Is a Professional Engineer License Worth it?

July 15, 2013

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Professional Engineer licensure enables engineering professionals to advance higher in their careers and in wide-ranging ways. But becoming a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) is a difficult and time-consuming process. Are the “PE” initials after your name worth the time and effort?

Considered the highest standard of competence for the engineering profession, PE certification not only enhances an engineering professional’s stature, but also represents higher levels of authority and responsibility. Because the requirements to earn PE status are stringent, and companies often don’t require a PE license for employment, not all engineers become licensed.

Most young engineering professionals entering the workforce, particularly engineering students nearing graduation from college, face the decision of whether to become a licensed PE.

Not only does a PE earn respect among engineering peers and a personal sense of achievement, there are a number of practical career options that are not always available to their non-licensed counterparts. The contribution to career advancement is among the most important benefits of PE licensure.

During the hiring process, for example, having the PE license shows that the candidate has met all the standards of the profession and, especially for fields where the PE is preferred but not required, sets her or him apart from others. Only a licensed engineer may prepare, sign, seal, and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or to seal engineering work for public and private clients. With these responsibilities comes more authority and greater earning potential.

Earning and maintaining a PE license enables an engineer to become an independent consultant, a government engineer, or en educator.

For an engineering professional who may want to pursue a career as a consulting engineer, own his or her own engineering firm, or be in charge of engineering work for the public, licensure is a legal requirement. Moreover, many federal, state, and municipal agencies now require that higher-level engineering positions be filled only by licensed PEs. And for those considering a career in education, many states are increasingly requiring that engineering teachers be licensed.

Finally, data also indicate that, on average, PEs tend to earn more than their non-licensed counterparts throughout their careers. Based on 2010 survey findings from the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), licensed engineers make an annual median salary of $99,000, while those with no license or professional certification earn $94,000 a year. More recently, according to a 2012 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, engineers with a PE license earn a median income of $100,000, compared with the $95,500 for unlicensed engineering professionals.

Although the “PE” title after an engineer’s name will likely benefit a professional’s career for the rest of his or her life, it’s easy to rationalize not pursuing licensure when one considers the additional time and effort required after the long investment to earn an engineering degree. PE licensing in each state differs, with a state board determining requirements and procedures, but it generally requires completion of four key steps.

Upon completing a four-year college degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, the candidate can become classified as an "engineer intern" (EI) or "engineer-in-training" (EIT) by successfully completing the first intensive exam. In most states, the first test is the eight-hour Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which grills applicants on their knowledge of basic engineering principles. Achieving EI or EIT status signals that the candidate has mastered the fundamental requirements toward earning his or her PE license. Many colleges and universities encourage engineering students to take the FE exam before graduating, and some provide review courses, though a candidate is not an EI or EIT until having graduated and passed the exam.

From there, the candidate must demonstrate qualifying engineering experience by working under a PE for roughly four years. To constitute “qualifying experience,” the experience must meet a number of criteria, and usually would need to be engineering projects of a grade and a character that would indicate to the state engineering licensing board that the applicant may be competent to practice engineering while showing evidence of independent decision-making and personal accountability in design and application. Simply put, while the four or more years of experience must be gained under the supervision of qualified professionals, it must also be professional in character.

“If the candidate is not a graduate of an accredited four-year engineering program, the candidate will usually need more than four years of qualifying experience (often eight to 12 years depending on the nature of the candidate's education) in order to be eligible for engineering licensure,” the NSPE makes clear. “Some states will not permit non-graduates to take the FE, no matter how much experience the candidate has.”

After accumulating the years-long qualifying engineering experience, in most cases, the final step in attaining PE license is successfully completing the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam in the candidate’s state. The intensive eight-hour exam tests the candidate’s ability to practice competently in a particular engineering discipline. Specialties range from industrial to nuclear engineering to multiple fields in civil or mechanical engineering.

For dedicated PEs, earning a license is only the beginning, as many states require them to maintain and improve upon their skills with continuing education and professional development opportunities throughout their careers.

What do you think? Are the results of earning and maintaining a PE license worth the time and effort?


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