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Licensed and Certified

Professional licensing and certification can lead to a higher profile, more prosperous career.

By John Edwards

For Andrea N. Martinez, becoming a licensed professional engineer marked an important steppingstone in a civil engineering career that already included bachelor's and master's degrees. Martinez credits her ongoing success as a water resource engineer in Tampa, Fla., to her professional engineer's license. "I couldn't do my work to the full extent of my abilities without being a professional engineer," she says. "In this field, it's required by law."

Like many young engineers, Martinez views licensure and certification as crucial engineering credentials, almost as important as earning a degree. "It's like a lawyer passing a bar exam or a doctor becoming board certified," she says. "In a way, it's the final cap on your formal education."

For grads who have already endured years of grueling exams, the need for licensing and/or certification presents yet another paper chase, requiring more hours spent poring over books and sparring with computer-based test simulators. "It's certainly not a process most people look forward to," says Al Gray, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), headquartered in Alexandria, Va. "But it's a very necessary thing to do."

For their effort, grads who become licensed and/or certified can expect to receive easier promotions, higher pay, greater prestige and numerous other benefits. "It's like a rite of passage," says Bernie Berson, the NSPE's president elect. "It's a way of getting into the club."

Licensing Versus Certification

Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there's an important difference between professional licensing and certification. While both processs require training and testing, and each attest to an individual's engineering knowledge, skills and abilities, the key difference is that certification is generally voluntary while licensing is mandated by law.

The question of whether or not to become licensed typically hinges on the type of engineering work being performed. "Whether or not you're required to be licensed isn't determined so much by what displine you practice, but the area you work in," says Gray. Civil engineers, for example, are almost always required to be licensed. That's because they work on projects that, if poorly or incorrectly designed or constructed, can injure or kill people. On the other hand, IT network engineers—though often certified—are rarely licensed, since their work usually doesn't involve any life-threatening projects. "If there are codes and code interpretations, then it usually requires a licensed professional engineer," says Carter.

Licensure and certification both offer an array of perks, including higher pay, faster promotions, greater prestige and, for many individuals, the ability to handle more responsbile work. Licensed engineers are also legally authorized add the words "Professional Engineer," or the initials "PE," to their business cards, letterheads, Web sites and other business documents. Similarly, certified individuals may advertise their status by adding their certification's abbreviation to their name (e.g. "John Doe, MSCE").

License to Earn

Most licensed engineers are civil engineers, working in more than 20 distinct fields. Mechanical, structural, environmental, nuclear, traffic, electrical and most other engineers whose work involves government-regulated areas, such as HVAC systems and power engineering, seek licensure

A license is also a must for consulting engineers. "If somebody can hire you for engineering services you are subject to regulation and you must be licensed as a professional engineer," says Jerry Carter, associate executive director of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), based in Clemson, S.C. Forensic engineers, who study engineering failures, are also usually licensed. "They work with attorneys in matters of litigation, often testifying against other engineers," says Berson.

In the U.S., engineering licensure is handled on a state by state basis, with boards in each state setting their own requirements and procedures. In California, for example, engineering licensure and regulation is handled by the California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BPELS), based in Sacramento. "We're the authority that oversees the testing as well as the oversight of licensed engineers," says Cindi Christenson, the board's executive officer. In Kansas the task is handled by the State Board of Technical Professions, while in Missouri the Board for Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors oversees testing and regulation.

Licensure is a complex, difficult and time-consuming process—not simply a matter of visiting a government office, filling out a form and waiting for the authorization to arrival in the mail. "Licensure generally is a three-part activity," says Gray. "It requires, education, experience and examination."

Before issuing a license, most states require an applicant to have a four-year engineering degree plus at least two to four years of work experience under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer. There's also the matter of passing two written exams. A handful of states occasionally waive the examination requirement on the basis of education and experience. But getting a waiver isn't easy, and the applicant must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she is an exceptionally talented individual.

In most states, the first written test is the eight-hour Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which grills applicants on their knowledge of basic engineering principles. Two to four years later, after the applicant has gained the necessary work experience, comes a final eight-hour professional engineering exam. This test focuses on the applicant's engineering specialty, such as civil, mechanical or electrical engineering.

