10 Key Impacts, Issues

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Much has been discussed about the impact of Raising the Bar for the engineering profession. It pays to consider the key issues.

Protecting the public remains the imperative for the future

  • Engineers are generally well prepared for entry-level positions today, but engineering failures do occur in the U.S., and employers frequently report that professional skills such as communication, leadership, and depth of technical expertise need improvement. More importantly, the nation must anticipate future needs as engineering challenges become even more complex.
     
  • Areas that will require additional knowledge in the future include sustainability and applying the triple bottom line of sustainability (economic, environmental, and social value), project management of complex infrastructure systems, applications of nanotechnology and biotechnology, globalization of practice, public policy, business practices, leadership of diverse multi-disciplinary teams, information technology, and risk and uncertainty, to name a few. These new approaches will become part of the every-day engineering in the future and will require additional learning for those entering professional engineering practice.

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It takes more than experience and passing the FE and PE

  • The qualifications required for licensure and professional practice are based upon the “three legged stool” of education, examination and experience. These independent but inter-related qualifications must all be strong to ensure appropriate qualifications and adequate protection of the public.
     
  • The pass rates on the FE and PE examinations, while not declining severely, are not particularly high. Moreover, the FE and PE exams evaluate selected technical problem-solving skills that are part, but not all, of the knowledge, skills and attitudes (the Body of Knowledge) required to practice engineering at the professional level.
     
  • As new engineering knowledge and techniques continue to expand, much of this new knowledge must be learned during an individual’s formal engineering education. That new knowledge, and its underlying theory, cannot always be taught on the job by a more senior mentor. Mentors have not necessarily mastered that new knowledge. Also, one-on-one instruction for complex technical topics is not often efficient or effective.
     
  • Continuing education after licensure remains critical for ongoing competency, but it cannot replace the foundational formal education called for under Raise the Bar. Continuing education is not always of the rigor of advanced university course work or the equivalent 30 credits and cannot necessarily be counted on to provide that same strong educational foundation.

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There’s flexibility for the required advanced education

  • Students—or employers supporting an employee’s advanced education—have a choice in how to attain the requirements for engineering licensure. Students can pursue either a master’s degree or, as an alternative, an equivalent 30 credits of graduate or upper level undergraduate courses. Each of these two options has additional flexibility within it.
     
  • The educational path of an equivalent 30 advanced credits might be taken in a university environment or through courses provided by an agency, an organization, a professional society, or even a formal company training program, if sufficient rigor and assessment of performance are in place. To meet the Raise the Bar requirements, at least 50% must be engineering in nature, with the remaining open to courses in areas such as business, communications, contract law, management, ethics, public policy, and quality control, as well as math and science.
     
  • A master’s degree provides a number of paths—for example, students can choose a practice-oriented degree that focuses on applying their knowledge directly to engineering tasks or a more research-oriented degree with a research thesis or project requirement.

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Expanding the bachelor’s degree will not work

  • A 150-hour bachelor’s degree, which would take about five years to complete, is not feasible when a 120-128 hour bachelor’s degree program, completed in about four years, is considered the norm. Instituting a broad system of five-year engineering bachelor’s degrees would provide less flexibility to engineering students. If a discipline’s Body of Knowledge requires 150 credit hours in five years, the normal result is both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. This is comparable to the degree standards for most academic disciplines: four years of successful full-time study results in a bachelor’s degree—an additional one to two years of full-time study results in a master’s degree.
     
  • A five-year bachelor’s program could discourage pursuit by those undergraduate students who (1) were not absolutely sure that they wanted to pursue engineering as a career and were thus hesitant to enter a five-year undergraduate program or (2) wished to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering as a stepping stone to a non-engineering career (e.g., business, law, or medicine).
     
  • The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) does not—and will not—mandate the number of credits required for an engineering baccalaureate degree. The minimum credits for a degree is dictated by university administrations and/or state legislatures.
     
  • Universities are under tremendous pressure to reduce the number of credits to about 120 for their undergraduate programs and have students graduate faster, and that trend is likely to continue. Proposing to “fix the bachelor’s degree” will not find traction.

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Higher quality employees provide a financial return

  • If the educational requirements for entering professional practice are increased, any increased costs for education should be offset by the higher quality of engineering work from the employees. Salary expectations of professional engineers are likely to increase modestly, based on historical data. The overhead costs of consulting engineering firms may increase modestly for the increased costs of education, but those overhead costs should be recovered through the revenues on cost-plus contracts.
     
  • Many firms are already supporting the graduate-level education of their employees. Engineering firms and agencies consider such education as integral to the growth of their capabilities. The additional education is not a burden but an investment. In addition, many students who intend to become licensed will enter a firm already in possession of a master’s degree or equivalent.
     
