Should engineer be a protected title? What to Know!

Should engineer be a protected title? Yes, as a way to let the public quickly know if someone can safely perform a certain task.

The title of “engineer” signals to the public that someone has expertise in a technical field.

Thus, you’ll better know if you can trust a person to provide engineering solutions.

In short, a protected title helps improve technical standards and increases safety.

Of course, I wish it was all so simple. A grey zone exists over the usage of the “engineer” title.

Here are some examples where the water becomes muddy:

  • Can a non-working engineering graduate call themselves an “engineer”?
  • Can a non-licensed working engineer call themselves an “engineer”?
  • Is a non-degreed engineer able to call themselves an “engineer”?

I don’t think the “engineer” title should be overly protected. I’m speaking as a licensed professional engineer.

We shouldn’t restrict the title usage to people who only hold engineering degrees. Or, to people who’ve taken a couple of exams.

I do believe we need certain restrictions though. I’ll explain my position by first discussing the history of the “engineer” title. I’ll include the following players in my discussion:

  • Degreed engineers
  • Licensed engineers
  • Non-degreed engineers

History of the “engineer” title

The word “engineer” comes from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium:

  • Ingeniare: “to create, generate, contrive, devise”
  • Ingenium: “cleverness”

So, anyone who builds things we’d consider an engineer by definition.

But, times have changed. The “engineer” title has evolved.

Today, engineers directly impact public safety on many levels. Thus, everyone shouldn’t be able to call themselves an “engineer” right off the bat.

Likewise, the title “doctor” comes from the Latin verb docēre.

  • Docēre: “to teach”

I know the “doctor” title we misuse as well. But, not to the degree of “engineer”.

On that note, we don’t want random people calling themselves doctors. This becomes a big concern, given doctors can cut you open for operation.

All in all, people by default think of doctors as experts in health fields. Experts who we go to for treatment.

Now, I understand it’s a lot of semantics with these titles. But, people have preconceived thoughts when hearing certain titles. Hence, the importance of this discussion.

Uphill battle for protecting the “engineer” title

The word “engineer” is very commonly used in the English language. But, the common usage of the word doesn’t align with a professional job.

So, how would a governing body regulate a word that’s used in the wrong way by most people?

It’d be very difficult.

People don’t think of “engineer” and a professional licensing board together. Whereas people do think of doctors and the medical board together.

That’s why you don’t see too many people throwing around the word “doctor” carelessly.

On that note, most people don’t even know engineers have a licensing board. Heck, many engineers don’t even know about licensure themselves.

Thus, the uphill battle. Any governing body would need to alter the English language to protect the word “engineer”.

Problems with using the “engineer” title improperly

In America, the “professional engineer” title, abbreviated as PE is legally protected. The title is for the practice of professional engineering.

But, this title protection varies from state to state.

Overall, you can’t give yourself the title of “professional engineer”. Then offer engineering services to the public without a license.

But, any non-degreed person can use the title “engineer” without punishment. I’ve heard the following titles before:

  • Candy Engineer
  • Popcorn Engineer
  • Landscape Engineer

These titles I have no issue with. For the most part, they’re harmless. My issue is with people who give themselves titles such as:

  • Parts Engineer
  • Handy Engineer
  • Safety Engineer
  • Maintenance engineer

These people then offer their services to the public. For example, they come to your house to repair something for you.

All the while, they don’t have education or experience. Hence the safety issue.

Important Note: California Professional Engineers ACT Section 6734.1 reads:

“Any person practices electrical engineering when he professes to be an electrical engineer or is in responsible charge of electrical engineering work.”

So, you can’t call yourself an engineer unless you’re licensed or exempt. 

Engineering is a profession

golden gate bridge san francisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (Photo Credit: Zachary Shakked)

What does “engineering is a profession” mean?

You “profess” your level of expertise.

Where “profess” means claiming you’re qualified as a particular specialist, or professional. In other words, you learned a skill by investing your time and money to earn a title.

Thus the confusion, if someone without knowledge and experience uses the “engineer” title. The public will lose trust in real engineers if this person does something wrong.

Example of a “Handy Engineer” offering a public service

Imagine a “Handy Engineer” comes to your house to repair your car. All the while, this Handy Engineer doesn’t have experience.

Thus, he botches the repair job and jeopardizes your safety.

In short, this person used the “Handy Engineer” title to subconsciously sell you a service. This person understood the “engineer” title signals high competence.

Clearly, they’re exploiting the title for personal financial gain.

So, guidelines need to exist on who can use the “engineer” title when it comes to the public. Otherwise, the misuse of the title can cause confusion and harm.

Important Note: there’s a lot of liability for doing engineering work for the public. For this reason, professional engineers charge for engineering overhead and liability. 

