Truth on What Is a Professional Engineer?

What is a Professional Engineer (PE)? It’s someone who brings to life systems and structures while sticking to the engineering code of ethics.

But, ask different folks, and you’ll get different responses. So, I’m going to break it down from these perspectives:

  1. Clients of Professional Engineers
  2. Companies designing structures, utilities, and infrastructure
  3. Companies not designing structures, utilities, and infrastructure
  4. Colleagues of Professional Engineers
  5. Engineers in PE exempt industries
  6. The public
  7. You, as a Professional Engineer

First, let’s take a quick peek at the journey to becoming a PE, so we’re all on the same page.

How to get a PE license?

Here are the hurdles you’ve gotta leap over:

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

Sure, it’s a winding road, but not impossibly tough. For instance, I nailed the FE exam in college without cracking a book—and so did my buddies.

The PE exam, though, needs some solid prep. I put in a couple hundred hours over 4 to 5 months. But hey, I took the exam in a field I didn’t major in, so I had to pick up a lot of theory solo. That’s one reason I think engineering education could use a makeover. But I digress.

All in all, becoming a PE ain’t as grueling as, say, becoming a doctor.

#1 Clients of Professional Engineers

customers of professional engineers

Clients who need a PE to put their stamp on projects hold licensed engineers in high esteem. They see firsthand how crucial PEs are to their projects, ’cause without ’em, everything grinds to a halt. Even the brainiest engineer can’t save the day without that license.

Plus, clients trust PEs to deliver top-notch work. In my experience, I’ve always felt and been given major respect by these folks.

#2 Companies who design structures, utilities, and infrastructure

These employers know the value of having licensed engineers on board. Without PEs, they’d be out of business, since their bread and butter is the design work PEs do.

For these companies, a PE license is a badge of competence, a sign that they can trust these engineers to stick to the engineering code of ethics.

And hey, many of the bigwigs at these firms are licensed themselves, so they get the importance of licensure in their day-to-day grind.

#3 Companies not designing structures, utilities, and infrastructure

Picture this: you’re looking at employers in the software and aerospace industries, where Professional Engineer (PE) licenses aren’t a big deal. Most of these companies couldn’t care less about it, and many don’t even know what a PE license is.

It’s no shocker that having a PE license doesn’t give you an edge in these license-exempt fields. After all, they’re already doing incredible engineering work without requiring licensure. So why rock the boat?

However, during some job interviews, a hiring manager might notice your PE license. That could earn you some brownie points for self-improvement.

But at the end of the day, these companies see PEs as no different from other engineers. It all boils down to your work and how well you perform.

#4 Colleagues of Professional Engineers

If you’re practicing in a field chock-full of PEs, your colleagues will have mad respect for that license, especially if they’ve gone through the process of obtaining a PE themselves.

It’s like running a marathon. Most people on the outside think they understand how tough marathons are. But it’s only when you actually participate in one that you truly grasp the mind-blowing challenges.

In a way, there’s a special bond shared among PEs.

When I got my PE, I noticed my peers engaging with me more and seeking my input. To them, a PE is someone who’s competent, knowledgeable, and well-respected.

#5 Engineers in PE exempt industries

Reactions are all over the place, as illustrated by these three groups of engineers:

Group #1: Clueless about what a PE license even is, so they can’t comment on “what is a Professional Engineer?”

Group #2: Respectful of licensure and understanding of its importance in certain lines of work. They see Professional Engineers as top-notch designers in traditional engineering fields, like civil, structural, and power engineering.

Group #3: Dismissive of licensure as an outdated business model, they don’t appreciate how it’s being peddled as a cash cow for the NCEES. To them, relying on a single PE’s signature is downright laughable. Instead, they believe in stringent processes, auditing, and testing for more reliability.

#6 The public

A Professional Engineer doesn’t hold the same prestige as a Medical Doctor (MD). It’s rare for me to bump into someone in public who even recognizes the “PE” acronym. To most folks, “PE” just means “Physical Education,” as funny as that sounds.

This lack of recognition brings up the question of whether “engineer” should be a protected title.

Moreover, the general public isn’t even aware that engineers can become licensed. And who can blame them, considering many engineers themselves don’t know about licensure?

In short, the public doesn’t see any difference between an unlicensed engineer and a PE.

Important Note: This lack of PE recognition is more common in America compared to other countries.

In Canada, there are laws governing the use of the “engineer” title. Only accredited engineers can legally use it in a professional context. As a result, Canadians have a better understanding of the significance of a Professional Engineer.

#7 You, as a Professional Engineer

professional engineer

The instant I passed the PE exam, I was hit with an electrifying surge of achievement. My brain buzzed with dopamine, and I felt like I was on cloud nine.

As I embraced my new role as a practicing Professional Engineer, I couldn’t help but feel more, well, professional. I wore my pride like a medal, ecstatic to be part of the exclusive PE club. I could see the newfound respect in the eyes of my colleagues and clients, especially in fields where licensure is essential.

But, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. Suddenly, I was at the helm of critical projects, with my name stamped on every design. The burden of expectations and liability loomed over me, adding a touch of stress to my life.

Nowadays, after having my license for quite some time, I hardly give it a second thought.

“What is a Professional Engineer?” wrap up

If you ask around, you’ll hear all sorts of opinions. But to me, PE licensure is simply a tool that enables me to do a specific type of job – nothing more, nothing less.

It’s important to remember that Professional Engineers aren’t necessarily smarter than engineers working in exempt fields. PEs have just chosen to follow a path that requires licensure.

At the end of the day, all engineers play a role in the bigger picture. We share a common mission: to enhance the world and make life better for everyone.

What does being a Professional Engineer mean to you? How do you see a Professional Engineer in comparison to an engineer working in a license-exempt industry?


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