Chicago—Engineers concerned about layoffs might want to strengthen
their resume or open the door for a consulting career by becoming among the few
to earn a professional engineer license. The test format was altered last year,
and there's a move afoot to make it more relevant coming in the next year or
Last year, the National Council for Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), a Clemson, SC, group that administers tests nationwide, completed the transition from half essays to all multiple-choice answers. That eliminated the human factor in grading. But it didn't make it any easier for those who want to become legally recognized as engineers.
"It's easily the single most difficult test I've ever taken in my life. I studied about 20 hours a week for about eight weeks," says Terry Perdue, a process engineer at Schweitzer-Maudiut International Inc. of Spotswood, NJ.
He eventually wants to run his own manufacturing shop or become a consultant. In either case, having the PE license is a necessity. Any consultant who markets his or her services to the public must hold a state license, and licensed shop owners need it in order to sign drawings and other documents.
Even those who work for a company and don't need the license for legal reasons can benefit. "The biggest reason for engineers to get it is to be more competitive. If companies are laying off, those with PE licenses are less likely to be hit," says Tom Kuehl, manager of distance learning at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, headquartered in New York City.
That said, spokesmen for both the National Society of Professional Engineers and NCEES agree that a PE license isn't for everyone. In 2002, only 3,000 EEs and 4,250 MEs were licensed, since most of them work under a corporate umbrella. Civil engineers more often work independently, selling their services to the public in areas where health or safety are concerned. Last year, a total of 16,500 CEs passed the test.
But is it worth it?
Should more engineers become licensed? "A lot of engineers who aren't PEs say licensing will make the profession more like law and accounting, with a lot of regulations," says Nick Corcodilos, a recruiter at Asktheheadhunter.com "On the other hand, a license lends legitimacy to the profession."
For the many engineers forced to become consultants during economic slumps, having a license can be important. To do engineering work legally, independent engineers must have a license. Though it's rare that states prosecute engineers for breaking that law, there are other potential problems for scofflaws.
"An unlicensed engineer does not have a
leg to stand on," says Arthur Schwartz, deputy executive directory at the
National Society of Professional
"If someone gets into a dispute with a client who's dissatisfied with their work and decides not to pay them, an unlicensed engineer does not have a legal leg to stand on," says Arthur Schwartz, deputy executive director at the National Society of Professional Engineers.
In an attempt to entice more engineers to study scores of hours and take the grueling eight-hour exam, engineering societies and other concerned groups spent months debating all kinds of "blue sky" ideas. A report due shortly will offer suggestions.
One idea that seems likely to be included is tiered levels of tests. Currently, licensees must first pass a Fundamentals of Engineering exam, taken around college graduation. After four years of fieldwork, they're eligible to take the Principals and Practice exam.
"We're supporting a tiered licensing approach for people who may not need the PE license but like the idea of a certificate that says they know what they're doing," says Gregg Vaughn, vice president of the IEEE-USA's career activities committee.
No matter what the committee decides, it won't happen quickly. All 50 states currently use NCEES for testing, but legislators are free to set their own standards and adopt suggested changes at any time.
"I don't see anything happening this calendar year," says John Adams, director of exam development at NCEES. If NCEES adopts a new model, there's no certainty that states will adopt that format. "We can come together and agree on a model system, but that doesn't mean that individual jurisdictions will change anything."
Regardless of whatever changes eventually occur, the exams will remain difficult.
Pass rates for last October's tests varied from about 65% for the mechanical, electrical/computer and chemical engineers to 57% of industrial engineers and 93% for nuclear engineers.
Organizations are trying to increase that pass rate by offering more variety for busy engineers.
"We've added an on-line class, a live broadcast, and we've also got a self-study course online," says Amy Geffen, director of continuing education at ASME.
The ASME recently unveiled a new study program for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, and has a video in the works. Another new ASME study guide is a question and answer program that can be downloaded to a Palm Pilot.