Should Engineer Be a Protected Title? What to Know!

Should engineer be a protected title? You bet, so you can easily tell if someone’s got the know-how to handle a job safely and effectively.

But wait a minute, there’s some murky territory when it comes to who gets to call themselves an engineer:

  • Non-working engineering graduates – can they use the title?
  • Working engineers without a license – are they in the club?
  • Non-degreed engineers – do they make the cut?

As a licensed engineer myself, I don’t think we need to guard the engineer title like it’s Fort Knox. Let me lay down some history about the title and chat about these groups:

  • Degreed engineers
  • Licensed engineers
  • Non-degreed engineers

A brief history of the engineer title

The word engineer hails from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium, which mean:

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

So basically, if you’re a whiz at building stuff, you’re an engineer. But times have changed, and so has the meaning of the title.

These days, engineers play a major role in keeping people safe on all fronts. So, it makes sense that not just anyone should strut around with the engineer title.

The same goes for doctor, which hails from the Latin verb docēre, meaning:

  • Docēre: “to teach”

The title of doctor also gets misused by the public, but not to the same extent as engineer. It’s bad news if unqualified folks call themselves doctors, ’cause you wouldn’t want a newbie slicing you open, right? As a result, the public generally sees doctors as trustworthy experts – phony doctors are pretty rare.

At the end of the day, titles involve a lot of semantics. However, people often have preconceived notions when they hear titles, and that’s the crux of the problem.

The common usage of the engineer title

The word engineer is as common as sliced bread in the English language, but its usage doesn’t always line up with the work of licensed engineers.

So, how on Earth would a governing body regulate a word that’s commonly used in the wrong context? It’d be like herding cats.

Most folks don’t even associate engineer with a professional licensing board. On the flip side, people do think of doctor and the medical board as two peas in a pod. This is another reason why you don’t see many people casually throwing around the word doctor.

Heck, loads of people, including engineers themselves, don’t know that engineers have a licensing board. So, the engineering governing body would need to pull off some linguistic gymnastics to protect the word engineer.

Problems with using the engineer title improperly

In the good ol’ US of A, the Professional Engineer title, or PE for short, is legally protected for practicing professional engineering.

The level of title protection varies from state to state, but overall, it’s not permissible to use the title and offer engineering services to the public without a license. However, any Joe Schmoe without a degree can call themselves an engineer and get away with it. I’ve seen these titles before:

  • Candy Engineer
  • Popcorn Engineer
  • Landscape Engineer

I have no issues with these titles. For the most part, they’re harmless. My issue is when people use titles like these:

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

These folks offer their services to the public while delivering shoddy work. They lack the education and/or proper experience, creating safety hazards.

Important Note: California Professional Engineers ACT Section 6734.1 states,

“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)

Let’s talk about what it means for engineering to be a profession.

To profess means to claim a certain level of expertise or to hold oneself out as a specialist or professional. Becoming an engineer requires investing time and money to earn a degree and maybe even a license, proving your skills in the field.

If an unqualified person flaunts the engineer title, it can confuse the public and chip away at the trust in qualified engineers. The public might link the title with someone who doesn’t have the necessary education, skills, or experience to provide safe and effective engineering services.

Example of a Handy Engineer offering a public service

Picture this: an unqualified Handy Engineer comes to fix your car and makes a mess of it.

This person used the title Handy Engineer to sneakily sell you a service. They knew that the engineer title screams competence. So, they took advantage of the title for some quick cash.

That’s why there need to be guidelines on who can use the engineer title with the public, to dodge confusion and harm.

Why is PE licensure a big deal?

Some engineers think licensure is utter bullshit. But for many, the PE license earns its stripes for these reasons:

  • A common knowledge base and skill set among engineers.
  • Stamped work meets a minimum quality bar.
  • Submitted work is backed by professional liability insurance.
  • Generated work abides by a set code of ethics.
  • All active license holders are assessed for competence and ethics.

