More thoughts on being an engineer

May 2004 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
In the May 1999 issue of CE News, I wrote a column titled, "Registration, ethics, and related matters." It generated a great deal of reader correspondence.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., L.S.

In the May 1999 issue of CE News, I wrote a column titled, "Registration, ethics, and related matters." It generated a great deal of reader correspondence. Back then, I promised myself that I would publish some of the thoughts of others (their comments are in italics) and a few more of my own. The views of some of my engineering colleagues have been edited, but I believe that I have retained the flavor of what the writers intended.

E. Z. Bialek, an associate civil engineer, via e-mail, wrote: You brought up many good points (especially about 'administrators' managing engineers—it's like being in the engine room on an ocean liner with a blind navigator). Bravo!

Or on a liner like the Titanic racing through an ice field that is under the overall control of someone whose main interest is high corporate profits, rather than public safety. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the fact that some corporate CEOs receive annual remuneration as high as 500 times more than that of some of their loyal employees.

L.M. Clough, P.E., via e-mail, wrote: Both the public and the private sectors suffer from non-engineers in engineering positions. Read job descriptions for an engineering assistant position who would work for a city manager, for example. More often than not, no mention is made of registration, or even an engineering background, as a prerequisite for employment.

Additionally, no mention is made of a requirement that the applicant become licensed within a specific period, such as a year, in order to keep the job. Are we surprised to find that appointees often are named to fill jobs which, by their very nature, should require a registered professional, rather than the well connected who get along with local politicos?

S. Joseph Spigolon, Ph.D., P.E., from Oregon wrote: I have been struggling for 40 years with non-engineers wanting to be called engineers (because they don't know what real engineering is) and with quasi-engineers, who think they know enough to give engineering advice to the public. They also don't know the full requirements and limitations of their own advice. Thanks [for your column].

This is especially a problem in the federal sector since, almost always, a P.E. license is not needed to perform engineering work that ordinarily would be required when performing the same job in the private sector. Maybe Gen. Leslie Groves should have been a P.E. when he spearheaded our atomic bomb program during World War II. OK, I guess I'm a fanatic on this subject. At any rate, I think I know what Spigolon was talking about, and I (mostly) agree with his comments.

Grady E. Griggs, P.E., from Tennessee wrote: As for the federal government's position on loopholes in the licensing laws, I never saw any concern about it during 28 years with a federal agency. In the three states in which I was licensed … each state excepted federal employees from the law and put the onus on the agency to police itself. … Since the federal government had the shoe box with the money, professional registration … was a personal choice. It was ironic that non-technical personnel with advanced degrees … were hired [to work on engineering projects] … but [real] engineers who went the extra mile and became licensed didn't get any additional financial incentive for their efforts.

As a former employee of the U.S. government (for two years), I also am aware that the feds cared little or nothing for P.E. licensure. Perhaps things have changed since I left what was then known as the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I'm not so sure the Weather Bureau honchos even were aware of professional licensure, even though some of the work it produced involved dams, maximum probable floods, stormwater management, and such.

I can't understand why we, as engineers, do nothing about the lack of respect we face, compared with the movers and shakers in other professions. Medical doctors are in charge of hospitals and members of the bar control the courts and the judicial system. But when was the last time you heard of anyone but an architect designing a private residence?

The bottom line is that engineers tend to be more strictly technically oriented than members of other professions. We can never seem to forget that 2+2=4 and no one can argue with that. But we do forget that we must get along with other people in other professions, and especially with those involved in the political process. I must confess to occasional failures in my career, which were the result of my own tendency to do things strictly by the numbers.

As I indicated above, I edited and shortened much of what appeared in the correspondence from engineers who care about our profession. I hope that I have not distorted what any of them were trying to convey. If anyone who wrote to me feels like correcting the record on what they said or meant, please let us at CE News know.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201- 441-9719. E-mail:

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