In 2006, a diverse group of international leaders held a summit to discuss engineering’s increasingly important role in our society. Their vision for the year 2025 is, “Civil engineers will be entrusted by society as leaders in creating a sustainable world and enhancing the quality of life.” Slowly, yet methodically, civil engineers have been working individually and through organizations to bring this vision closer to reality, and the focus is on preparing future engineers for this challenge.
These insightful summit leaders based their vision on what they see as an ever-growing global population with a rising demand for energy, transportation, drinking water, clean air, and safe waste disposal. Complicating matters will be fast-changing technology and threats from natural events, accidents, and perhaps even terrorism. All these forces will converge to drive the need for engineers to provide leadership and solutions to environmental protection, infrastructure development, and sustainability challenges.
There is a growing movement to reform the way in which future engineers are prepared for this challenge, which will likely include additional education beyond the traditional bachelor’s degree, additional experience under the guidance of a licensed professional engineer, and other continuing education with a commitment to lifelong learning.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) are taking a lead role in the movement, but many other professional organizations, legislators, state licensing boards, and individual engineers are also playing an important part.
In 1998, ASCE issued Policy Statement (PS) 465 — Academic Prerequisites for Licensure and Professional Practice, which supports the attainment of a body of knowledge (BOK) for entry into the practice of civil engineering at the professional level. In 2008, ASCE released the “Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century,” originally published in 2004, as a result of comments from academia and practitioners who used the original document. As written in the publication’s executive summary, “The Body of Knowledge prescribes the necessary depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, and attitudes required of an individual entering the practice of civil engineering at the professional level in the 21st century.” This BOK exceeds the amount of information covered in today’s typical civil engineering baccalaureate degree, even with the practical experience gained prior to licensure.
The NSPE also supports additional education beyond a bachelor’s degree, with the adoption in 2002 of professional policy 168. It has been promoting the concept through various activities on its own and with other organizations. NSPE also provides various free webinars related to engineering and increasing standards for licensure, including, “Changing the PE Paradigm in the Future: Additional Education for Professional Practice.”
As reported in CE News’ June 2010 exclusive article, “Exploring Engineering Education,” in addition to the BOK, “The policy statement promotes that the path for licensure will require a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or approximately 30 acceptable credits, and experience — significantly changing the formal education requirements to earn a Professional Engineer license.”
However, based on a survey of readers conducted by CE Newsin June 2010, only 16 percent say that the current requirements to obtain a professional license are inadequate (see Figure 1). An overwhelming majority (77 percent) believe the current requirements are sufficient, with the balance either unsure or undecided.
Many opined similar to this respondent: “Just six months of experience provides much more knowledge and benefit than the entire years of education. Increasing the basic engineering requirements beyond a [bachelor’s of science (B.S.) degree] also may serve to deter potential students from choosing engineering as a career, and few in the industry argue that there will be a dire shortage of engineers in the future.”
Others felt that the organizations driving the push for education beyond a traditional bachelor’s degree are heavily laden with academic types, so they may be biased in thinking that more education is the answer to better preparing engineers.
Licensure is one of ASCE’s strategic priorities and a driving force behind the group’s “Raise the Bar” initiative. According to its recommendation, engineering programs offered by universities and colleges at both the bachelor’s and master’s level would be required to be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Currently, only a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited institution is required.
ABET, Inc., the recognized accrediting organization for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology, is a federation of 30 professional and technical societies, including ASCE. In 2009, the ABET board of directors voted to remove the prohibition on dual-level accreditation of engineering programs. In place for 50 years, the ban kept engineering programs in a given discipline at the same university from being accredited at both the bachelor’s and master’s level. According to ASCE’s website, the lifted ban opens up multiple practical paths to the fulfillment and validation of the civil engineering higher educational standard.
Alternatives to Bachelor’s Plus 30
Jerry Carter, executive director of NCEES, reported, “We are continuing to refine the new model law that was approved in 2006. The language regarding the requirement for a master’s degree or 30 hours of advanced engineering courses beyond the bachelor’s degree (B+M/30) has been adjusted several times to clarify the increase in education requirements beginning in the year 2020, but we are still working out the details.”
Nearly 50 percent of CE Newsreaders responded that if requirements to be licensed were to be increased, they prefer that the bachelor’s degree requirement be specified to include 150 hours of instruction with four years of experience under the guidance of a licensed professional engineer. Approximately 23 percent believe that a specified number of additional technical training hours and six years of experience is the best alternative. Of the total group, only 17 percent recommend the B+M/30 formula as proposed by ASCE’s PS 465, while even fewer, 8 percent, advocate for a master’s program.
In 2009, the NCEES board charged its Engineering Education Task Force, which was formed in 2007 as the Bachelor’s Plus 30 Task Force, to consider alternatives to the 2020 education requirement. “Since the approval of the model law change in 2006, we have heard from various constituencies regarding challenges to access for some to appropriate-level courses,” Carter said. “The task force, comprised of representatives from a wide range of engineering constituencies, has agreed to present two motions at the annual meeting in August.”
