In 2006, Steven Barrett published an article on professional licensure, “To P.E. or not to P.E.,” in IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer, this publication’s predecessor. IEEE-USA reran the article several years later due to high interest in the topic. We followed this up with a column in Computing in Science & Engineering magazine. In this article, we highlight whether and why to seek professional licensure, updates in the licensure process, and also offer perspectives from industry and academia professionals.
Many engineers practice in areas that affect the public health, safety and welfare, and each U.S. jurisdiction (states and territories) has licensing laws to ensure that these engineers meet some level of minimal competence. Such competence might be defined as the minimum threshold of knowledge to ensure protection of the public. This licensing process wasn’t designed to grade a candidate’s ability, but rather to determine if the candidate exceeds the threshold of minimal competence.
Becoming a licensed professional engineer requires dedication and hard work. Given this, the question of why to pursue a license is a valid one. Many U.S. jurisdictions’ licensing laws have provisions for an “industry exemption” clause. According to such clauses, individuals who practice engineering exclusively for their employer don’t need to be licensed if they offer no engineering services to the public.
In a dynamic and rapidly changing economy, however, a professional engineering (PE) license offers several benefits, including that it lets you provide full- or part-time engineering consulting services.
The Licensing Process
To become a licensed professional, you must successfully complete two examinations and have documented experience in the practice of engineering. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) wrote the Model Law to help jurisdictions establish their licensing regulations. NCEES, a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Greenville, South Carolina, is composed of engineering and land surveying licensing boards representing all U.S. states and territories. NCEES is also responsible for administering the exams that engineers must pass to obtain professional engineer certification. The law governing engineering licensure practice within a given jurisdiction is written and enforced by the jurisdiction’s licensing board. Therefore, it’s important to review the specific process for becoming a licensed engineer within your particular state or territory; the NCEES website (https://ncees.org/) has links to information for all jurisdictions. Although specific details vary, to obtain a PE license, most jurisdictions require that candidates:
- complete a bachelor of science degree in engineering in a program accredited by ABET (https://www.abet.org/)
- pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination
- have experience in actual engineering practice
- pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) examination
FE Exam. The FE exam has evolved dramatically over the last decade. As in the past, it is still designed for “recent graduates and students who are close to finishing an undergraduate engineering degree from an EAC/ABET-accredited program (ncees.org.)” However, it is now a computer-based exam, available year-round, and make be taken at an NCEES-approved Pearson VUE test centers throughout the United States.
There are multiple disciple specific versions of the FE exam now available, including: Chemical, Civil, Electrical and Computer, Environmental, Industrial and Systems, Mechanical, and Other Disciplines. The exam format is common among the disciplines. Each exam is 110 questions with an exam appointment time of six hours. The exams consist of multiple-choice questions and also alternative item types (AITs). AITs are questions other than traditional multiple-choice questions. During the exam, you are allowed to use the NCEES Reference Handbook which contains key equations and helpful information.
NCEES provides extensive exam specifications on their website as well as study materials. Study materials are also available from private vendors.
Experience requirement. Most jurisdictions require that you have experience in the engineering field — typically four years of practice. Some jurisdictions require the experience before you take the PE Exam. An advanced engineering degree also counts toward a portion of this requirement. As before, you should review specific requirements in your jurisdiction. Engineering practice is usually documented by asking your employment supervisors to certify your completed engineering work. It’s your responsibility to initiate this documentation process, and it’s best to start the process early. Establishing an NCEES Record can help you track experience and simplifies the application process in multiple states and jurisdictions.
PE Exam. Once you’ve met your jurisdiction board’s requirements of proper engineering experience, you can take the PE examination. As NCEES indicates: “The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam tests for a minimum level of competency in a particular engineering discipline. It is designed for engineers who have gained a minimum of four years post-college work experience in their chosen engineering discipline (ncees.org).”
