leveraging these expanded skills, engineering firms and agencies will be able to create more effective project teams, generating improved operational efficiencies and service.  Brad Aldrich, a former President of NSPE has stated, "As an owner of a private consulting firm, I think it's important that our incoming engineers have advanced education prior to licensure." Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stated in a letter to ASCE President Stevens that the attainment of this expanded Body of Knowledge is "an essential step towards having engineers at a truly professional level and one the USACE fully supports."

Change is occurring faster than at any time in human history. As engineers, we are expected to not only adapt to this change, but to encourage it, to cause it, and to bring about improvements in every aspect of our lives.  As stated in The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025 (ASCE, 2007), "Civil engineers . . . find themselves as keepers of an impressive legacy, while raising concerns about future directions. They know they must . . . show more leadership. They know they must control their own destiny. . . ." The time is now to accept the challenge to expand engineering educational requirements for future generations of licensed engineers, to stretch the boundaries.

To be entrusted by society to advance and protect the public health, safety and welfare and improve the quality of life into the future, the engineering profession must "raise the bar".

Read more about ASCE's Raise the Bar strategic initiative, and view videos from supporters of the initiative at http://RaiseTheBarForEngineering.org.