Monday, December 20, 2010

Engineer's Minimum Education Requirements

Finishing up reading through NSPE's November PE Magazine recently, there is an article Image and Education (NSPE membership may be required to access).  In it, the author Michael Hardy, P.E., F.NSPE makes some very valid points on why professional engineers should require additional education beyond the standard four-year bachelor's of science degree.  I applaud Mr. Hardy for revisiting such a difficult and almost controversial issue.

I specifically like how he points out the fact that engineering is a "learned profession."  He expounds on the history of engineering from a time when the general public did not have an advanced degree and therefore a four-year education was suitable.  But today, when a much larger percentage of the public holds a four-year degree, are we really any more learned than the next guy?  How can we expect to protect the title of Engineer, and have the public hold engineering to a high esteem, if we do not hold a quantitative measure of our "learnedness" above that of the general public?

But then, turn the page.  No really, on the next page of the PE Magazine November issue.

One Reason Why Additional Education is Not Enough
The next page shows a chart of engineering salaries broken out by identity: Engineering Technician, Engineering Technologist, Engineer, Professional Engineer, and Other.  I was not able to find the image, so I had to recreate the data.
Source: National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies' (NICET) Annual Salary Survey
I think this helps paint a clearer picture as to the controversy regarding additional education, and with it a whole slew of issues.

Engineers graduating with a four-year degree leave school with a sizable debt.  Yet, even after the four years of required experience (typical of most licensure requirements across the US), the typical salary is still between $40k and $59k per year.  That is the same salary range as all other engineering types and even "non-learned" professions.  Now why would any student smart enough to be an engineer look at those numbers and decide to invest in an advanced degree?  They would be graduating later in life, making an income later in life, owing more debt in student loans, and not make a higher salary to compensate for the increased debt.  The student would do all of that just to have two initials at the end of their name in a political climate that allows for industry exemption in most fields anyway?  In other words, they don't need to be a P.E. to do the fun engineering work that drove them into the career in the first place.  Looking closer at the chart, out of the 5,000 respondents to NICET's survey, a higher percentage of the non-professional engineers actually makes more than the professional engineers (for salary ranges above $59k).

Why Pay More for a Commodity?
Maybe the solution is to convince industry to pay more for licensure, since the esteem of having a professional engineer is higher and therefore the engineer would be worth more.  1) I doubt it.  2) Even without a difficult economic climate the engineering profession is on a long spiral of commoditization.  Raise the cost of an engineer in the US and that function will be shipped overseas to people who are just as intelligent and capable, but get paid less.  In short, the public welfare is still protected because foreign-born engineers get equivalent education and experience as US born engineers, sometimes even more.  And I don't want to sound protectionist just for the US.  There are plenty of other countries in the world having similar issues with regards to the engineering profession.

Additional education requirements beyond the typical four-year bachelor's degree is something that the engineering profession will be struggling with for many years to come.  As much as I wouldn't want to be shackled with increased debt upon graduation, I would still pursue the profession if that was my calling.  Look at physical therapists, for example.  They require the same education as a medical doctor, which equates to graduating with the same level of debt, but they don't earn nearly as much as an MD.  Yet, there are still plenty of Physical Therapists and PT students.  I believe that raising the education requirement for engineering is a necessity.  How to do it, though, is up for debate.  All I can recommend is that enough notice be given to future engineering candidates.  That means, 1) decide on the policy now, 2) make the policy active 4 years from now so high school freshman have time to decide on their careers, and 3) grandfather everyone else into the current system.  Then, industry has to be ready for a two year gap before they can hire graduate engineers.  That is the time between those graduates who have been grandfathered in and have left school and those who fall within the new rule have to get additional education.

I'm sure plenty of students will step up the challenge and there will be no shortage of engineers.  But, we currently need to continue increasing the awareness of engineering through STEM programs to young students -- grade school through high school.  We also need to get involved politically and work to remove or limit industry exemptions. Then, and only then, will engineering be a learned profession held in high esteem.


  1. Nice blog post. What about continuing education? I know my company offers reimbursement (based on grade). Does it make sense to get your 4 year degree and start working and then continue your education part time? Or does it make more sense to go for your Masters and maybe PhD before entering the work force?

  2. Simple questions, but that is where the waters really get muddy.

    Considering that we both are already working full time for employers that have an education reimbursement policy, hitting the work force after a 4-year degree and then pursuing advanced degrees while working may be an option. But for a high school graduate planning his/her future, that option may not be available and landing that first job may require the ability to get a PE which means getting a Masters degree from the beginning, if the new model law gets enforced. Which then leads to the question, can an EIT work to gain the required experience while studying for an advanced degree to meet the minimum education requirement simultaneously? Can an EIT even get hired without an advanced degree if a Master is the new minimum requirement to be "learned professional" and enjoy the title of Engineer (industry exempt), even if not Professional Engineer?

    Continuing education in terms of license maintenance is a different topic and out of scope for this specific blog post.