For Burton Siegal, the question isn't so much whether he's an engineer, as whether the State of Illinois will see fit to call him one.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about Siegal's dilemma in Design News. He's the engineer who, after 55 years of practicing the profession, is being investigated by the State of Illinois for the unlicensed practice of engineering. The reason: He never passed the Professional Engineers' licensing exam.
Before we go deeper into Siegal's case, though, let's be clear about one point: I'm not against state licensing of engineers. In fact, I think it's good for the profession. True, there are some thorny issues that need to be examined: Should manufacturing engineers be exempt from P.E. licensing laws? If not, should they be allowed to use the term “engineer” on their business cards? Should P.E. exams be changed to reflect more electrical and manufacturing expertise?
These are good, legitimate questions, but for the moment let's set them aside. Here, I want to address the dilemma of experienced engineers, like Siegal, who haven't passed the P.E.
Here's my take on it: This case is absurd.
If Siegal isn't an engineer, then we're all in trouble, because there must not be any engineers left in this country. If you don't believe it, take a peek at his resume: He's been awarded 123 patents — an extraordinary number — through the course of his career. He's been nominated for a National Medal of Technology presented by the President of the United States. He received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Illinois College of Engineering (which, last time I checked, is in the State of Illinois). He designed a part of the Surveyor camera that traveled to the moon and is now in residence at the Smithsonian.
The State of Illinois' case may end up hinging on whether Siegal, as a research affiliate of manufacturers, was exempt from the Professional Engineering Practice Act of 1989.
But there's a larger issue here and it has to do with Siegal's body of work. All of us who have wrestled with the rigors of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and strength of materials in school know the true test of an engineer lies, not in theory, but in practice.
Robert Chalker, director of the Society of Automotive Engineers, said it best when we recently talked to him about Siegal's case and others like his: “The body of their work and their experience says more about their capabilities than does certification,” he said.
Let's be honest: In the larger world, engineers have a reputation of being inflexible thinkers. If we tell Siegal he's not an engineer, then our entire profession is guilty of inflexible thinking.
Amidst all the legalese that's likely to zip back and forth while Siegal's case is being resolved, let's hope one point isn't forgotten: Experience matters.