The reasons why PE licensure is important 

Some engineers think licensure is complete bullshit. But in the eyes of many, the PE license holds merit for the following reasons:

  • Offer a set level of skills that other engineers with the same license hold. Thus, there’s a uniform knowledge base. It better shows how engineers are “apples and apples” when compared.
  • A PE stands behind any stamped work. Thus, all stamped work meets a minimum standard.
  • Need experience and knowledge to ethically sign off on engineering work. For example, an electrical licensed PE shouldn’t sign off on civil work. This ensures every part of engineering design has an expert working on it.
  • A PE understands the legal ramifications of their designs. In return, their professional liability raises their work quality.
  • A PE vows to protect the public by following a set code of ethics.
  • The licensure board evaluates a PE’s level of competence through their active license. By holding an active license, an engineer by default meets a minimum set of standards.

Important Note: in most states in the U.S., you can work as an engineer in a company without a license. Or, under a licensed engineer without a license. But you can’t practice as a professional on your own without a license. 

Industries exempt from PE licensure

The auto, aerospace, and many other industries are exempt from licensure.

How would any group of engineers stamp let’s say the design of a 747 airplane? It’d be very difficult.

Rather, these large companies have deep-rooted models to ensure high-quality designs. These models include:

  • Design processes that factor in safety and risks at all levels
  • Auditing the smallest design detail and on up
  • Testing every design component in countless scenarios

Companies create these models using industry standards to become compliant. These companies are then audited by third parties who upkeep the standards.

To me, all these exempt engineers should be able to use the “engineer” title. License or not.

Important Note: many states have industrial exemptions for non-licensed engineers. For example, in the aerospace field.

In this field, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates the design of aircraft.

The FAA has people who act like PEs, who review the designs. They’re referred to as Designated Engineering Representatives (DER). They have the knowledge to ensure aircraft designs meet industry standards. 

SpaceX engineers design rockets without licensure

space x falcon heavy demo mission
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Demo Mission (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

I dare anyone to dismiss an engineer working at SpaceX because of no licensure. Launching a shuttle into orbit and then relanding on a small platform in the ocean is no cakewalk.

I go back to a NASA joke I’ve heard several times on this subject.

Why is licensure even necessary anymore, when non-PEs get us to the moon and beyond?

What’s the greater technical feat? The rocket designed by the non-PEs, or the rocket launch pad designed by the PEs?

I always get a laugh out of this. The discussion always defaults to perspective.

Important Note: for professional practice in engineering, two components exist.

  1. You need a license to assign liabilities
  2. You need engineering skills to complete technical design work

These are two separate matters, but both are necessary. 

In our NASA example, NASA becomes liable for the mistakes of any of their engineers.

So, employers in exempt industries legally protect their engineers. As a result, their engineers don’t need PE licenses.

But, as a solo practicing engineer, the PE license takes the place of the employer.

The PE license signals to the state and public on who to go after if something goes wrong. 

Graduating engineers versus PE licensure exam data

According to ASEE data, more engineers than ever are graduating every year in the U.S.

Calendar yearU.S. engineering bachelor's degrees awarded
201078,347
201183,001
201288,176
201393,360
201499,173
2015106,658
2016112,721
2017124,477
2018136,233

But, only 25,000 engineers take the PE exam every year according to NSPE in America. Using 2016 data, that’s only 22% of graduating engineers.

Yes, I understand you need to wait 4 years before taking the PE exam after graduation. But that’s a moot point, since every year a large volume of engineers graduate.

My point is, few engineers even try to take the PE exam.

The grey area over the usage of the “engineer” title

A company can give the “engineer” title to any of its employees. A company may even give the “engineer” title to someone without a degree.

But, if you try to hire yourself out with the title of “engineer”, you can’t. You’ll break the law by endangering the public.

And yes, I know. Everyone does it. But people do many stupid and illegal things.

Let’s take a look at California law since I live in this state. California Professional Engineers ACT Section 6704(a) reads:

“In order to safeguard life, health, property, and public welfare, no person shall practice civil, electrical, or mechanical engineering unless appropriately registered…”

This becomes a slippery slope now. Most everything produced impacts the public in some way. Yet, almost every commercial product manufactured in California doesn’t require a PE license.

This goes back to our NASA example, with them holding liability for their engineers. But as a solo founder, it’s a grey area if you’re producing widgets for the public without a license. Even more, some do so while calling themselves engineers too.

My view on protecting the “engineer” title

Again, I’m a licensed PE in the state of California. I don’t think it’s right for only licensed PEs to be able to call themselves engineers.

An engineering graduate who then practices should have the right to use the title. I’ll add a caveat in my solutions section below though.

That said, only people with PE licenses should be able to use the “professional engineer” title. That’s fair.

This is for public safety and liability reasons as we discussed.

