ChEnected Post: To Be or Not To Be… An Engineer
Being a professional means that you get letters after your name, and it may make getting that next job a little easier, but can I venture to say that certification doesn’t necessarily make the engineer?
I’d like to share a story for anyone who hasn’t already heard it. At the beginning of February an engineer in North Carolina filed a complaint against a computer scientist for allegedly producing work that only a professional engineer should produce.
From the article:
Cox and his North Raleigh neighbors are lobbying city and state officials to add traffic signals at two intersections as part of a planned widening of Falls of Neuse Road.
After an engineering consultant hired by the city said that the signals were not needed, Cox and the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners’ Associations responded with a sophisticated analysis of their own. The eight-page document with maps, diagrams and traffic projections was offered to buttress their contention that signals will be needed [...].
Which seems fairly innocuous to me, notable even, but one engineer took such offense to the work put before him that he felt it necessary to report Cox to the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors:
Cox has not been accused of claiming that he is an engineer. But Lacy [the DOT chief traffic engineer] says he filed the complaint because the report “appears to be engineering-level work” by someone who is not licensed as a professional engineer.
“When you start applying the principles for trip generation and route assignment, applying judgments from engineering documents and national standards, and making recommendations,” that’s technical work a licensed engineer would do, Lacy said.
He said there is a potential for violation if DOT and the public were misled by “engineering-quality work”- even if the authors did not claim to be engineers.
You can find the complete article here.
Cox did not claim to be an engineer. His team merely completed an analysis using sound engineering concepts and produced a report of those findings. Isn’t that something that should be praised? Don’t we spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to get the public to understand engineering, to engage with engineering and to respect the work we do?
Even looking past that, shouldn’t the focus be on the content? If a population thinks that something is unsafe – and is willing to go to great effort to prove their belief – then don’t we, as scientists, have a duty to approach the content of their appeal with skeptical appreciation of their methods?
I understand (and fully believe) that professional disciplines need to be monitored for the greater public good. Registration of professionals affords a level of security that those taking on public responsibilities are adequately qualified to do so (through a combination of training and experience).
I also believe it is important that the correct training and foundations go in to being a good engineer. Just as I’d only go to a doctor with a degree or a lawyer who’d passsed the bar, there are some elements of engineering education which are essential to calling yourself a professional engineer. But Cox didn’t claim to be an engineer.
Does communicating a good idea merit a scolding from the Board of Education for trying to be a teacher? Does cooking a gourmet meal call for a finger-wagging from the Professional Chef’s Association for impersonating a chef? Does writing this post mean that I should be reported to the National Association of Science Writers for doing the work of a science reporter while not being registered as one?
My opinion is that badly done engineering by a trusted professional engineer would certainly be a threat to our profession, but I draw the line at criticizing good engineering done by a non-engineer. In this age of ubiquitous information, though, perhaps we should actively ask ourselves if professional status also carries the right to be exclusive about the information which we learned to get there.
I don’t believe it does.