Important Note: In most US states, you can work as an engineer within a company without a license or under a licensed engineer. However, you can’t practice solo as a professional without a license.

Industries exempt from PE licensure

The auto, aerospace, and other industries don’t require licensure. I mean, how would any group of engineers stamp, say, a 747 airplane’s design? That’d be crazy hard!

Instead, companies in these industries stick to specific work practices to maintain top-notch quality. For instance, they:

  • Audit every design element for safety and risk level.
  • Test every design component in countless real-world scenarios.

These companies also face audits by third parties who uphold the standards.

So, there’s no reason why exempt engineers shouldn’t be able to use the engineer title, license or not.

Important Note: Many states offer industrial exemptions for non-licensed engineers, like in the aerospace field where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates aircraft design.

The FAA employs folks who act like PEs and review designs, called Designated Engineering Representatives (DER). They have the expertise 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 snub a SpaceX engineer because they lack licensure. Launching a rocket into orbit and then landing it on a tiny platform in the ocean is no joke.

I’m reminded of a NASA joke I’ve heard on this topic, which offers some perspective:

Why do we even need licensure when non-PEs get us to the moon and beyond?

What’s the more impressive technical feat? The rocket designed by non-PEs or the rocket launch pad crafted by PEs?

Important Note: There are two main requirements for professional practice in engineering:

  1. A license to assign liabilities.
  2. Engineering skills to nail technical design work.

For instance, at NASA, the organization takes the heat for any of its engineers’ mistakes. In exempt industries, employers legally shield their engineers, so no PE license is needed.

However, for solo engineers, the PE license fills in for the employer. The PE license signals to the state and public who’s on the hook if something goes wrong.

Graduating engineers versus PE licensure exam data

You know what’s wild? The number of engineers graduating in the U.S. keeps skyrocketing, according to ASEE data.

Calendar yearU.S. engineering bachelor's degrees awarded

But get this: NSPE says only 25,000 engineers take the PE exam each year in America. That’s a measly 22% of graduating engineers, based on 2016 data.

Yeah, I get it – you have to wait 4 years after graduation before taking the PE exam. But considering the massive number of engineers graduating every year, it’s baffling how few even try to take the PE exam.

The grey area over the usage of the engineer title

Companies can slap the engineer title on anyone, degree or no degree. But if you want to go solo and use that title without a PE license, you’re playing with fire. You’ll be breaking the law and putting the public at risk.

Sure, lots of folks do it, but just because people do dumb and illegal stuff doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Take a look at the California Professional Engineers Act Section 6704(a):

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

This is where things get tricky. Almost everything made affects the public in some way. Yet, most commercial products made in California don’t need a PE license. Loads of solo founders create gadgets for the public without one, making this a grey area.

My two cents on protecting the engineer title

As a licensed PE in California, I don’t think only PEs should be able to call themselves engineers.

Engineering grads who practice should have the right to use the title, but with a catch that I’ll explain later.

However, only those with PE licenses should get to use the professional engineer title. This ensures public safety and keeps liability issues at bay. Plus, it preserves the integrity of engineering by:

  • Upholding high professional standards for specific lines of work
  • Preventing service devaluation through supply and demand

Now, acing the PE exam doesn’t make you a genius. To dive deeper, let’s tackle four burning questions.

#1 Where do non-degreed technical folks without licenses fit in?

I’ve met tradespeople who could outsmart many so-called engineers, hands down. They have the know-how and instincts to whip up safe and effective solutions like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile, some PE-licensed engineers can’t design their way out of a paper bag.

But seriously, some licensed engineers need to chill. It’s not the apocalypse if a degreed engineer calls themselves an engineer, especially in exempt industries. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here. Do you think having a license means you’ve studied more or know more? Maybe it’s time to confront those hidden insecurities. Who knows, you might discover you’re more than just a fancy PE license.

