Increases in circuits, computers, and software in our products and infrastructure and their increasing criticality, combined with recent advancements in evolving engineering fields, such as electronic, computer and software could create noticeable and negative impacts on public health, safety, and welfare. A compelling need exists to ensure that the products and services of these evolving engineering fields meet public health, safety, and welfare needs. The effectiveness of different methods of protecting the safety, health and welfare of the public varies depending on the situation.
One of the feasible methods of ensuring that the products and services meet the public’s needs, in some of those situations, is for engineers to be licensed. Engineering licensure helps to overcome existing obstacles, and adds an effective, useable, meaningful, acceptable, and efficient mechanism — one contributing to ensuring that products and services with an impact on health, safety and welfare meet the public’s needs. To achieve these goals, organizations and individuals must take some initial steps.
Obstacles to Licensure of Electronic, Computer and Software Engineers
Two major obstacles hamper the licensure of electronic, computer and software engineers. The first obstacle is that there is few obvious pathways for these engineers to become licensed. A second obstacle is that, because only a few of these engineers are engaged in activities that should require a license, there is little demand for these licensed engineers. Because of the lack of demand, it is not clear that there is a problem; and because there is little demand, there are few incentives to address the issues related to the lack of pathways. Even if we decide that licensure of these types of engineers is necessary for those engaged is a specific set of activities, the solutions to the combination of issues leading to there being very few licensed electronic, computer and software engineers are not simple.
However, the following are ways to try ensuring that critical engineering activities result in products and services that address the public’s health, safety and welfare:
- Laws that make manufacturers liable to damages; and fines for the failure of the products they manufacture — including those related to limiting damage, when the manufacturers develop and produce the products, using due diligence
- Laws and regulations that require developing products to follow prescribed processes and procedures, including those related to testing and inspections
- Laws and regulations requiring that products or services having such impacts be developed or produced under the responsible authority of a licensed engineer
Of these, only the first (if using a licensed engineer is considered in limiting the damages) and the last one (only if the product or service is among those required to be provided by a licensed engineer) provide any demand for licensed engineers. Currently, industrial exemptions, and the lack of an expectation that due diligence requires the use of licensed engineers, minimize the demand for licensed engineers in the development of most products — even if the products have obvious impacts on the health, safety and welfare of the population. Even relatively small companies providing such products to the public (e.g., to various levels of government, such as cities, towns, counties and states), do not require licensed engineers to develop them — despite there being no way these small companies can reimburse the government entity for product costs, or damages the products might cause.
Lack of Incentive or Lack of Interest?
Even though some government entities would like to require that licensed engineers perform some of these activities, it is difficult to request if few licensed engineers exist to perform these activities. Overall, the current set of laws, regulations and expectations provide minimal incentives for hiring and using licensed electronic, computer and software engineers. The lack of incentives for hiring licensed engineers creates a lack of desire for an engineer to go through the rigorous processes necessary to become licensed.
Because few engineers in these fields pursue licensing, the testing parts of the licensure processes, especially at the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam stage, are not as focused on these fields. Candidates in these areas are required to know more information not as germane to their work to become Engineers in Training. At the Professional Engineer (PE) exam stage, candidates must frequently take exams even further outside their areas of specialization. For example, software engineers must take an exam in another field for licensure, as the Software Engineering exam is no longer supported or offered.
The solutions to the set of issues resulting in very low numbers of licensed electronic, computer and software engineers are complex, compared to the number of engineers who are practicing in those fields. However, if we wish to be able to use licensure as one of the mechanisms for ensuring that products and services provided to the public and impacting the health, safety, and welfare of the public, we must begin to address some of these issues.
The existing problems have no quick fix — but the different entities can take several steps to begin addressing the overall problem. Among these steps are:
- The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) should give serious consideration to ways to improve the overall licensure pipeline for engineering in fields focused on digital electronics, computers and software. Much of the design and development of systems and subsystems in the digital, computer and software realms — even the design and development of physical systems — now requires significant knowledge and experience in the digital, rather than the analog domain. The FE exam should reflect the changes in systems and components caused by the integration of digital circuits, computers and software into almost all present-day systems. Making the FE exam better represent this change would improve the pathway to licensure for many engineers involved in designing and developing future systems.
- University electronic and computer engineering and computer science departments should consider providing a course or courses supporting electronic, computer and software engineers, as they enter the pathway into licensure. At a minimum, the curriculum should consider extra-curricular opportunities for students — enabling them to be more successful, if they choose to enter the licensure pathway.
- Engineers and student engineers should consider whether the knowledge needed to enhance their chances of passing a FE exam is also beneficial for the design and development work they are likely to perform in their careers. In choosing, they should reflect on whether electives or self-study would enhance both their general capabilities as an engineer, and their likelihood of passing an FE exam.
- Where legally entitled to do so, government entities should ensure contracts for designing and developing electronics, computers, or software (as a part of products purchased) should require the design and development be conducted under the responsible authority of a licensed engineer. If a lack of licensed engineers for specific activities makes it impossible to require that a licensed engineer perform the activities – then such entities should (where legally permissible) — indicate proposals specifying licensed engineers will be used to perform the tasks will be considered favorably in the procurement process. Also where legally permissible, government entities below the state level should facilitate the use of these incentives by their departments.
- State legislatures, and organizations working with state legislatures, should consider licensing and its benefits carefully, in ensuring products and services provided to the public address its health, safety and welfare. While ensuring licensed engineers design, develop and conduct activities having an impact on the public’s health, safety and welfare is not a guarantee of flawless products — licensure should be considered, as we try to ensure the best outcome for public health, safety and welfare in engineering matters.
David W. Vickers, P.E., is a member of IEEE-USA’s Licensure & Registration Committee.