Why does “predicament,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a difficult, perplexing, or trying situation,”1 appear in the title of the book Engineering’s Public-Protection Predicament”? Surely, American engineering, like most occupations, has problems and faces challenges, but predicament seems extreme. Synonyms include dilemma, impasse, quagmire,2 plight, and quandary3 and the Oxford dictionary adds unpleasant and embarrassing to the definition.4 Stated differently, why use such negative terms to characterize the public protection position of American engineering?
Consider some facts and observations about American engineering as presented in the next section below titled Public-Protection Realities Documented in the Book. (Parentheses connect to book chapters and appendices.)
As you read, ask yourself if the documented statements are consistent with the claims of most engineering societies, via their codes of ethics, that public protection is their highest priority. But first, and for background, consider the essence of engineering ethics codes.
What the Ethics Codes Say
The codes of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE),5 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE),6 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE),7 American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME),8 Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE),9 and National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)10 share a claim. All say that their members are to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”
In a similar manner, the ethics code of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)11 says that it members are to “first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” The National Council of Examiners of Engineering and Surveying (NCESS),12 in its Model Rules, state that Professional Engineers (PEs) “shall be cognizant that their first and foremost responsibility is the public welfare.” The combined memberships of these eight societies comprise the vast majority of American engineers that belong to engineering societies.
If you see widespread consistency, across U.S. engineering, between what its codes say and what it does or allows, then predicament and similar terms are inappropriate, inaccurate, and unacceptable. Perhaps I miss-titled the book and should drop my reform efforts.
In contrast, if you see major inconsistencies, then predicament, dilemma, quagmire, quandary, and similar terms describe the public-protection position of American engineering. Therefore, to be true to its ethics codes, engineering should reform itself. My book suggests ways to do that.
Public-Protection Realities Documented in the Book
Let’s summarize what American engineering, taken as a whole, does relative to what its ethics codes say. The book, Engineering’s Public-Protection Predicament: Reform Education and Licensure for a Safer Society, documents the following:
- Hospitals must have licensed physicians in charge of surgery, law firms must have licensed attorneys in charge of legal services, and veterinary clinics must place licensed vets in charge of neutering and spaying. In striking contrast, engineers who work for industries, manufacturers, utilities, and government entities and produce massive amounts of risky products, facilities, structures, systems do so without accountable and competent licensed engineers in charge, whose first responsibility is public protection (Chap. 5).
- Washington State’s occupational hair designer-barber licensure law allows no exemptions. However, the state’s professional engineering licensure law exempts engineers, who design 200-passenger commercial aircraft that fly at 520 miles per hour, from guidance by professional engineers (PEs). In Washington State, avoiding a bad hair day seems more important than avoiding a bad flight day (Chap. 5, App. G).
- Over two centuries ago, engineering was the first major occupation in the United States to establish formal education—four years of post-high school study. Almost a century ago, the NCEES published the first Model Law, which stated that engineering licensure required four years of education plus four years of experience. Today, in spite of scientific discoveries, socio-economic-political developments, and engineering challenges, the Model Law still requires, for licensure, only four years of education and four years of experience. The education and experience requirements of essentially all American professions exceed those of engineering (Chap. 5, App. C).
- Beginning almost a century ago, many individuals advocated and studies by organizations recommended a broader and deeper education for American engineers, especially for PEs. Unfortunately, little change occurred over decades because of scattered opposition by the licensure-exemption support system (LESS). More recently, 11 engineering societies, the Engineering Deans Council, and the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) began to oppose formally broader and deeper education. Also, in recent times, NCEES and NSPE supported significant education improvements, but then weakened their positions (Chapter 5, App. F).
- Engineering has accepted decades-long underrepresentation of women studying and practicing engineering while in almost all professions half or more of the graduates are women. From a public protection perspective, this deficiency, especially the lack of talent and diversity it represents, denies the public the best protection that engineering could offer (Chap. 1).
- NCEES states that its vision is “to provide leadership in professional licensure of engineers and surveyors through excellence in uniform laws, licensing standards, and professional ethics in order to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public and to shape the future of professional licensure.” However, the council adopted and published eight professional policy statements and 37 position statements not one of which addresses the potential negative public impact of exemptions and describes what should be done to offset that impact (Chap. 4, 5, & 7; App. C).
- ABET prescribes accreditation criteria for 28 undergraduate engineering programs ranging from aerospace to systems engineering. Unfortunately, when considering the awareness and development of engineering students, only two engineering disciplines – civil engineering and construction – are required to include the purpose and process of licensure in their curricula. Therefore, the vast majority of future engineers are likely to earn a baccalaureate degree in engineering without a validated understanding of licensure. This is a serious omission because licensure is the process intended to assure the public that engineers who provide engineering services that could adversely impact public health, safety, and welfare have the competence and concern needed to provide those services (Chap. 5 and App. E and F).