The PE Exam is also computer-based and make be taken at NCEES-approved Pearson VUE test centers. The PE exam appointment time is nine and a half hours long. The exam is offered in 27 different engineering disciplines. The NCEES website offers detailed specifications for each engineering discipline examination. The Electrical and Computer Engineers exam, for example, is an 85-question exam consisting of multiple-choice questions and AITs. Examinees may use an NCEES-provided, discipline-specific reference handbook during the exam, which contains key equations and helpful information.
Examinees must choose a specific test version (Power; Computer Engineering; or Electronics, Control, and Communications). As with the FE exam, the NCEES provides exam specifications, study material and practice examinations for the PE exam. Study materials are also available from private vendors. The Power exam is offered frequently throughout the year; whereas, the other two exams are offered on specific dates during the year.
Calculators. Several years ago, NCEES decided to limit the choice of calculators that people could use during the FE and PE exams to protect the exams’ integrity. It’s best to use an approved model during both self-study and exam preparation. Currently, only the following models are approved for use on the FE and PE exams:
- Casio: All fx-115 and fx-991 models (Any Casio calculator must have “fx-115” or “fx-991” in its model name.)
- Hewlett Packard: The HP 33s and HP 35s models, but no others
- Texas Instruments: All TI-30X and TI-36X models (Any Texas Instruments calculator must have “TI-30X” or “TI-36X” in its model name.)
The NCEES website offers additional guidelines on acceptable calculators.
Exam Creation and Licensing Initiatives
The NCEES staff consists of dedicated professionals who coordinate the efforts of hundreds of licensed professional engineers and surveyors, who in turn donate their time and expertise to formulate and create the actual exams. As an example, the Electrical and Computer PE exam committee consists of approximately 30 registered professional engineers from industry and academia who represent different technical specialties within this area. What all committee members share is a deep commitment to and respect for the discipline and the registration process; they consider their exam construction efforts both a great honor and a great responsibility.
Committee members originate some of the questions and edit others submitted by volunteers. Each examination is thoroughly reviewed by a team of dedicated professionals, as is each exam question before it becomes part of an exam. Furthermore, each exam is subjected to a battery of post-exam statistical analyses by an external audit agency to ensure that each question measures up under the scrutiny of impartial experts.
There are several new licensing initiatives of interest to IEEE members. Some jurisdictions now allow an FE examination waiver if you have a Ph.D. in engineering. Also, Wyoming offers a pathway to licensure via the doctoral degree path. For this path, the applicant must have earned a doctoral degree in engineering from an institution that grants ABET/EAC accredited undergraduate or graduate degrees. Four years of engineering experience is also required. The four years of experience must be obtained after the applicant completes their first degree (undergraduate or graduate) in engineering. The applicant must also successfully complete a written examination on professional ethics and Wyoming engineering licensing laws, and also complete an interview with the Board. More information on this pathway is available at: https://engineersandsurveyors.wyo.gov/
A Personal View – Steve Barrett
As a licensed engineer, I’ve often reflected on the value of the professional licensure process and whether it was worth the time and effort. The answer is always a resounding “yes!” Aside from duties as a full-time administrator and faculty member, I offer a consulting service on embedded systems design applications for industry. This consulting work would not have been possible without a professional license. Also, I originally obtained my PE license in Colorado and registered in that state. Upon accepting a teaching position in Wyoming (now almost 25 years ago), I applied for licensing there through a comity procedure, which lets engineers register in other jurisdictions. Although state requirements vary, having licensure in one state and establishing an NCEES record can greatly simplify acceptance in multiple jurisdictions. This is especially important if your consulting work takes you to many different jurisdictions.
The following sidebars — “A View from Industry” and “A View from Academia” — describe the licensing experience from several different perspectives.
If you’re interested in pursuing licensure, the first step is to contact the appropriate state licensing board to review detailed procedures within the jurisdiction. Also, I strongly recommend that you obtain study materials and start preparing for the examinations. If you’re already licensed and interested in serving as a volunteer, contact NCEES for details.
We’re grateful to the editors of IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer and Computing in Science & Engineering magazine for allowing us to include portions of earlier articles.
