Why become a licensed professional engineer? (part 1)

Well, I’ve decided to do it.

In the coming days, I will begin my application to become a licensed Canadian professional engineer (P. Eng. for short). Although the question I have been struggling with on this topic has been why?, it would seem equally valid to ask why not?, and surely more than a few would say you’d be a <insert derogatory pronoun> not to!.

In order to answer these questions (and reason with whoever just hurled that hypothetical insult at me), it’s helpful to describe what becoming a professional engineer in Canada means. Let’s ask the website PEng.ca (which has the aesthetic appeal that you would expect from both engineers and the 1990s) :

   Engineering in Canada is regulated in the public interest by self-governing professional licensing bodies.

Makes sense. The Canadian public needs to be able to trust that its doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any other number of professionals know what they’re doing. So we regulate them. Well, not exactly. The only people with sufficient expertise to regulate doctors are… doctors! Self-regulation is the name of the game for engineers, nurses, teachers, and many other professions. For engineers, each province/territory has its own licensing body. And yes, we even trust the lawyers to keep their own house in order (scary, isn’t it?).

   Only a Professional Engineer is licensed to practise engineering in Canada.

Fair enough. Subtly, the key here is the phrase practise engineering. It not only means performing the type of work that could be considered engineering (e.g. civil, mechanical, electrical, etc.), but to do so under the professional job title of “engineer”. An electrical technician and electrical engineer working together to design, manufacture, and test some electrical equipment may perform an overlapping set of tasks, but only one of them is practising engineering in the eyes of the professional societies.

As an aside, I can already hear the objections from readers: “… but my friend Al works for Initech as a Software Engineer and the only thing he has a license for is his ’91 Corolla”.  Yup, we all know an “Al” (or 2… or 10).

Um, Al… I’m going to have to get you to go ahead and change your title to ‘developer’

This is a bit of a sore spot for provincial licensing bodies. In their view, these unlicensed individuals labeled as engineers mislead the public and risk harm to the image and trust associated with the profession. In several cases, they have taken advisory or legal action against violators, but with rather mixed results. This is a topic I will return to in more detail, so stay tuned.

Moving on…

 Being a P.Eng. means being responsible and accountable for the work you do.

I’ll be honest. I always thought that this meant that your license came with a little card that said “Congratulations! You can now be sued for you work.”. However, according to PEng.ca: you are potentially liable for the engineering work you do regardless of whether you are licenced or not. I’m not totally convinced that your liability and risk remain completely the same, but IANAL, so what do I know?

Let’s keep reading:

<Tons of marketing speak…>

OK, I’ll admit I have a tendency to skim-read things, especially dry content like our topic at-hand, but there’s not a ton of substance beyond that. Basically, as a licensed P. Eng, not only will you have the undying respect and admiration of the public and your peers, but your job prospects will brighten substantially. Undoubtedly, for some disciplines and industries, your career is certainly affected (if not made or broken) by your ability to become licensed. Just poll civil engineering graduates to see how many aren’t professional engineers or working towards that goal. However, if you ran the same survey for computer or software engineering disciples, you would get drastically different results.

So, to review what we learned from PEng.ca, the reason for becoming a professional engineer is straight-forward: it is a legal requirement if you want to practise engineering. Simple enough, isn’t it? We all want to earn a decent living. If Montgomery Scott invests the time and resources to study engineering at a University for half a decade, you can be damn sure that Scotty wants to realize the earning potential of that degree after graduation.

But (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), as I alluded to, things are not always so black and white. What if I told you that I have been gainfully employed, in a field that I studied during both undergraduate and post-graduate engineering degrees, for almost a decade, as a non-practising (e.g. without “engineer” in my various job titles), non-licensed engineer? What if I told you that it has not noticeably affected my ability to find work or my earning potential? Lastly, what if I could describe to you similar situations for the majority of my peers?

In reality, for many who studied engineering, becoming licensed is increasingly an option rather than a necessity. So the question of Why become a professional engineer? remains largely unanswered. In Part 2, I plan to tell you a bit more about my career and why for me (and many others who have taken a similar path), the decision to become  P. Eng. is far from a no-brainer.