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 is qualified to perform a certain task.

The title “engineer” is a signal to the public. From a title alone, you’ll know if someone has special expertise in a technical area.

As a result, you’ll better know if you can trust them to provide engineering solutions.

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

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

Here are some examples where the water becomes muddy:

  • Can an engineering graduate immediately call themselves an “engineer”?
  • Can a non-licensed engineer call themselves an “engineer”, but not a “professional engineer”?
  • Is a non-degreed engineer able to call themselves an “engineer”?

As a licensed professional engineer, I don’t think the “engineer” title should be overly protected.

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

I do believe we need certain restrictions in place though. I’ll explain my position by first discussing the history of the “engineer” title. While also highlighting all parties involved in this discussion, which include:

  • 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 is considered an engineer by definition.

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

Today, engineers directly impact public safety on many levels. Thus, not everyone should 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 a doctor. This becomes a big concern, given a doctor can cut you open. Then operate on your insides.

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 try to 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 try to alter the English language to protect the word.

Status of the “engineer” title in America

In America, the title “professional engineer”, 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 just give yourself the title of “professional engineer”. Then offer engineering services to the public without a license.

But, anyone can use the title “engineer” without any degree. I’ve heard the following titles before:

  • Candy Engineer
  • Popcorn Engineer
  • Landscape Engineer

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

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

Then, these people offer their services to the public. I’m talking about on a one-on-one basis. Where they come to your house to repair something for you.

All the while, they have no education nor experience. So, this becomes a 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. We’ll discuss exempt engineers in a later section.  

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.

You learned a skill by investing your time and money to earn a title.

So, it’ll cause confusion if someone misuses the “engineer” title. For example, a person without knowledge and experience starts using the title.

If something then goes wrong, it’ll make people lose trust in the profession.

Handy engineer offering a public service example

Let’s go back to our above example with my listed engineer titles. Imagine if a Handy Engineer comes to your house to work on your car.

All the while, this Handy Engineer has no experience whatsoever.

They then ruin the car repair job. In return, this leads to injury or even death.

In short, this person used the “Handy Engineer” title to subconsciously sell you a service. They’re exploiting the title for financial gain.

Keep in mind, the title “engineer” carries a certain weight that points to high competence.

So, certain benchmarks need to exist to separate engineers who perform professional work. For this same reason, we don’t have amateur doctors working alongside professional doctors.

I certainly don’t want a doctor with no experience cutting me open. So the point is, the misuse of a title without regulation can cause confusion and harm.

Important Note: this is why professional engineers charge for engineering overhead and liability. There’s a lot of liability in putting out engineering work.

PE licensure perspective

In the eyes of many, the PE license holds merit for the below-listed reasons. Keep in mind, some engineers think licensure is complete bullshit.

  • You offer a set level of skills that other engineers with the same license hold. Thus, there’s a uniform knowledge base. It better shows engineers are “apples and apples” when compared.
  • A qualified engineer has verified the design work of any stamped and submitted work. Thus, any stamped work meets a minimum standard.
  • You’re able to sign off on a subject you’re an expert in to submit for public use. In return, you understand the legal outcome of what you’ve stamped as you become liable.
  • As a professional, you vow to design for safety while following a set code of ethics.
  • The licensure board evaluates your level of competence by you holding a license. By holding a license, you need to meet a minimum set of standards.
  • If there are no rules, there are no guidelines to follow.

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

Companies who ignore the PE license

The auto, aerospace, and many other industries have no need for the PE license. They don’t need a state agency to review their designs.

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

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

  • A design process that factors in safety and risk at all levels
  • Auditing everything from the smallest detail and on up
  • Testing every component in countless scenarios

Companies create these models under the set standards of their industry. These companies are then audited by people who upkeep the standards.

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

The employer just needs to meet the minimum industry standards for what they produce. This will ensure compliance.

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

Important Note: many states have an industrial exemption for none licensed engineers. For example, in the aerospace field.

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

The FAA then has people who act like a PE review the designs. We know these people as Designated Engineering Representatives (DER). They have the knowledge base to ensure aircraft design is properly done. 