There are subtle yet key differences between the licensing practices in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. "The exam in California, for instance, might include questions on seismology, while one in Alaska could incorporate material on working in Arctic conditions," says Christenson.

Many states issue generic professional engineering licenses. So-called "discipline states," however, grant licenses for specific engineering disciplines, such as civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. This is mostly a paper difference, though. With either type of license, recipients are limited to practicing in their area of competency, which is typically only a small area within their overall discipline.

In Training

New engineering grads anxious to start the licensure process don't have to wait until they have four years of experience. Most states offer a pre-licensure certificate for individuals who lack the necessary amount of engineering experience. These documents are generally known as "Engineers in Training" (EIT) certificates, although some states use other names. In New York, for instance, the term used is "Intern Engineer," while in Florida "Engineer Intern" is the preferred nomenclature. In most states, EIT requirements are usually graduation from an accredited engineering curriculum plus the successful completion of the FE exam.

Most state boards of engineering licensure recognize the EIT certificate of another state. Credit for the EIT certificate is usually valid for 10 years. Many collages and universities encourage engineering students to take the FE exam during their junior or senior year, and some provide review courses. The NSPE sponsors self-study review courses in the following topics for those who take engineering licensure examinations after graduation.

In today's mobile society, it's not unusual for a grad to receive an engineering degree in one state, work in another state and then pursue graduate work in yet another state. Fortunately, most states support reciprocal licensure. As a result, engineers licensed in one state can obtain a license in another without additional testing as long as the requirements of the state that originally granted the license meets the new state's minimum standards. Still, given the fact that each state has its own unique licensing requirements and quirks, grads pondering a multi-state career should look into licensure reciprocity well before the need arrives.

Canadian engineers, meanwhile, face a different licensure process, one with considerably less governmental involvement and confusion. In Canada, licensure regulation and registration is handled by the Association of Professional Engineers, a self-governing organization.

The Canadian licensure process requires applicants to hold a degree from an accredited program in engineering or applied science. The individual must next complete an Engineer in Training program under the direction of a professional engineer. The association then conducts a work experience review. The final step is passing a professional practice exam that focuses on engineering ethics and law.

In Canada, engineers are not registered in a specific discipline, but are prohibited by a legally enforceable code of ethics from practicing beyond their training and experience.

Fully Certified

While not carrying a license's legal weight, various businesses and professional organizations offer certification programs that attest to an individual's expertise in one or more knowledge areas. As with engineering licenses, people become certified through training and/or by passing an exam. While some certifications are valid for life, many need to be renewed periodically. With technologies constantly appearing, evolving and vanishing, certifications—even lifetime ones—often become meaningless within a few years.

Certification is most extensive in the IT industry. That's because many computer engineers don't take the physics, design and other courses that are needed to pass the FE exam. "Right now, there's no place for these people to get licensed," says Richard Schwarz, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) U.S. Licensure and Registration Committee. "That's why the turn to certification."

A large number of IT businesses and professional organizations have stepped forward to offer certification programs. Microsoft, for example, offers over a dozen certification tracks. The software giant certifies individuals in such key areas as Windows software development, IT planning, desktop support and network administration. Other major technology companies offering certification programs include Cisco Systems, IBM, Juniper Networks, Oracle and Sun Microsystems. Various types of certification are also available from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), the IEEE Computer Society, the Linux Professional Institute and several other organizations.

But there's a downside to all of these programs. With such a wide variety of certificates being offered by so many different organizations, the value of IT certification is becoming diluted. Worse yet, the largely unregulated field has attracted its share of shady operators—businesses that set up certification programs providing little or nothing in the way of meaningful knowledge assessment or professional standing. "Any high school student can go take them," says Schwarz. "They carry no weight whatsoever in the engineering world, and they carry no weight whatsoever if you testify in court."

On the other hand, certification from a major organization can give job-hunting grads a critical edge, particularly when seeking entry-level jobs or positions that require expertise in a specific, narrowly defined area. "The certification gives the employer some assurance that the candidate has a least a basic skills set in a particular area," says Schwarz. "It's certainly better than nothing."