- Only about a third of the deans in America’s 370 engineering colleges hold engineering licenses, in contrast with law and medical schools where most deans are licensed. Recognize that deans influence faculty who, in turn, affect students. Low participation in engineering licensure by deans diminishes licensure’s value as viewed by faculty and students and sends some of the latter into employment without adequate understanding of an engineer’s public protection responsibility (Chap. 1).
- Just five percent of PEs are members of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) compared to higher percentages of licensed members in other professional societies, such as American Medical Association (AMA) and American Bar Association (ABA). Such low participation limits the number of volunteers available to advance NSPE’s anti-licensure exemption and other efforts (Chap. 4).
- Disasters like the Ford Pinto fires, Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, General Motors ignition switch disaster, Deepwater Horizon oil rig tragedy, amusement ride accidents, Merrimack Valley gas distribution system fires, and Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes share a common feature. The organizations behind the failures were exempt from placing licensed engineers in charge. Engineering was not conducted under the direction of competent and accountable engineers whose paramount responsibility was public protection (Chap. 3, App. G).
In my view, the preceding facts and observations about American engineering cumulatively describe a public-protection predicament. That predicament includes:
- An admirable ethics code system that is, unfortunately applicable to only a small fraction of engineers thus minimizing its public-protection potential.
- Absence of engineers, licensed by the state, in responsible charge of many risky projects thus needlessly placing the public at risk.
- Inconsistency between state regulation of many professions and engineering, with the latter being much less demanding than the former, therefore, placing the public at unnecessary risk.
- An essentially unchanging entry education for engineers, in general, and for aspiring PEs, in particular, relative to American professions. In light of ever-changing scientific discoveries, socio-economic-political developments, and engineering challenges, this passivity poses risks to the public.
- A model law entity (NCEES) that does not officially take a stand on the negative public consequences of America’s engineering licensure exemption laws and, therefore, stands in partial conflict with its stated vision and puts the public at unnecessary risk.
- An accreditation organization (ABET) that gives minimal attention to including the purpose and process of licensure in the curricula of undergraduate programs, an omission which fails to effectively inform graduates of the implications of their work and places the public at unnecessary risk.
- Low participation in licensure by engineering deans and faculty, which further diminishes graduates’ awareness of their public protection duty.
To reiterate, American engineering’s approach to public protection is a predicament. The engineering community’s widespread public-protection-is-paramount claims, via codes, stand in sharp contrast and conflict with the equally widespread licensure-exemption laws and a dated education-for-licensure model. As long as this dilemma stands, the public faces unnecessary risk.
Resolving the predicament and, therefore, making protection of public safety, health, and welfare paramount, requires reform by all or, at least more of, the engineering community. Engineering’s Public-Protection Predicament describes the quandary and offers reform ideas for consideration by organizations and individuals within engineering and by stakeholders outside of engineering.
Let’s view the long-standing and discouraging situation described above in light of what American engineering has accomplished, as exemplified by the examples of engineering exemplars and excellence described in Chapter 2 of my book. An engineering community that produces such amazing individuals and results can, if it so wills, correct weaknesses and create what could be the greatest profession. This book tries to show how, or at least some of the how.
- Merriam-Webster. 2021. Dictionary.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/predicament, accessed February 3, 2021.
- Oxford. 2021. U.S. Dictionary. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/predicament,
accessed February 3, 2021.
- Oxford. 2021.
- American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). 2015. “Code of Ethics.” https://www.aiche.org/about/governance/policies/code-ethics, accessed February 3, 2012.
- American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). 2014. “Constitution,
Bylaws and Rules.” https://www.asabe.org/Careers, accessed February 3, 2021.
- American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). 2021. “Code of Ethics for Engineering Educators.” https://www.asee.org/about-us/the-organization/our-board-of- directors
/asee-board-of-directors-statements, accessed February 3, 2021.
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). 2012. “Code of Ethics of Engineers.” www.asme.org, accessed February 3, 2021.
- Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). 2021. “Code of Ethics.” https://www.ieee.org/about/corporate/governance/p7-8.html, accessed February 3, 2021.
- National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). 2019. “Code of Ethics for Professional Engineers.” https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics ?gclid=CjwKCAiAsOmABhAwEiwAEBR0ZvGxzRp9gS9ypv5iKAHWr8yp5-
6dxEsITAm_LXkn3PLva9qumulB7BoCNSQQAvD_BwE, accessed February 3, 2021.
- American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 2020. “Code of Ethics.”
https://www.asce.org/code-of-ethics/, accessed February 3, 2021.
- National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). 1990. “NCEES Model Rules of Professional Conduct.” http://sites.bsyse.wsu.edu/pitts/be120/Handouts/codes/ncees.htm, accessed February 3, 2021.
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