Grangemouth Petrochemical Plant Saved From Closure

I’m on vacation this week, and so far I’m enjoying not doing anything much other than staring at the beautiful view out of my window, and taking long walks in the countryside.

Once I touch down back in Houston, I’m back to work, and back to the process of studying for the Professional Engineer (PE) exam.  Passing this exam is a difficult, (but important) task, and this has gotten me thinking a lot about the benefits such a title would grant me, and the necessity of making those benefits onerous to obtain.

The PE designation has to do with liability in the practice of engineering.  Many engineers in the oil & gas industry work without a PE designation, because their employers assume liability for their output should something go wrong.  If you want to go out and be a consulting engineer though, you assume liability for the work, and the PE “stamp” is a way of saying that your skills have been verified by your home state.

In the US, it’s no PE, no solo engineering work, much in the same way as someone with a medical degree can’t practice medicine without passing their boards, and an individual with a law degree can’t practice law without passing (in the US) the Bar exam.

A big, big difference between engineering and those two other professions is protection of the respective titles.

No one without an MD or PhD is referred to as “doctor” and no one without law qualifications can be referred to as “Esquire”.  “Engineer”, unfortunately, is thrown around much more loosely: “cost engineer”, “sales engineer”, “applications engineer”, and I’ve even heard “sanitation engineer” used to describe an individual on a garbage collection crew.

That’s not to downplay the importance of such an individual and the service they provide, but when it comes to professional designations, a paramedic cannot call themselves a doctor, a security guard cannot call themselves a policeman/woman, nor should anyone but fully qualified engineers be allowed to utilize the term.

Certainly, the term “Professional Engineer” is protected, and no one who has not passed the exam can put “PE” behind their name or render services by themselves.  In fact, I receive the periodic newsletter from the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, and that group is extremely strict and meticulous when it comes to enforcing the rules and penalizing those who either misrepresent themselves as PEs, or who fail to maintain the level of professionalism such a title requires.

I would like to take this a step further and propose that more generally, no one without at least a degree, undergraduate and/or graduate in an engineering subject should be permitted to use the term “engineer” when describing themselves, and that similar rigor be applied to policing that term.

This would benefit the engineering profession in several ways.

Restoring and maintaining the prestige and reputation of the profession

Engineers provide essential services to society, though in my view they don’t have the same status as, say, a doctor, a policeman or a fireman.  My own impression is that, to the extent they are quite far removed from the end users of their services, people don’t really ascribe the same importance to the profession as those previously cited.

I also can’t help but think the looseness with which the term “engineer” is thrown around has something to do with that.

If anyone can call themselves “engineer”, doesn’t that imply that being an “engineer” is in fact quite easy?  Wouldn’t strictly monitored standards do much to counteract that perception?

If requirements were tightened strongly so as to limit the number of people calling themselves “engineers”, the status of the profession would go up, leading (hopefully!) to more desire from people to join the profession in the future.

More mobility and career options for qualified engineers

When job-seekers have well defined skills, it is easy for them to determine which companies or clients to market themselves to.  The task of defining that skillset is made easy when it is done by an external third party!

I believe that if standards were adopted to protect the term “engineer”, those truly deserving of the title would see less barriers to switching employers, or gaining seniority with their current ones.  Of course, no one other than a “Professional Engineer” could work for themselves, but the extra bit of protection at the level below that would nevertheless be a positive for those working through a company.

More transparency from service providers

The flipside of that coin is that when titles and credentials are well-defined, it makes it very easy for employers to know what they are getting:  if the term “engineer” were more policed, companies would know, every time, what they were getting when they hire an engineer.  If job-seekers throw the term “engineer” around to puff up qualifications that aren’t that exceptional, there is no such transparency.

Standards should be maintained at the university level

If we assume that the term “engineer” becomes even more tightly controlled, there is always the risk that those institutions granting degrees could respond to pressures (from the market, from employers, from paying students…) to counterbalance those more strict requirements with more relaxed standards, so as not to see enrollments drop.

This should not happen, and I encourage every degree granting engineering institution not only to continue to maintain their rigor, but also push constantly for more protection of the term “engineer”.  Yes, this means that some will not make the cut, but this is fine.  Ultimately, exclusivity is good for those already in the profession, as it maintains status and compensation, and it is good for recipients of engineering services, as it ensures they receive nothing but the best in professionalism and expertise.

What do you think?

It is my understanding that in countries outside of the US, the term “engineer” is in fact highly protected.  Is this the case?  If so, how do you feel about it?  Can you make comparisons to the US?  Let me know in the comments section below, or please drop me a line, either through my websiteLinkedIn, or through email.

David Vaucher is a director with IHS, overseeing the Upstream Operating Costs Forum. He is also the editor-in-chief of “The Way Ahead” magazine, the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ official publication for young professionals in the oil and gas industry. 

This article was originally published on Fuel Fix.