Also, it’ll protect the profession from decaying through the following:

  • Keeping standards for the profession high
  • Not cheapening the services, licensure is set up to produce

In other words, it’ll raise standards for certain engineering work. If you want quality work, you hire a professional engineer.

I do need to say though, passing the PE exam doesn’t guarantee smarts. It just shows you’re better than average.

What about non-degreed technical people without licenses?

I know tradesmen who’d run circles around many real “engineers”. Their knowledge and instincts deliver safe and working solutions.

Heck, some PE licensed engineers I know couldn’t design themselves out of a box. Then, some of the brightest engineers I know don’t even know what the PE license is.

Frankly, some licensed engineers need to chill out. You shouldn’t get upset because a degreed engineer calls themselves an “engineer”. Especially in exempt industries. It’s ridiculous!

Maybe you think licensure signals you’ve studied more or have more knowledge. This may have triggered hidden insecurities in you. Who knows…

I know many would disagree with me too. They’d say I don’t want to protect the “engineer” title. Again, I get it.

The public doesn’t know the difference between an “engineer” and “professional engineer”. So, certain people can exploit the “engineer” title.

My stance is though, we can raise the profession as a whole without bringing anyone down.

A college degree is only a piece of paper

This piece of paper doesn’t mean you’re knowledgeable. And for sure it doesn’t mean you have any experience.

But, it does show you’ve had exposure to the basics of engineering. Thus, you have the ability to learn technical subjects.

Now, if you absorb the knowledge or not is an entirely different matter.

So, I don’t mind non-degreed people calling themselves engineers. Some of the smartest people I know don’t even hold engineering degrees. But, we do need requirements for the usage of the “engineer” title as I’ll discuss shortly.

Taking legal action against improper usage of the “engineer” title

As I said, I’m fine with protecting the “professional engineer” title. But, I’m against taking legal action against certain degreed engineers.

Engineers who by law don’t need a license because they work in exempt industries.

Thus, a degreed engineer should be able to freely use the “engineer” title. Of course, as long as they’re not selling a non-exempt service to the public.

Looking into the future with the “engineer” title

Old ways of teaching are becoming outdated through the internet. Some of the most amazing minds don’t even hold engineering degrees.

The greatest example is Elon Musk. Find me one person who’d argue against Elon calling himself an engineer. Elon would run circles around most every highly credentialed engineer.

But, I get it. For non-exempt public work, we need a set of standards. Thus, the PE licensure. The license protects the public from deadly engineering failures.

So, what’s left is protecting people from the dangers of one-on-one services. Types of services you’d find on Yelp.

Currently, a solution isn’t in place to protect the “engineer” title. But, it’s necessary.

Until we have a set solution in place though, restricting the title is absurd.

My solution on how to protect the “engineer” title

I believe my solution will help address title concerns without going overboard.

#1) Create more relevant PE licensure exams for exempt engineering fields

Today, many exempt engineers don’t even have an exam to take.

So, why would an engineer take a random license exam that benefits them in no way? I wouldn’t do it.

#2) Don’t force exempt industries to adopt licensure

Forcing degreed engineers in exempt industries to become licensed is ridiculous. For what reason, when relevant exams don’t even exist?

Even more, trying to restrict their usage of the “engineer” title. Their employers already carry their liability.

Plus, these employers are clearly doing something right. They send people across oceans in the sky, and to the moon in space, with little failure.

#3) Usage of the engineer title by college graduates without PE licenses

College graduates from accredited schools can use the “engineer” title in exempt industries. They just cannot misrepresent their credentials in non-exempt industries.

#4) Non-degreed technical people and licensure

Two groups exist here.

Group #1 are technical people with a lot of experience. They’ve been doing engineering work for years without a degree.

They should have the opportunity to use the “engineer” title. Maybe after having 20 years of experience and passing an exam.

Group #2 is everyday Joe who wants to make a quick buck. They’re non-degreed and don’t have a license. But, they also don’t have any experience or knowledge.

We should never allow these people to use the “engineer” title.

#5) PE licensure today

To call yourself a “professional engineer,” you need a PE license. If you don’t have a PE license, you can’t use this title. Simple!

Important Note: the PE license wasn’t always required in engineering. But after deaths from design failures a century ago, states adopted licensure.

This ensured engineers could meet set standards in their designs. As before, any person could practice engineering without any knowledge. It was truly the wild wild west of engineering.

I think in the future, more fields of engineering will require some form of licensure too. 

“Should engineer be a protected title?” wrap up

The usage of the “engineer” title is downright confusing when it doesn’t need to be.

That’s why I think my proposed solution would help. My only concern is public safety. I could care less about superficial titles.

In the end, as long as people don’t get hurt, it’s all semantics. Titles aren’t important, people are.

What are your thoughts on who can call themselves an engineer? To what degree do you think we should protect the “engineer” title?

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