A View from Industry
By Mitchell A. Thornton
I obtained my PE license in 1991, four years after graduating with a BSEE. After graduation, I was employed by a defense contractor and worked in the aerospace industry. One of my mentors was a senior aerospace engineer who encouraged me to become licensed, although many of my other colleagues at the company, who held engineering degrees, were not licensed. At that time, I viewed licensure with great respect. I understood that it was a commitment to hold public health, safety and welfare in the highest regard, and was glad to have reached the point where achieving licensure was possible. However, I did wonder if gaining this credential would be of practical use in regard to advancement at the company. Nevertheless, I did pursue licensure and felt that I had at least reached a personal milestone in my career.
What I didn’t realize, however, was all of the other privileges and opportunities that I’d gain, and how licensure would affect my future professional life. As often happens, unexpected changes occur in our lives — including those with respect to employment. As it turned out, I resigned my position at the company a few years after obtaining licensure for the opportunity to go back to graduate school on a full-time basis. Because I was a licensed professional engineer, I was able to supplement my moderate wages from the university as a research assistant with part-time consulting work as a professional engineer. This opportunity would not have been possible had I not become licensed when I was eligible to do so, and is one of the unexpected benefits of holding the P.E. credential.
Currently, with nearly 35 years of experience as a professional engineer, I can recall several occasions during my career when holding a P.E. license has been beneficial. Aside from the more concrete benefits, such as increased opportunities for employment, many of the less tangible benefits are some that I cherish the most. For example, the opportunities to network with other professional engineers, many of whom practice in disciplines outside my own, have greatly enriched my professional and personal life. I firmly believe that holding the P.E. credential indicates that one takes their role as an engineer as more than just a means to earn a paycheck, it shows that the role of an engineer in benefitting society is taken seriously and with attention to the ethical and moral responsibilities that accompany the profession.
Licensure is more than just a professional credential. It has enabled me to grow and obtain a level of professional career satisfaction that I didn’t fully appreciate when I was starting out. I highly recommend that all engineering students and young professionals investigate and pursue licensure so they, too, can realize its benefits.
A View from Academia
By Cameron H.G. Wright
I obtained my P.E. license in 1990, seven years after graduating with a BSEE, and two years after my MSEE. My original motivation for obtaining a P.E. license was simply a professional goal. I was an active duty Air Force officer, and there was no job requirement to be a P.E. I found the process of studying for the exam to be an invigorating refresher on a wide range of EE topics, and that in itself helped me in my job. But I did wonder if I would ever actually “need” that P.E. license. In 1991, I applied for one of the highly competitive instructor jobs at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and was selected. I later learned that I was the only applicant who had a P.E. license, and that may well have been the differentiator that got me the job. Many years later, after retiring from the Air Force and joining the faculty at the University of Wyoming, I was able to accept various consulting engagements as a licensed professional engineer. These consulting opportunities were not only financially rewarding, but helped keep me at the cutting edge of various technologies that greatly benefitted my students. I tell my students that certain opportunities may come along in their careers for which the P.E. license is needed (or at least highly beneficial), and they won’t be able to just run out and get a license! I tell them to get it and have it ready. But, for me, having that P.E. license went beyond monetary or professional gain. It made me acutely aware of the public safety aspects of engineering, and it brought me decades-long friendships with other licensed professional engineers. I have no hesitation in highly recommending professional engineering licensure to all who are eligible. You won’t regret it.
About the Authors
Steven F. Barrett is a licensed professional engineer and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (and a professor of electrical and computer engineering) at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. His research interests include embedded systems design. Barrett has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He serves as a member of the Wyoming Board of Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. Contact him at email@example.com.
Mitchell A. Thornton is a licensed professional engineer and a professor of computer science and engineering and electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Thornton has a Ph.D. in computer engineering from Southern Methodist University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cameron H.G. Wright is a licensed professional engineer and the Dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (and a professor of electrical and computer engineering) at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. His research interests include signal/image processing and imaging systems. Wright has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact him at email@example.com.