Does PE licensing matter?

At the annual Control System Integrators Association conference for member executives in Savannah, GA, I took a moment away from my talk on the legalities of professional licensing to poll the audience: “Stand up if your company works on control systems.” Most everyone stood up. “Remain standing if your company employs at least one person with an engineering degree.

06/01/2008


At the annual Control System Integrators Association conference for member executives in Savannah, GA, I took a moment away from my talk on the legalities of professional licensing to poll the audience:

“Stand up if your company works on control systems.” Most everyone stood up.

“Remain standing if your company employs at least one person with an engineering degree.” A number of the executives sat down.

“Remain standing if your company employs at least one person who is a licensed professional engineer.” Half the room sat down.

“Remain standing if your company employs at least one person who has passed the CSE exam.” Only a handful were left standing.

What does this mean? In the event you are one of the few who did not already know it, the connection between professional licensing and the automation industry is tenuous at best. (And keep in the mind that the CSIA companies I was informally polling are at the very top of the expertise mountain of the integration world.)

Is this any sort of a problem? My answer is “no,” but there is an asterisk.

Here’s why I say “no.” It mainly has to do with a creation in North America called the “industrial exemption.” This exemption, which means different things depending on the state or province you are in, more or less amounts to a decree to the government agencies to keep their noses out of assembly lines and process facilities (“don’t stop industry from moving forward”).

In other words, long after government regulators decided that everything from embalmers to lawyers to hairdressers to furniture retailers (someone explain this one to me) needed to be licensed, industrial technicians were left alone. So, in essence, there is something of a tradition of industrial engineering being unlicensed.

Further helping to preserve the unlicensed environment, in my view, are two other effects: safety in numbers (“Wait, are you telling me you are proposing to put all of these unlicensed automation companies out of business?), and the inability of government to keep up with technology (for instance, “software engineers” are largely unlicensed—and software obviously is a huge part of control engineering).

But the “asterisk” part of my answer cannot be ignored either. First, there are sporadic efforts, including in this year, to eliminate the industrial exemption (and, to be sure, regulation can be said to be just one engineering catastrophe away).

Second, the current definition in most states of what constitutes the practice of “professional engineering” already seems to fit what persons in the automation industry do—even if it is not widely enforced. Third, at least one state, South Carolina, is already expressly clamping down on control system engineers: In a June 2007 ruling, the South Carolina licensing board made crystal clear that “systems integrators do need licensed engineers, qualified to provide control systems design, on their staff.”

Finally, the consequences of noncompliance, even if remote, may not be worth risking. Interestingly, it is not the risk of a state agency imposing a fine that is the chief worry. It is instead the prospect that another company may use the absence of a license as an excuse not to make payment.

Believe it or not, there are court decisions in more than one state that have backed up that argument—with rulings that an unlicensed engineer could not enforce its contract in court.


Author Information
Mark Voigtmann is a lawyer with Baker & Daniels, llp (Washington, DC, Indiana, and China). His group assists the automation and process industry in structuring projects and resolving disputes. Reach him at Mark.Voigtmann@bakerd.com or 317-237-1265.




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