A physician's first priority is to do no harm, and an engineer's primary obligation is to hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public. This notion is precisely what motivates the advocates of separate licensure for structural engineers—the sincere belief that such a step is necessary to ensure that structures will remain standing.
Several states have had structural engineering (SE) licensure for decades, requiring passage of a 16-hour structural examination rather than the typical eight-hour test. Instead of having only multiple-choice questions, these exams have consistently included essay problems to evaluate a candidate's methodology, assumptions and judgment.
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) has now adopted this higher standard nationwide. Its Model Rules include education, experience and examination requirements for a Model Law Structural Engineer.
The new 16-hour structural exam is evenly split between multiple-choice questions and essay problems and covers the full range of knowledge and skills required for competent practice.
While a few other NCEES exams include some structural content, passing one of these only shows ability in the specific aspects of the discipline that are included in the corresponding test specification. For example, the eight-hour civil/structural exam is intended for licensing civil engineers with a structural background, not SEs as such. Of course, passing any of the 16 NCEES exams with no structural content demonstrates no ability in the discipline at all.
Opponents of SE licensure do not claim that it would endanger the public. Instead, they usually cite the need for personal discretion and the importance of professional unity as reasons to maintain the status quo.
But neither of these considerations is integral to the most fundamental duty of all engineers. Modest constraints on those who are genuinely competent and ethical are a reasonable trade-off in order to protect the unwary from those who are incompetent or unethical.
This conviction explains why proponents of SE licensure often come across as uncompromising. The National Society of Professional Engineers has proposed roster designation as a potential middle ground. Several states now publish lists of licensed engineers that indicate the particular discipline(s) in which they are qualified. However, as there are no associated practice or title restrictions, such a measure does not meaningfully raise the bar.
Medical licensure is sometimes suggested as a model that engineers should emulate. Physicians are licensed generically in every state, with specialties recognized by private certification boards rather than government agencies. Despite the lack of legal constraints, no one would intentionally go to a family practitioner rather than a neurosurgeon for a brain operation.
The analogy breaks down because doctors take a uniform test to become licensed, while every engineering licensure exam is discipline-specific. In addition, perhaps without realizing it, clients do sometimes retain licensed professional engineers to provide specific services for which the engineers are not adequately qualified.
Unlike generic medical licensure, generic engineering licensure apparently creates the false impression that anyone legally authorized to practice is inherently competent in any and every specialty.
Physicians and structural engineers both save lives, but doctors generally deal with pre-existing problems, while SEs are expected to prevent the problems from happening in the first place.
Furthermore, physicians can inform their patients about the risks associated with the treatments they prescribe, but everyone takes it for granted that structures will not fail under most circumstances. Finally, one mistake by a doctor can cause injury or death, while a single error by a structural engineer can lead to an even greater tragedy.
This tremendous responsibility that SEs have to protect the public—over and above that borne by all the engineering disciplines—is the single most significant component in the case for separate SE licensure.