#2 Is a college degree just a fancy piece of paper?

Let’s be honest, a diploma is like a shiny piece of paper. It doesn’t guarantee you know your stuff or have any hands-on experience. But hey, it does prove you’ve dabbled in the basics of engineering. You know, like dipping your toes into the knowledge pool.

But come on, toe-dipping doesn’t mean you’ll swim like Michael Phelps, right?

So, if someone without a degree wants to call themselves an engineer, I’m cool with it. I’ve met brilliant minds who never even stepped into an engineering class. They just have that engineering magic touch.

Still, we can’t let just anyone slap the engineer label on themselves. That’s where guidelines come in. Hang tight, I’ll dive into those soon.

#3 Should legal action be taken against the improper use of the engineer title?

I’m all about protecting the professional engineer title, but suing certain degreed engineers in exempt industries? That’s where I draw the line.

In my book, if you’ve scored an engineering degree, you’ve earned the right to call yourself an engineer. Fair’s fair. Of course, this assumes you’re not hustling non-exempt services to the public. ‘Cause let’s be real, that’s a safety risk for everyone.

#4 What’s the future of the engineer title?

The internet has flipped traditional teaching on its head, leaving engineering education all over the place. But don’t fret! Some of the best engineering brains didn’t even have an engineering degree!

Take Elon Musk, for instance. Would anyone dare argue about Elon calling himself an engineer? The dude could out-engineer most fancy-credentialed engineers without breaking a sweat.

Sure, we still need standards for non-exempt public work. That’s where PE licensure comes in. It keeps the public safe from epic engineering disasters.

But protecting the public from one-on-one services, like the ones on Yelp? Right now, there’s no fix for defending the engineer title. So, until a solid plan’s in place, restricting the title is straight-up ludicrous.

My fix for protecting the engineer title

Engineering’s changing at lightning speed, and our thoughts on the engineer title need to keep pace. Here are my five steps for untangling the engineer title conundrum.

#1) Create practical PE licensure exams for exempt fields

The issue with licensure exams? They can be totally unrelated to exempt engineers. No one wants to cram for a test that doesn’t even apply to their field. It’s like making a musician take a math test – what gives?

#2) Scrap mandatory licensure for exempt industries

Pressuring degreed engineers in exempt industries to get a license is plain nonsense. Without relevant exams, why bother? What benefit would it bring? Their companies already shoulder the liability, and if they’re rocketing people into space, they must be doing something right.

#3) Let college grads claim the engineer title

Graduates from accredited schools should be able to use the engineer title in exempt industries. They’ve earned it, after all. But they just can’t go around misrepresenting themselves in non-exempt industries.

#4) Offer some non-degreed techies a chance at licensure

There are two kinds of non-degreed technical folks – the seasoned pros and the wannabes.

The seasoned vets, who’ve been doing engineering work for years, should have a shot at using the engineer title after nailing an exam and boasting 20 years of experience. But the wannabes just looking for a quick buck? No way should they get to use the engineer title.

#5) Limit the use of the professional engineer title

Want to call yourself a professional engineer? Then you need that PE license, plain and simple. No license, no title.

Important Note: The PE license wasn’t always required for public engineering work. But after some tragic deaths due to design failures a century ago, states implemented licensure.

This ensured that engineers met specific standards in their designs. Before this, anyone could dabble in engineering without knowing a thing. It was like the wild west of engineering!

“Should engineer be a protected title?” wrap up

The whole engineer title situation is a hot mess when it doesn’t have to be.

Ultimately, it’s about public safety. We need to make sure no one gets hurt due to shoddy engineering work. Titles and chasing clout won’t solve that problem.

In my opinion, if you’re producing top-notch work, you’ll get the recognition and money you deserve, degree or not. So let’s focus on boosting the quality of engineering work across the board!

What do you think about who gets to call themselves an engineer? How much should we protect the “engineer” title?


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