According to NCEES, “the first alternative is to enable candidates earning a B.S. degree from an ABET-accredited bachelor’s program that requires a minimum of 150 credit hours and the traditional four years of experience under the guidance of a licensed professional engineer to become eligible for licensing. The program must have at least 115 credit hours of math, science, and engineering, with at least 75 of the 115 hours in engineering.” Many bachelor’s degree programs have reduced credit hour requirements, in some instances to as low as 120 credit hours.
“In essence,” Carter clarified, “the body of knowledge has been increasing, but the number of credit hours within a majority of the bachelor degree programs has been decreasing. This alternative addresses that.”
In the second alternative, Carter explained, “A candidate would earn a B.S. degree from an ABET-accredited program and then complete a prescribed number of technical development units and six years of experience with structured mentoring. Those in favor say that this option offers flexibility for the candidate, recognizes the B.S. degree as the degree needed to be an engineer (when combined with experience), formalizes the training and experience aspect of licensure, and starts lifelong learning early in the licensure process.”
Engineers who want to express their opinion on the topic should contact Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864-654-6824, and he will forward them to the NCEES leadership for consideration.
While the model law language is extremely important, the licensing board of each state is responsible for administering its own engineering practice acts that outline education, experience, and other engineering eligibility requirements (see Table 1). They are under no obligation to institute the suggested changes. And, even if NCEES member boards agree with the need to require additional education, any alterations to state acts must go through a review and approval process and require the passage of new legislation to institute formal changes. Information about laws and rules for state licensing jurisdictions in each state is available at www.ncees.org
Structural engineering test changes
One of the definite changes in store for April 2011 is the switch from the current two, eight-hour structural exams (Structural Exams I and II) to one, 16-hour structural engineering examination.
NCEES Director of Exam Services Tim Miller, P.E., explained the need for the revision: “NCEES currently offers two, eight-hour structural exams, and some licensing boards also use state-specific exams. NCEES wanted to provide one exam that could be used by any state requiring specialized structural licensure, even a state with high-seismic activity.”
To find out what knowledge areas are most relevant to current professional practice, NCEES surveyed licensed structural engineers from across the United States. Next, NCEES, working with representatives from state licensing boards and national structural engineering organizations, analyzed the survey results and set the specifications, or content areas, for the new exam.
The new PE Structural exam is a breadth and depth exam offered in two components on successive days — an eight-hour vertical forces (gravity/other) and incidental lateral component and an eight-hour lateral forces (wind/earthquake) component. The specifications for the new exam are posted on the NCEES website, and NCEES will be publishing a study book with sample questions and solutions this year.
Continuing professional competency
Regardless of what happens with Bachelor’s Plus 30, the movement to better prepare civil engineers for future challenges extends to professional engineers seeking to renew their license, too. Nearly 75 percent of all states already require licensed engineers to meet minimum standards in continuing professional competency (CPC), and others are likely to follow suit (see Table 1). The CPC requirement is met by completing a number of professional development hours, or PDHs, to renew the license. Approximately 85 percent of the states that require CPC follow the NCEES model law recommendation of 15 PDHs per year, with a mere 15 percent requiring fewer PDHs. In some states, the continuing education provider must be pre-approved and proof of completion is often required for engineers’ records in case of audit.
Most survey respondents appear to concur with the NCEES model law (see Figure 2), with 68 percent agreeing with the statement, “Mandatory continuing education should be required for professional engineer license renewal,” with 9 percent being neutral and 23 percent disagreeing. Those who disagree cite that continuing education should be optional. Making it mandatory, said some, serves more as an income-generator for educators and those associations sponsoring the continuing education courses, rather than enhances the engineer’s competency. Even those who agree to mandatory continuing education feel that the engineer should have the ability to choose the subject matter and course provider.
Certification and other credentials
Most certifications are created or sponsored by professional associations or trade organizations, which have an interest in raising and maintaining industry standards.
There has been increased interest in certification programs and an increase in the number of programs being offered (see “Certifications for civil engineers” on page 22). This growth may be fueled by the need to stay informed of constantly changing technology and the explosion of available technical information, as well as an increase in specialization within civil engineering. Certification also offers the endorsement of an impartial third party to attest to a professional’s knowledge and experience. In addition, certification programs serve to help develop leaders, advance technology, promote the profession in general, and encourage lifelong learning.
A majority (62 percent) of survey respondents stated that they found value in obtaining additional certifications; however, only 24 percent hold certifications. Many commented that certification provides additional qualifications in a specific area, while others claim that many certification programs lack depth and rigor, and that cost and time were factors that may prevent them from seeking certification. NCEES, ASCE, and NSPE all support credentialing, however, they are clear that these should be obtained only after earning a P.E. license.
A majority in the industry appears to agree that a full-bodied bachelor’s degree in engineering provides the basics and that additional training in some form is paramount to beginning a successful career in engineering. But that is where the agreement ends. Opinions vary widely in terms of whether the additional training should be advanced coursework or more work experience under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer. Beyond that, few argue against the sentiment that continuing education and lifelong learning is key if engineers are to be prepared to help society meet impending technological, social, and environmental challenges in the 21st century.
Certifications for civil engineers
Theresa M. Casey, FSMPS, CPSM, is founding principal of On Target Marketing & Communications, LLC, based in Columbia, Conn. The firm specializes in the engineering, architecture, construction, accounting, and legal industries. She can be contacted at email@example.com or 860-228-0163.