Concerns about continuing education

October 2007 » Feature Articles
Survey comments reveal civil engineers’ views regarding a mandatory continuing education policy.
Alee A. Sleymann, Ph.D., P.E.

Survey comments reveal civil engineers’ views regarding a mandatory continuing education policy.

Editor’s note: This article, based on a survey conducted in early 2006, provides additional insight into an issue that remains a challenge to civil engineers.

A little more than a year ago, I conducted a survey of the civil engineering community to gauge its perceptions regarding the policy of mandatory continuing education (MCE). Results of the multiple choice questions in the survey were published in the May 2006 issue of CE News (read here). However, multiple choice questions limit responses and hence do not present a clear picture of the landscape being explored. Consequently, the last question of the survey requested that participants add their comments and gave them the opportunity to freely express their views.

This article summarizes comments from more than 500 participants who provided input (see "Survey demographics" below). While the majority expressed their opinions about the policy of MCE, many others wrote about their experiences in taking classes or seminars to meet its requirements. In addition, some provided recommendations of possible methods to maintain continued professional competency.

Today, 30 of the engineering states boards require licensed engineers to take between eight and 15 hours of education every renewal period to keep their licenses in active status. Other state boards are studying adoption of such a policy. Declared objectives of the MCE policy include the following:

  • keep professional engineers continually competent;
  • ensure that public safety is maintained;
  • force incompetent individuals to maintain a minimum level of competency; and
  • stay abreast of new knowledge.

Results of the 2006 survey showed that the engineering community is almost equally divided between those who agree and those who disagree with this policy. Expressed comments, views, and recommendations about courses attended in particular, and the policy in general, can be divided into the following categories: cost, availability, quality, value, and effectiveness.

Cost—Perhaps the main theme of the responses was about the high cost of meeting the MCE requirements. Complaints ranged from the high cost of course admission to the high cost of travel, and finally to the cost of lost production. Participants complaining about cost also mentioned that they worked in small firms or were retirees still in practice. One respondent said, "Mandatory continuing education is paying $400 to spend a day watching a slide show and eating donuts." Another complained, "MCE is a profit-making center for individuals and organizations providing such services."

Availability—Continuing education courses are mostly available in locations near large metropolitan areas. Engineers in remote areas do not have easy accessibility to meet renewal requirements. They often must travel far and stay in hotels for the duration of the courses, adding to the cost burden. These professionals are mostly working in small offices, therefore, such an expense can make a big dent in revenues.

Quality—The quality of the courses with respect to delivery and material was also criticized as not being consistent with what was advertised. Regarding the delivery of instruction, respondents said that providers were poorly prepared or were not experts in their field to teach the intended material. In addition, some instructors who communicated poorly because of their inadequate command of the English language increased frustration. Course material, on the other hand, was basic or introductory in nature so that no value was added and no new concepts were introduced.

"Courses are of very basic level," said one respondent. "They are taken just to meet requirements and not for competency reasons." Another wrote, "Courses should be taught by experts in their fields and not merely by individuals [who] learned the materials for the sake of teaching them."

Value—Continuing education is mainly thought of in the sense of learning about a new concept or method. It is then perceived as a value-added activity for which time and money are invested. Because of the seriousness of the professionals about these two limited resources, participating in MCE courses must also add value to reap a return on that investment.

"When the only two pre-requisites for obtaining CEU’s are 1) pay the fee, and 2) attend the class (or fill-out the take-home test for Internet courses), then the whole process is a joke that wastes time and money," stated a survey respondent. "I want to know new things and will willingly take interesting courses applicable to my work," said another, "but it is a farce to spend time and money to take meaningless courses just to satisfy mandatory CEU requirements."

Effectiveness—The essence of the debate regarding the policy of MCE lies in the effectiveness of such a policy in meeting its declared objectives. The concept of continuing education is perhaps the most well received concept among professionals because they recognize its benefits and positive impact on their personal and professional lives. Many professionals, however, question the effectiveness of mandating continuing education. This questioning is in line with the adult learning theory that generally posits that professionals should be free to choose the time, place, and topic of the material to be learned. The following comments about effectiveness reveal the true picture of how these professionals perceive the MCE policy:

  • "Do you really think they can ensure competency year after year for every engineer and surveyor? That’s an idea that makes politicians look good but is impossible to pull off in reality."
  • "Engineers are held from effectively serving society due to spending our resourses satisfying government regulations and regulators (which I agree are necessary) instead of producing more economical and effective design."
  • "Competency is a self-driven goal. Ethics and integrity are individual traits that MCE could not teach."
  • "Incompetent and unethical engineers will ultimately be weeded out by enforcement of state registration boards or lawsuits."
  • "[MCE] allows lawmakers to pound their chests, proclaiming they’ve made the public safer, while course providers benefit from ever-increasing fees."
  • "You cannot really believe that 15 PDH hours per year is going to be the difference between competence and incompetence. Why do we take the P.E. license exam at all if you can pass it and still be considered incompetent? Maybe we should look more closely at the license exams. Are they too easy?"
  • "I stood before the Indiana State Board earlier this year and objected to the adoption of mandatory continuing education. I asked the board one simple question which no-one could answer: ’Is there any quantifiable evidence to substantiate that mandatory continuing education has had any positive tangible benefit to either the profession or the general public in any state in which it has been adopted?’"

Recommendations
MCE was chosen by the engineers responding to the survey as the second preferred method after voluntary education for continued professional competency. Peer review and periodic re-examination methods were the least favored, as shown in Table 1. Perhaps the major issue with MCE is its inflexibility in allowing professionals to decide on the type of courses and seminars they believe benefit them. Voluntary education, on the other hand, does not allow the state boards regulating professional licensing to control the issue of competency of laggards who enter the profession through the P.E. exam and choose not to stay up-to-date in maintaining their professional competence. 

Table1: Preferred methods for continued professional competency
Method Disagree Neutral/Undecided Agree
Peer review

45%

26%

29%

Periodic re-examination

71%

17%

12%

Mandatory continuing education

38%

21%

41%

Voluntary continuing education

23%

20%

58%

None of the above

47%

32%

21%

Since MCE is the most practical method currently available, perhaps establishment of a uniform requirement is needed throughout all the states that have currently adopted the MCE policy. This uniform requirement could have two parts—required and elective subjects. Required subjects deal with issues of maintaining minimum competency level; elective subjects are left to the professionals’ choice. Furthermore, if the aim of MCE policy is maintaining minimum competence and public safety, methods such as distance learning, online classes, or other types subject to verification should not be an issue in hindering learning.

Following are recommendations from civil engineers who participated in the survey:

  • "MCE courses should have an online option."
  • "Develop career education plans for individuals to follow and subject to the approval of a state authority and in accordance with their respective disciplines."
  • "Develop periodic report cards for licensed individuals to show their progress toward their competence maintenance."
  • "Make engineering education and professional licensing exams more stringent so that incompetent individuals are weeded out at the gate."
  • "Free market forces will take care of the competency issue."
  • "I hope someone somewhere will advance our profession by using this opportunity."

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

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 had obtained professional licenses. In addition, almost 90 percent of survey respondents had been licensed for longer than five years; more than one third of respondents had held the professional engineer designation for longer than 25 years.


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