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Professional Engineers' License Debate Grows in Intensity

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Six years after the nation's umbrella engineering licensing body embraced a so-called Model Rule that would extend by 30 the number of extra credit-hours BS-degreed engineers must have to gain a professional license, no state licensing board has made it a reality.

But as a targeted 2020 deadline draws closer, proponents are revving up their campaign for a required graduate degree. They do so against a rising tide of opposition across the industry, professional societies and academia.

Caught in between are students facing the dilemma of boosting the engineering's status, competence and pay against the added cost, time and necessity of gaining an expanded first professional degree.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has long advocated a broader "body of knowledge" for engineers due to falling credit-hours for most engineering BS degrees and more complex demands on their project leadership skills. ASCE has raised the effort's profile with a new promotional brand, Raise the Bar (RTB), which includes a dedicated website and a full-time staff manager.

"If we want to meet challenges and be prepared to protect the public, engineers need more depth of knowledge," says Blaine Leonard, a Utah transportation official, former ASCE president and key RTB spokesman. "You can't get it in programs under pressure." Proponents would like to see engineering attain the same professional status as medicine and accounting. The National Academy of Engineering and the National Society of Professional Engineers support the idea.

Licensing That Works

Opposition to all or parts of the initiative is being led by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which has the second-largest group of licensees—estimated at 10% to nearly a third, compared to about 60% of civils. The group issued a new position paper this year and has a dedicated website, LicensingThatWorks.org.

ASME contends the changed requirements would scare off engineering prospects, be a cost burden to students and hard-pressed schools and employers, and should be addressed in the accrediting process or with continuing education.

"At a time when the world needs more engineers, it seems inappropriate to make an engineering education significantly less attractive to new entrants," says Marc Goldsmith, a Massachusetts consultant and ASME president. He says eight industry groups support its arguments, including ASHRAE and chemical engineers. Other engineering societies are largely ignoring the controversy since grads in their disciplines have licensing exemptions.

American Society of Engineering Educators is split. Some school deans endorsed the ASME position, others issued a separate opposition statement, and faculty are on both sides. "It may be worth considering whether a one-size-fits-all approach is the best system," says Joseph Helble, engineering dean at Dartmouth College.He also wonders how the added requirement will aid students' problem-solving skills and allow them to "make better connections" to other disciplines.

But says James K. Nelson Jr., dean of engineering and computer science at the University of Texas, Tyler, and a RTB supporter, "a lot of it comes down to confusion about what is really being talked about. ASCE is not saying that someone with just a BS can't practice; you can still be an engineer under the supervision of someone else with a license. This doesn't say the BS has no value."

Nelson notes that "the way the Model Law is written, it doesn't have to be a Master's degree. There are two or three different ways to satisfy the requirement."

The RTB initiative also has support from about 90% of civil-engineering department heads and faculty, says ASCE. Raimondo Betti, Columbia University department head, says many employers already limit hires to those with graduate degrees. "That's the entry level," he says. "Companies that want cheap labor do a disservice to the profession." European engineering degrees are generally obtained in five years and there is more "respect" for the profession, he says.

ASCE's Leonard and two other leading RTB advocates—Jeffrey Russell, a vice provost at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Stephen J. Ressler, civil-engineering department chair at the U.S. Military Academy—took their argument to a convention of 300 engineering educators last June in what was billed as the "first-ever open discussion."

Despite the educator group's stance, they say a post-presentation poll indicated support from two-thirds of respondents. "We find, in general, if we're allowed to explain the rationale, more people have a tendency to support this," says Leonard. RTB proponents take issue with the opposition's lack of data to back its arguments (see first related link). Blaine terms a "red herring" opponents' claim that the initiative could squeeze the pipeline of future engineers.

Competitive Asset 

FOX

Supporters see RTB as critical to maintaining the U.S. industry's edge. "Engineering leadership of complex projects and large programs is one of the truly competitive assets" of American design firms and contractors, says Richard D. Fox, chairman and CEO of CDM Smith. "This requires the very commitment to advanced learning as a basis for licensure and, thus, leadership" that RTB advocates.

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