“The Difference Between Professional Engineering, Engineering, and Certifications”


The PE has the greater risk in the process, and the public expects nothing short of strict ethical and professional efforts from the registered professional.

by David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE

Each of us is part of the built environment team—skilled trades personnel, contractors, designers, engineers, inspectors, and building officials—and each of us has a unique set of skills, knowledge, credentials, and experience that demonstrates our qualifications to our peers. Each is important to the team for differing reasons, but none is more important than any of the others. As the old saying goes, “There is no ‘I’ in Team.” However, each of us brings something different to the table, and cooperating and sharing information can only improve the design and enhance the client’s vision.

The skilled tradespeople are well trained in their specific trade and have the “means and methods” knowledge of how physical things work. The contractor (General or Construction Manager) brings knowledge on coordinating and managing the efforts of the various skilled trades personnel. They have the responsibility of bringing the project in on time and within budget to the satisfaction of the client. They have the overall responsibility for the safety and security of the project site. They are also the “face” of the project to the public (although that may only be when someone bothers to read the job sign posted onsite). Additionally, they receive their due for the successful completion or when something goes “south” and becomes public knowledge. However, this does place them in a position of responsibility to the public and should provide them with an eye toward the public good.

The design team—architects, engineers, designers, drafting, and administrative staff—are all focused on the development of the client’s vision for the project. The team is charged with taking a verbal description of the vision and translating it into a set of documents (Drawings, Illustrations, and Specifications) that the construction team can then develop into the “brick and mortar” structure that is the realization of the client’s vision. A good set of documents should leave little room for field changes while also allowing for a little give and take by all parties involved.

The building officials—inspectors, plan reviewer, chief building officials, etc.—are charged by law to ensure that the design and its physical result are constructed in accordance with the minimal requirements of the building codes and associated standards. They are not the design team, but are there to review and question things that might appear to conflict with those codes or in some way impact public health, safety, and welfare. While they are not the design professionals, as supported by the fact that they do not seal/sign the Contract Documents as a Registered Architect or Engineer, they offer an extra set of eyes on the design and can challenge the design team to ensure that their design meets or exceeds the minimum requirements and assist in ensuring clarity in the design.

Differences Between Professional Engineering, Engineering, and Certifications

With the groundwork established, let’s discuss the topic of this article: the differences between Professional Engineering, engineering, and certifications. Each of these has differing values and responsibilities as well as differing meanings to the public at large.

Certification is a document that attests to a status or level of achievement in a particular area of competence within a given discipline/area of expertise. These are generally not issued by governmental agencies or officially recognized under law. Instead, most certifications are issued by professional organizations or societies to individuals within their organization. The certificate holder has usually gone the extra mile by taking a test to document their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. It is a means for an individual to show that they are a step above others who do not hold the certification, a means to improve one’s employment opportunities by setting themselves apart from other individuals who do not hold the certification. Certifications provide opportunities for personal growth to individuals who could not or did not wish to pursue a trade school or higher education.

Engineering is generally considered the application of science, physics, and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the source of energy in nature are made useful to people, and it incorporates the design and manufacturing of complex products. Engineers provide a link between scientific discoveries and the commercial applications that meet societal and consumer needs. But the term engineer does get a significant amount of misuse. When you ask someone to describe an engineer, you may get surprising answers: someone who drives a train, works in sanitation (janitor or waste collector), solves problems, works as a technician at a television/radio station, etc.

This has led to confusion within the public arena. Engineers are thought to be individuals with training in the areas of science and mathematics, which should separate them from these other individuals—not that we should take anything away from them, as they are contributing members of society. It has not been helpful that employers assign titles to individuals such as plant engineer, service engineer, project engineer, safety engineer, etc. without regard to whether or not that person has an engineering background or associated education. This is a little bit like false advertising, but it lets employers over-inflate the position by using an inflated title to make some think they have more prestige. However, it continues to blur the lines between people who have a degree in engineering or relevant field experience and those who simply were granted a title. True engineers have a minimum of a four-year degree from an accredited engineering program. This provides them with the underlying scientific and mathematical knowledge to apply engineering principles.

Governmental agencies further blur the line or inject confusion in the public view of engineers by allowing what is known as the “Industry Exemption.” These are exemptions from engineering licensure laws that legislatures have created, some by statutes and others by regulations. In some cases, their scope is a matter of regulatory interpretation, custom, and practice within a jurisdiction. These exemptions are primarily found in industry/manufacturing and government. Exemptions are a very serious impediment to the protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare, while the expectation of the public is that engineers have a responsibility for activities that directly impact their health, safety, and welfare. Exemptions place these individuals and organizations performing engineering services outside of the licensing system, placing them outside of the legal and ethical requirements demanded of licensed professionals. As a result, either de jure (a state of affairs that is in accordance with law) or de facto (a state of affairs that is true in fact, but that is not officially sanctioned), the industrial exemption undermines the very foundation of engineering licensure and the protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare. While these individuals may have gained considerable knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge, they simply are not held to the same legal, moral, and ethical standards as a professional engineer. They fall short of the public’s expectations of these standards and competencies under the eyes of the law; the individual is shielded behind the corporate structure of the organization. Yet this is not meant to take away anything from these individuals, as many of them contribute to the development of products and structures that benefit society in general.

Professional Engineering is the only designation recognized by law that allows qualified individuals to present themselves to the public as “Engineers.” A registered Professional Engineer (PE) is an individual who has fulfilled the educational (typically a four-year ABET-accredited degree) and experience (working under the responsible charge of a PE) requirements as well as passing rigorous exams in the fundamentals of engineering and one for competency in a specific branch of engineering. Currently there are six major branches of engineering: Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Management, and Geotechnical, with literally hundreds of different subcategories of engineering under each branch.

Once one is granted the “privilege” of professional registration, they accept the enforceable legal and ethical duties to bring the necessary technical competence to their efforts and place the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare foremost. With the granting of privilege as a PE comes risk, liability, and responsibility in which violating regulatory or ethical requirements can result in condemnation, fines, licensure suspension, or revocation of that privilege. It is for this reason that the PE has the greater risk in the process, and the public expects nothing short of strict ethical and professional efforts from the registered professional. While others, as discussed above, have professional and ethical skin in the effort, it is the PE who has the ultimate responsibility to the public’s good, the team’s efforts, and the client’s vision. It is the PE who is positioned best to protect the public good in the decision chain and who has the proper technical expertise, but also a duty to safety that overrides all other considerations.

It is for this reason that the PE serves this role within the states’ regulations and laws to alleviate the public’s concerns over inexperienced or unqualified personnel in product and project development. Unfortunately, disasters such as the Gold King Mine wastewater spill, Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, Merrimack Valley gas explosions, or the failure of a South Carolina nuclear reactor project, among others, illustrate the need for a strong system of engineering licensure to ensure the protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare. No, I am not implying that these events would have never happened if a registered Professional Engineer were in the responsible charge of these situations. We’ll never know. But I cannot help but feel that having a PE on board the project team would definitely enhance the potential success for a project that serves the public good.

As with many other professions, the professional status and the actual practice of Professional Engineering is legally defined and protected by law. This should not take anything away from the other members that make up the team: personnel experienced in the areas of engineering, degreed engineers that lack the PE designation, or those who hold certifications. But at the end of the day, it is the PE who places their seal and signature on the official documents, who holds the final say and associated liability, and who ultimately serves the public trust.

David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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