Differing Views on What Is a Professional Engineer?

What is a Professional Engineer (PE)? Someone who designs and develops systems and structures per the engineering code of ethics.

This response will vary though, depending on who you ask. To expound, I’m going to answer this question from the view of the following groups of people:

  • Customers of Professional Engineers
  • Companies who design structures, utilities, and infrastructure
  • Companies who do not design structures, utilities, and infrastructure
  • Colleagues of Professional Engineers
  • Engineers in PE exempt industries
  • The public
  • You as a Professional Engineer

Before we begin, let’s quickly dissect what it takes to become a PE. This will help set the stage for our discussion.

How to get a PE license?

The following are the hoops you need to jump through to become licensed:

  • Earn a bachelor’s of science degree in engineering from an accredited engineering  school
  • Pass the ‘Fundamentals of Engineering’ (FE) exam
  • Complete four years of continuous engineering experience under a practicing PE
  • Pass the ‘Principles and Practice of Engineering’ (PE) exam

Yes, it’s a long road, but it’s nothing outrageously hard. For example, the FE exam I took while in college without studying and I passed. So did all my friends.

For the PE exam though, you do need to study quite a bit. I studied a couple of hundred hours over a span of 4 to 5 months. BUT, to point out, I took the exam in a field I didn’t go to school for.

Thus, I had to learn a lot of the subject theory on my own. This is one reason I find engineering education needs reform. But I digress.

Overall, I don’t find PE licensure as rigorous as say the journey to become a medical doctor.

Customers of Professional Engineers

customers of professional engineers

Customers who need a PE to stamp their projects, highly respect licensed engineers. These customers see firsthand the important role of licensed engineers in projects.

Because without a Professional Engineer, their projects would stall. Even more, the smartest engineer can’t help them if they’re not licensed.

On the same token, these customers know they can trust a PE to deliver quality engineering work. From my experience, I’ve always seen and received the utmost respect from these customers.

Companies who design structures, utilities, and infrastructure

These employers understand the important role of licensed engineers in the workplace. Without PEs on their payroll, they wouldn’t have clients. Because the bread and butter of these firms is the design work of PEs.

In the same vein, the PE license signifies the competence level of engineers to these employers. Also, signals they can trust these engineers to adhere to the engineering code of ethics.

What’s more, many owners of these firms are licensed. So they themselves understand the importance of licensure to all their daily activities.

Companies who do not design structures, utilities, and infrastructure

Think of employers in the software and aerospace fields who don’t require PEs. Most of these companies could care less about licensure. Many don’t even know what a PE license is.

So it’s not a surprise, a PE license doesn’t give you leverage in license-exempt fields.  As it is, these fields already do amazing engineering without licensure requirements. So why bother searching for change…

In some interviews though, a hiring manager may recognize your licensure. You’ll then get interview points for having bettered yourself.

But in the end, these companies don’t view a PE any different than any other engineer. It all comes down to your output, and how you perform.

Colleagues of Professional Engineers

If you practice in a field heavy with PEs, your colleagues will highly respect the license. Especially, if they went through the process of obtaining a PE themselves.

It’s like running a marathon. From the outside looking in, most people think they know how grueling marathons are. But only once you take part in the run, do you truly understand the hair raising rigors.

So in a sense, there’s a common bond shared amongst PEs.

I found when I received my PE, my peers engaged with me much more asking for my input.  So to colleagues, a PE is someone who is competent, knowledgeable, and well respected.

Engineers in PE exempt industries

It’s a mixed bag of reactions, as shown in the below 3 groups of engineers.

Group #1: don’t even know what a PE license is. So they have no input on ‘what is a Professional Engineer?”

Group #2: have respect for licensure and understand its importance in certain lines of work. They view Professional Engineers as high-skilled designers in traditional engineering fields. Fields like civil, structural, and power engineering.

Group #3: find licensure to be unnecessary and an antiquated business model. They don’t like how licensure is upsold, becoming a money grab for the NCEES.

What’s more, they find relying on a single PE’s signature alone to be a laughable system. Rather, relying on stringent processes, auditing, and testing is more reliable.

The public

A Professional Engineer doesn’t carry the same clout as a Medical Doctor (MD). I rarely come across any person in public who even recognizes the ‘PE’ acronym. PE signifies ‘Physical Education’ to the masses as funny as it sounds…

This lack of recognition traces back to if “engineer” should be a protected title.

What’s more, the general public doesn’t even know engineers can become licensed. And I don’t blame them, considering most engineers themselves are oblivious to licensure.

All in all, the public sees no difference between an unlicensed engineer and a PE.

Important Note: the lack of PE recognition is more prevalent in America versus other countries.

In Canada, laws exist over how you can use the ‘engineer’ title. Only accredited engineers can legally use the title and in a professional setting. Canadians thus better grasp the significance of a Professional Engineer.

You as a Professional Engineer

professional engineer

You get a huge sense of accomplishment when you first pass the PE exam. Dopamine is pumping all throughout your system.

Then as a practicing PE, you feel more like a professional. You gain a sense of pride, as now you’re a part of the “exclusive” PE club. Also, you find your colleagues and clients respect you more. Of course, if you’re practicing in a field, which requires licensure.

BUT, there’s also added stress as now you’re at the helm of projects. Your designs now bear your name, and expectations and liability follow suit.

“What is a Professional Engineer?” wrap up

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get widely different answers. I personally view PE licensure as just a tool to do a specific type of job. Nothing more.

Professional Engineers aren’t any smarter than engineers in exempt fields. PEs have just decided to pursue a path, which requires licensure.

In the end, all types of engineers work hand in hand in some capacity. The end goal for every engineer is to better humanity. So we all need to strive to deliver the best quality work with every project.

What is a Professional Engineer to you? How do you view a Professional Engineer versus an engineer in a license-exempt industry?


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