SpaceX engineers designing rockets

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 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 chuckle out of this. The discussion always defaults to perspective.

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

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

These are two separate things, but both are necessary. 

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

Engineer versus PE license data

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

Calendar yearU.S. engineering bachelor's degrees awarded

But, only 25,000 engineers take the PE exam a 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 I’m only looking for a ballpark figure given all the variables involved.

My point is, not many engineers even try to take the PE exam.

Grey area with the “engineer” title

A company can give out the “engineer” title to any one of its employees. A company will 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 be breaking the law by endangering the public.

And yes, I know. Everyone does it. But people do many things that are illegal.

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 all their engineers. But, as a solo founder, it’s a grey area if you’re producing some widget. As you can call yourself an “engineer” as a degreed engineer.

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 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.

But, only people with a PE license 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. Keeping standards for the profession high. All without cheapening the service the title is meant to produce.

In other words, it’ll raise the standards for certain engineering design work. Only professionals with specialized knowledge can do specific work.

That said, I do need to say, passing the PE exam doesn’t guarantee anything. It just shows someone who passed the exam is better than average.

Beyond the license and degree – non-degreed technical people

I know many tradesmen that would run circles around any formal “engineer”. Their knowledge and instincts deliver safe and working solutions.

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

These other engineers are some of the brightest people I know.

Frankly, 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, people can exploit the “engineer” title.

They’ll leverage the fact that the public thinks engineers are smarter than non-engineers.

My stance is though, we can raise the profession as a whole without bringing anyone down. The scope of engineering is large. And licensure doesn’t come close to capturing every technical element of engineering.

A college degree – 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 been exposed to the basics of engineering. And you have the ability to learn something.

Now, if you absorbed the information or not is an entirely different matter.

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

Legal action against usage of the “engineer” title

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

Only because they used the “engineer” title. It’s insane.

Especially, when these engineers by law don’t need a license. Their industry is exempt.

In short, 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.

Again, these people are all still engineers. And greats engineers at that. Their industry just doesn’t need licensure.

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 would argue against Elon calling himself an engineer. He’d run circles around most every highly credentialed engineer.

But, I get it. For certain work, we need a set of standards. And that’s where the PE license comes into play.

The title “professional engineer” is protected through licensure. This protects the public from large 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.

That said, the title “engineer” is very broad. And currently, a solution is not in place to protect the title. But, it’s necessary.

In short, until we have a set solution in place, restricting the title is absurd. Also, it’s pointless to be fussing over titles.

My solution to protecting the “engineer” title

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

#1) New PE licensure

Create more accurate licensure tests for exempt engineering work. Today, many exempt engineers simply don’t have a test to even take.

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

#2) Exempt industries from PE licensure

Don’t force exempt industries to license their engineers. Or, try to restrict their usage of the “engineer” title.

The companies in charge already hold liability for the work of their engineers.

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

#3) Engineer graduates

Graduating engineers from accredited schools can use the title.  Of course, as long as they’re not misrepresenting their credentials in any way.

For example, selling their services in a non-exempt industry as an engineer.

#4) Non-degreed people

There are two groups 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 set requirements to be able to use the “engineer” title. For example, after having 20 years of experience and passing an exam.

Group #2 is everyday Joe who wants to only make more money. They’re also non-degreed and don’t have a license. But, they don’t have any experience nor knowledge.

These people shouldn’t be allowed to use the “engineer” title.

#5) PE licensure today

To call yourself a “professional engineer” you need a PE license. And if you don’t have a PE license, you can’t use the title. Simple.

Eventually, every client will check your license number. Otherwise, you can’t take responsibility for your design to submit for approval.

Thus, public safety with large public projects will always remain protected and safe.

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

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

Over time, I think more fields of engineering will require some form of licensure. 

“Should engineer be a protected title?” wrap up

There are many caveats from state to state over the “engineer” title. And many grey areas exist as well.

That said, my proposed solution is a start. And, I could care less about superficial titles. My concern defaults to public safety.

Today, there’s just too much confusion and endless bureaucracy.

At the end of the day though, 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? Do you think the title “engineer” should be protected?


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