Continued competency

May 2006 » Business
Continuing professional competency (CPC) for civil engineers has become a major focus of legislators, regulatory boards, professional associations, and educators.
Alee A. Sleymann, Ph.D., P.E.

An exclusive survey reveals civil engineers’ perceptions of the value of mandatory continuing education

Facing rapid technological advances, more complex projects, and increasing public expectations for professional accountability, continuing professional competency (CPC) for civil engineers has become a major focus of legislators, regulatory boards, professional associations, and educators. The dynamic technologies that allow more accurate designs and the use of more economical materials also make continuing education an important mainstay, not only for professional survival, but also for public safety and well being.

Boards regulating the civil engineering profession in several states have adopted policies of mandatory continuing education (MCE) as a measure for ensuring continued professional competency. This policy, which is not uniform in all states, is being enforced at the license renewal period. This requirement was enacted first in 1979 by the state of Iowa. Fourteen years later, the state of Alabama followed suit. Currently, 29 states have adopted similar MCE policies.

This article summarizes the findings of a study that explored the following questions:

  • What are civil engineers’ perceptions regarding the mandatory CPC requirements?
  • What are civil engineers’ opinions about MCE policy and its impact on professional competency and public safety?
  • What reassessment method(s) do licensed civil engineering professionals prefer to meet their CPC requirements?

Perceptions and attitudes

Response to the question regarding perceptions toward CPC requirements for licensing renewal indicate that civil engineers are polarized on the issue with, on average across all states, 41 percent against, 43 percent in favor, and 16 percent neutral or undecided. In the 29 states that mandate participation in mandatory continuing education for license renewal; most respondents support the policy, while in states without the mandated policy, the majority oppose it (see Figure 1). This perhaps explains why such a policy has not been enacted yet in these states.

The second research question asked civil engineers their opinion about the mandatory education policy and its impact on professional competency and public safety. Most respondents view MCE positively with respect to both the profession as a whole and the individual practicing professional. The results reveal that the majority of the engineering professionals surveyed agreed that MCE has professional and personal benefits, improves professional practice, and increases awareness of current issues.

Most respondents would recommend the training they attended to other professionals.

In addition, most professionals who attended continuing education said that they had the opportunity to apply ideas gained from such education.

However, civil engineering professionals do not positively correlate MCE with public safety and well-being. Only 30 percent of respondents agree that MCE is a good measure for protecting the public from incompetent individuals; 50 percent of respondents disagree with this statement. Civil engineers are almost evenly split on whether MCE is good for violators of professional ethics and those disciplined for negligent behavior—37 percent agree, 40 percent disagree, and 25 percent are neutral or undecided.

In response to a question about which reassessment method civil engineers prefer to ensure continued competency, voluntary continuing education was by far the most favored (see Figure 2). This is evident in the response throughout the survey. Although a majority of respondents perceived that MCE is generally beneficial, when asked if it should be mandated that majority disappeared. This leads one to conclude that professional engineers recognize the benefits of education but do not want it imposed upon them.

On the other hand, periodic re-examination was the least favored reassessment method, as shown in Figure 2. Mandatory continuing education was again a method that almost evenly divided respondents, while the peer review method clearly was not favored. Nevertheless, the majority favored some method of ensuring competency, as indicated by the negative response (47 percent) to "None of these methods." Supposedly, the favored method is voluntary education.

The mandating policy clearly impacted the participation level in continuing education, not only up to the level mandated by the policy but also beyond.

In states with MCE, 45 percent of the surveyed professionals participated in more continuing education than required, compared with only 13 percent of respondents in states without MCE.

Most employers (54 percent) do not have internal training programs, but support continuing education provided by external sources (see Figure 3). More than 70 percent of these employers rely mainly on continuing education—mandatory or voluntary—as the sole source to keep their employees abreast of new knowledge.

Ninety percent of civil engineers participating in the survey favored training programs or courses that are purely technical in nature. Eighty-eight percent reported that participation in continuing education did not result in an increase in compensation. But, they were divided on the issue of whether such participation should result in monetary gain—36 percent in favor, 37 percent against, and 27 percent neutral.

Conclusion

The vast amount of information that is beamed across professionals’ desks and electronic stations is creating a huge demand for their time and energy to keep up with current technologies. The amount of knowledge to be mastered to maintain competency and confidence in one’s practice is greater than ever before.

Continuing education is the only choice that today’s professionals will have to rely upon to keep abreast on any advancement in their field of practice.

Professionals generally do not argue against the need for, or doubt the positive role of, continuing education, but a large number of them do not support the mandatory aspect of continuing education.

Regulatory boards, on the other hand, are under pressure from the public, who are demanding greater levels of safety and higher expectations from engineering professionals. The professional societies must play a balancing role to represent the interest of their members and to maintain the integrity of civil engineers by meeting the demands of the public. Establishing a minimum threshold of continuing competency that the professionals must maintain could be the platform that would bring all of the stakeholders together to arrive at a policy that is practical and fair for all.

Sidebar: Survey demographics

The civil engineering community’s attitudes toward mandatory continuing education was sought directly via an online questionnaire. The sample for this study consisted of civil engineers and land surveyors who were voluntarily registered to receive CE News’ electronic newsletter, Civil Connection. The database comprised about 48,000 Civil Connection subscribers from all 50 states and territories. E-mail invitations to participate in the online survey resulted in more than 1,700 useable responses.

The educational background of the respondents comprised 55 percent with bachelor’s degrees, 37 percent with master’s degrees, 4 percent with doctorate degrees, and 4 percent with other,unspecified degrees.

However, all except a small percentage of respondents have obtained professional licenses (see Figure 4). In addition, almost 90 percent of survey respondents have been licensed for longer than five years; more than one third of respondents have held the professional engineer designation for longer than 25 years.

Alee A. Sleymann, Ph.D., P.E., is CEO, International Consulting Engineers, Beirut, Lebanon. He can be contacted at aasley@yahoo.com.


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