While I did not follow the “traditional” path to licensure, I would not have had the opportunities that opened up to me later in my career without it.
I first heard about licensure as an undergraduate EE major. My recollection as a student was that licensure was only needed for civil engineers and those whom either worked on or for projects involving the public. At the time my priority was to complete my coursework well enough to graduate, and taking the EIT exam (now known as the Fundamentals of Engineering, or FE, exam) seemed the furthest thing from my mind.
After graduation, my first missed encounter with licensure was in 1993, three years after completing my undergraduate degree, when I landed a job with New York State Thruway Authority as a project manager in charge of a subsystem supporting their electronic toll collection system, known in the region as E-ZPass. I learned that some staff were licensed and others were preparing for licensure, seemingly a long journey. Those licensed had more career advancement opportunities as certain civil service titles, particularly titles that contained the reserved term “Engineer” were only open to registered PEs. But the motivation for licensure was not strong enough at that time, as I had just begun graduate coursework toward a certificate. Not long after, I left for the private sector and licensure once again drifted from my consciousness.
Since leaving the public sector, I had completed a Master’s degree in EE, which seemed to boost my career initially. In the turbulent period between 2001 and 2002, I lost employment twice within a twelve month period. While I recovered from the first job loss in six weeks, the second job loss took nearly six months to recover. My confidence was shaken to the core, and I was determined to seek licensure since my new employer supported and recognized professional registration. My next encounter with licensure was in 2003, when I rejoined the public sector as a project manager at MTA Bridges and Tunnels.
I was told that the odds were not exactly favorable for me. I had to pass the EIT exam, a test normally taken by undergraduate students in their final year of school. Unlike today’s discipline-specific FE examinations, the EIT exam at that time covered the breadth of engineering disciplines, and I had been away from my undergraduate experience for fourteen years. I filed my application days after knowing my wife was pregnant with our first child, so the pressure was on. Studying the many different topics covered in the exam seemed so new to me.
My arrival at the test site on the day of the exam was just as intimidating. Sitting at my assigned desk, I seemed to be surrounded by 21-year olds. There were folks who appeared to be older or had been in the workforce a few years, but they were clearly in the minority.
I expected the morning session to be tough, and it delivered — I was unsure of most of the questions. I left the afternoon session with ninety minutes remaining — not because I confidently completed the exam, but rather because I felt physically drained of energy and could not spend any more time working on it.
As I pondered the implications of retaking the EIT exam, I refocused my attention on being a dad. Three weeks after my child’s birth, I received a large envelope from New York State Professional Licensing. Incredibly, I has passed the exam and received my EIT certificate!
Relieved from the burden of retaking the EIT exam, I was faced with more sobering statistics. As I prepared for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, I focused on the pass rate of retakers. While the retaker pass rate for the EIT exam was low by design, the retaker pass rate for the PE exam was even lower. I was also introduced to several individuals who had sat for the exam multiple times.
I prepared for the PE exam in much the same way as I prepared for the EIT, with the exception being that most of the topics seemed familiar to me. As the exam date drew closer, I wondered whether I could retain enough of what I had studied to pass the exam.
I arrived at the test site for the PE exam one day short of a year since I had sat there for the EIT. Before the exam started, a candidate sitting next to me became hysterical as his only calculator failed to power up. After another candidate gave up their spare, the exam began and proceeded without incident. I felt fortunate to complete both the morning and afternoon sessions with much time to spare, and without the physical exhaustion I encountered sitting for the EIT exam. Shortly after my child’s first birthday, I was notified that I passed and had become licensed!
After landing in a respected technical position with MTA New York City Transit only open to registered PEs, I thought about giving back to my profession and licensure, and volunteered to serve on the NCEES Electrical & Computer PE Exam Committee. As with any engineering discipline, the knowledge scope continues to evolve and I hope to do my part to ensure that the PE exam remains relevant and up-to-date.
Kai T. Chen, P.E., is a Principal Engineer with MTA New York City Transit. He is a member of both the IEEE-USA Licensure & Registration Committee and the NCEES Electrical & Computer PE Exam Committee.