Archive for December, 2003

Going Pro

Thursday, December 11th, 2003 Michael Barr

The recent introduction of the .PRO top-level Internet domain, short for “professional,” and especially the narrow restrictions placed upon its use have got me thinking: Why don’t engineers qualify as professionals? According to the charter of .PRO, only “doctors, lawyers, and accountants” qualify to register such domains. I could not, for example, register the domain MICHAELBARR.PRO and thus market my services as an engineer on the Web.

Why are such folk as doctors, lawyers, and accountants often considered professionals by distinction from other workers? Why aren’t engineers members of that elite group? Like doctors, engineers attempt to debug complex systems and prescribe solutions and workarounds that may or may not work. Like lawyers, we are masters of arcane languages and skilled in making stuff work even in the face of seemingly bad precedents. And like accountants, we sit in our cubicles and crunch numbers—and thus make someone else’s life easier. All four professions are known to pay well and consist predominantly of white collar work.

It cannot simply be that only doctors, lawyers, and accountants are certified to practice in a particular state, as there are professional licensing examinations and boards for engineers in all states too. Engineers who’ve been licensed in this way are generally termed “P.E.’s”, an abbreviation that is short for Professional Engineer. In some states and fields of engineering P.E. licenses are, in fact, requirements for the performance of related engineering work.

I wonder if the crux of the matter isn’t simply that engineering, as a profession, hasn’t been around as long as those other fields. Or perhaps it’s that engineers and the role they play in our society hasn’t, until fairly recently, been as large or important as it is today. In a sense, perhaps the empowering of doctors, lawyers, and accountants with the imprimatur of the state—which developed as the importance of these professions to large numbers of people increased over a long history—is what really made them into elite professionals.

Based on the demonstrated long-term success of the three professional fields, it seems like anything we engineers, as a group, could do to make ourselves more like professionals would be good for individual engineers, the wider group, and society as a whole. For example, during the current downturn there has been much worry that engineering jobs are disappearing overseas. If, however, it was a requirement that any engineer involved in the design of a safety-critical product (or one simply to be approved by the FDA or FAA or another government agency) be certified by the state, such jobs would be tied to this country.

Another upside of the professionalization of engineering might be the wrenching of the power over engineering out of the hands of corporations and management and into the hands of independent engineering firms. Like law firms, such engineering companies would be skilled in specific areas of engineering and licensed to practice in one or more states. They might work on all sorts of different products for all sorts of different companies—essentially based on an hourly billing system that would properly emphasize the quality of the work over meeting a specific deadline.

To accomplish this, of course, more and greater emphasis would need to be placed on continuing education, engineering ethics, and state licensing. Most engineers today get basically no continuing education, which might have something to do with why older engineers as a group are often sidelined or pushed into management. Most engineers today are likewise also not schooled in ethics or licensed in any way; but maybe we should be.

What do you think? Do individual engineers, such as embedded systems designers, have more to gain from state licensing and continuing education than they have to lose? What about society or the greater profession?