Friday, August 21, 2009

Commentary: What is an engineer?

Sparked by the controversy over at Machine Design regarding Burt Siegal's alleged illegal use of the term engineer, I felt it time for me to weigh in on the subject because I think I see something else that the commentors of that article appear to be missing.

The commentors, along with the author of the article, apparently have very strong emotions on what is right and what is wrong with the situation Mr. Siegal finds himself in. But what I get out of this article, and the comments that follow, defines the exact reason why this is an issue in the first place - there is no solidarity among engineers and the engineering profession.

While professional engineers and engineering professionals are bickering amongst themselves, lawmakers and lobbyists, many of which have no understanding of engineering, are defining who or what engineers are. Why are we leaving this decision up to non-engineers to decide for us?

My greatest empathy goes out to Mr. Siegal, but I don't understand all the controversy? Right or wrong, the law is the law. The law clearly states that for Mr. Siegal to call himself an engineer, he must be licensed in the state in which he practices engineering. This includes using the term "engineer" within his business name. The reason behind this is to limit confusion to the general public who have even less understanding of what engineering is.

How can Budd Engineering do engineering but not be an engineer?

See, it's confusing to the layman. That's why the law exists. But much like any law, there are precidents and grandfather clauses in order to protect those who were legally doing what they were doing before the law was written. Lawmakers are human, too. They also make mistakes. This is why I support Mr. Siegal in his cause, even though I don't believe his cause is worth pursuing as it leads to the increased confusion of the engineering profession and opens the door for others to practice engineering without a license - something that is contrary to protecting the public health, safety, and well-being.

I'm a Professional Engineer, licensed in the state of Arizona. I work in an exempt industry. I have no use for my stamp. So why go through the hassle of getting licensed? Because I know the law, and that one day I may want to go into business for myself. In order to be able to practice engineering I need to be licensed. That's it, that's all, that simple. Does the license prove that I have the special skills and knowledge to be a good engineer? No, it just means I was able to pass a test. But more than that, it means that I understand and agree to the ethical and moral high-ground of protecting the public health, safety, and well-being in everything that I do.

The root problem remains. Engineers are not unified in our position as to the definition of an engineer. Lobbyists, professional organizations, and all other political groups aside, we as engineers don't stand together for our profession. In my personal view, licensing is the only way.

Do lawyers practice without a license? No.
Do doctors practice without a license? No.
Do pilots fly without a license? No.
Do you drive a car without a license? No.
So why do you think you can engineer without one?

Not all doctors are good. Not all lawyers are good. Not all pilots are good. But, at least there is solidarity and when someone says they are a lawyer or doctor, the general public knows what that means. Educating to public, increasing the prestige of the engineering profession, and protecting the public are all things that we need to stand together on. How can we do that if we engineers can't even decide on who gets to be an engineer?

To learn more about Mr. Siegal's quest, visit
Just read it with a grain of salt because the marketing experts managed to put a biased spin on it. I advise everyone who reads this to also take the time to educate themselves on the issue. You can start by reviewing your state's statutes on becoming a licensed engineer, for example. Something that is not a "private trade organization." FYI: The private trade organization only administers the test based on the state's approval of them doing so. It saves you taxpayer money and provides consistency across the nation. This is a good thing. The states still determine who gets to be a PE and who doesn't, not this "private trade organization."
I also like how they try to take a job survey and spin it to say that this grab for power for a trade organization is the cause of the labor shortage. There are so many complexities in this issue that a single page website can not even begin to describe. Recognize the website for what it is, and then do your own research so you can make an educated and unbiased decision. Then, and most importantly, do something about it! Don't sit idle and let someone else define the engineering profession for you.