  • Organizational changes for engineering companies and agencies may also evolve. By leveraging the expanded skills of PEs, as well as the advancements in engineering software, engineering project teams may take on a more efficient profile, using fewer professional engineers—as the leaders and integrators—and more degreed non-licensed engineers, technologists, and technicians, who will all be integral parts of the engineering team. With the knowledge and skill set at each level fitting the task at hand, work will be carried out by the lowest cost qualified person, reducing project costs and improving the bottom line.

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Professions requiring post-graduate education show no lack of students

  • Other learned professions that have raised their bar have not experienced a decrease in the number of students pursuing that career. Raising the bar should make the engineering profession more attractive while at the same time attracting better qualified students—as it has in other professions such as medicine and law.
     
  • The value provided by increased education should cause professional engineers’ salary levels to increase modestly. Increased pay will further enhance the desirability of an engineering career and, over the long term, will attract more young people into the profession.
     
  • If a student wants to enter a particular career, they will pursue their goals and generally find the means to fulfill them. A number of career fields with relatively low salaries, such as social work and teaching, require a master’s degree. Regardless of the relatively low pay, students interested in these career fields obtain the additional required formal education.
     
  • After the educational requirements to sit for the CPA exam were increased from 120 to 150 hours in Florida, a study showed that enrollments in accounting programs remained steady in the long term. Most states have now adopted the increased educational requirements for CPA licensure.
     
  • There is no evidence that increased educational requirements for licensure will reduce the participation of minority students in the long-term. One related study shows just the opposite—a Florida study examining the effects of expanding the educational requirements for becoming a licensed CPA showed that minority enrollment in accounting was actually increasing significantly in the 10 years following the accounting profession’s change to a 150 credit hour requirement.
     
  • Even if increased educational requirements do not increase engineering enrollments in the short term, it is important to emphasize that the Raise the Bar initiative has never been about increasing the number of engineers, has never been about increasing salaries, and has never been about increasing prestige. Rather, it is about increasing the knowledge and skills needed by engineers to meet the challenges of the future more effectively.

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Professions handle licensure comity in the era of transition

  • Comity of licensure among states is not a new issue for the engineering profession. Any changes to states’ licensure laws can introduce a disparity between the requirements across jurisdictions. In fact, detailed requirements for licensure vary in many states today. For example, there are currently differing limitations on structural/seismic practice and variations on continuing education requirements. Engineers practicing in those jurisdictions accommodate those differences.
     
  • All PEs licensed in a state before enactment of a Raise the Bar statute will not be required to meet the additional requirements. Further, under the proposed changes, NCEES foresees that a state with a new Master’s or equivalent requirement will not change its comity procedures for out-of-state engineers who obtained their licenses before the effective date of a state’s new law/rules. This is how the NCEES Model Law framework operates today when it comes to comity.
     
  • The issue of comity is not specific to engineering. For example, over several decades states have begun to adopt increased educational requirements for CPA licensure. For that profession to better serve its clients and the public, the comity issues were allowed to work themselves out over time, and now most states have come on board with the new requirements.

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It is the state’s role to set minimum standards for competence

  • Private companies clearly have the final say on how to apply the various knowledge and skill sets of their employees. They will continue to decide the appropriate composition of their engineering teams—PEs, degreed non-licensed engineers, technologists, and technicians. However, determining what is required of those licensed to protect the public is a function of the state through its licensing law. With the ever increasing complexity of engineering practice in the future, the minimum level of education for entering professional licensed practice will have to rise.

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The engineering Body of Knowledge is the key

  • The Body of Knowledge remains the key for outlining the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the professional engineer. Important aspects of the civil engineering Body of Knowledge have already found their way into the accreditation criteria for civil engineering programs. However, it is impossible to fit all the necessary content into a four-year undergraduate degree of 120-128 credit hours.
     
  • Not achieving the Body of Knowledge affects an engineer’s competency and the ability to integrate the many aspects that require consideration in the projects of the future.

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Competitiveness will get a boost

  • The quality of the professional engineers in the U.S., not the sheer numbers, is a key factor that will influence the nation’s competitiveness in the future. The U.S. faces ever-expanding challenges in international competition and professional engineers must provide more value. Competing with high-quality engineering services from other countries (such as China and India) on a cost basis is a losing proposition.
     
  • Certain types of engineering services will gradually (in some cases, rapidly,) move off shore. With the computing power now available, a technologist can solve many of the problems that were the realm of professional engineers of earlier generations. Future U.S. PEs must operate at a higher level, which will require a breadth and depth of knowledge and skills beyond today’s bachelor’s degree. For example, PEs of the future must become better at identifying the problems that will need solving (and not just solving problems)—a process that requires more vision and innovation than merely addressing problems identified by others.

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