Getting Prepped

Preparing for licensure and/or certification is a lot like getting ready for college. There are plans to make, requirements to meet and paperwork to complete. Deciding which type of licensure or certification program best meshes with your career goals is the first, and perhaps the most important, step. Sometimes, the decision is a no-brainer, as in the case of civil engineers, who must become licensed as professional engineers in order to move up the career ladder. Other types of engineers and technical professionals, however, will have to carefully consider how licensing and/or certification will help their careers. "While a license or certificate will never hurt a career, no one wants to waste time and energy pursuing a document that will have little or no positive impact on its recipient's life," says Schwarz.

Matthew Hilgendorf, a senior associate engineer at heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill., is well on his way to becoming a professional engineer. With several years of practical experience under his belt, he's preparing to take the FE exam in a few months, once his work schedule allows. Hilgendorf is already a manufacturing technologist, certified by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). He obtained his certification during his junior year at Kettering University in Flint, Mich.

Hilgendorf's current manufacturing R&D job doesn't require him to become a professional engineer, but he thinks it makes sense to go for licensure while the information he learned in school is still fresh in his mind and before work and other responsibilities make studying for a license virtually impossible. "You never know where life may lead you, so it makes sense to have that license as soon as you can earn it," he says.

For water resource engineer Martinez, a PE license has opened the door to new and exciting career opportunities. "In my field, without a license, I would never be anything more than an assistant to a PE—someone who could never claim a project as her own," she says. "Now I can be fully in charge, and that's a wonderful feeling."

Experience Pays

Data from: The Engineering Income and Salary Survey, compiled by The National Society of Professional Engineers, Alexandria, Va.

The following table contains average engineering incomes for all survey respondents based on their licensure status. Salaries for EIT/EIs are historically lower because this group has fewer years of experience than those in the other categories.

Licensure Status Average Income
No professional license or certification $74,449
Engineer-in-Training (EIT)/Engineering Intern (EI) $57,529
Professional Engineer (PE) $91,475
P.E. & Certification in environmental engineering $117,242
P.E. & Certification in Forensic Engineering $110,831
P.E. & Certification in Other Engineering Specialty $103,307
P.E. & Professional Surveyor (PS) or Land Surveyor (LS) $106,931
P.E. & Other Professional Licensing $109,931

The following table contains average incomes specifically for all survey respondents based on their length of experience in the engineering field. The data in the lower categories can be used to suggest what graduating engineers can expect to make when they come out of college.

Length of Experience Average Income
Under 1 year $46,640
1-2 years $49,805
3-4 years $56,398
5-9 years $67,528
10-14 years $81,707
15-19 years $94,833
20-24 years $106,261
25+ years $118,312

The following table contains average engineering incomes by length of experience referenced with level of education (all refer to engineering degrees).

Length of Experience Level of Education Average Income
Under 1 year BS Degree (eng) $45,429
1-2 years BS Degree (eng) $48,784
3-4 years BS Degree (eng) $55,142
5-9 years BS Degree (eng) $66,063
10-14 years BS Degree (eng) $80,182
15-19 years BS Degree (eng)$93,056
20-24 years BS Degree (eng) $102,571
25+ years BS Degree (eng) $115,670

Under 1 year MS Degree (eng) $49,390
1-2 years MS Degree (eng) $51,610
3-4 years MS Degree (eng) $57,603
5-9 years MS Degree (eng)$69,171
10-14 years MS Degree (eng) $82,674
15-19 years MS Degree (eng) $96,013
20-24 years MS Degree (eng) $109,993
25+ years MS Degree (eng) $119,044

Under 1 year Doctorate (eng) $58,485
1-2 years Doctorate (eng) $59,514
3-4 years Doctorate (eng) $68,587
5-9 years Doctorate (eng) $76,135
10-14 years Doctorate (eng) $93,936
15-19 years Doctorate (eng) $103,676
20-24 years Doctorate (eng) $119,412
25+ years Doctorate (eng) $129,616

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

licensure & certification

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