In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Sustainable Smart Cities
March 15, 2023
The world’s cities face increasing threats from natural disasters, aging infrastructure, traffic, and resource constraints. The articles in this issue examine smart infrastructure, sustainability, net zero carbon options, and autonomous driving, among other approaches to smart and sustainable cities.

Engineering Licensure-Exemption Laws: Suggested Reforms to Enhance Public Safety

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Author: Stuart G. Walesh

Engineer employers, the federal and state governments, and the engineering community all have an important role in minimizing the risks of licensure-exemption laws.

As explained in the first article in this two-part series (Walesh 2023), engineering ethics codes claim that public protection is paramount. However, widespread exemptions to state engineering licensure laws enable bottom-line-first thinking, which often places the public at unnecessary risk.

If this dichotomy stands, engineering will not fully participate in the grand bargain—engineers enjoy ample latitude in practice in return for protecting the public—and the public will continue to face unnecessary risks. Reform is needed so that employers place competent and ethically and legally accountable licensed engineers (Professional Engineers, PEs), who hold public protection paramount, in responsible charge of risky engineering projects and defending the population from other threats. Support and appropriate engagement are also needed for the majority of graduate engineers who choose nonlicensure career paths.

Reform in three areas could have the most impact on American engineering: engineer employers, the federal and state governments, and the engineering community. I consider reform suggestions for each sector.

Suggestions for Employers Operating Under Licensure-Exemption Laws

Engineering-intensive entities using licensure exemptions should consider a different follow-the-money approach when contemplating their disaster costs. One-time costs are likely to include staff time, attorney fees, expert’s fees, victim compensation, customer settlements, and fines. Long-term and repeatable costs may be increased liability insurance premiums, personnel turnover, and damaged reputations. Commenting on the Pinto tragedies, Ford president Lee Iacocca (1984, p. 162) said that “the damage to the company was incalculable.”

Consider Boeing’s monetary cost for its two 737 MAX 8 crashes. In January 2021 the US government announced that Boeing agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion as part of a legal settlement with the Justice Department. The agreement included a criminal penalty, compensation for customers, and a $500 million fund to compensate the families of the 346 people who died in the crashes (Robison 2021). The preceding does not include the cost of lost or delayed sales.

PEs should lead teams of unlicensed engineers, various specialists, and support personnel to ensure appropriate consideration of public safety—and the bottom line.

What if, a decade ago, Boeing leaders had invested a small fraction of $2.5 billion in studying and implementing a more responsible approach to engineering? The company could have established an engineering structure that strategically identified and recruited PEs and placed them in responsible charge of various aspects of aircraft design and manufacturing.

These competent, ethical, and accountable professionals could have led teams of unlicensed engineers, various specialists, and support personnel to make sure public safety—as well as the bottom line—were appropriately considered. The resulting culture could have prevented the human, financial, and reputational costs caused by the 737 MAX 8 disasters.

Employers could also use other means of creating a public-protection-first culture. For example, require engineers and others to commit to an internal ethics code or appoint individuals empowered to identify troublesome decisions and take them up the chain of command.

Suggestions for State and Federal Governments

All US states (except Oklahoma and Arkansas) plus the District of Columbia have adopted various forms of engineering licensure exemptions. In organizations operating under these laws, bottom-line managers and executives—not licensed engineers—often make major engineering decisions on risky projects.

This practice conflicts with a licensing board’s principal responsibility: protecting the public. Boards and state legislatures should proactively provide that protection by removing or reducing exemptions. Use the 1889 Dent v. West Virginia US Supreme Court decision, which gives states essentially unlimited power to regulate professions for public-protection purposes. State chapters of national engineering societies could urge licensing boards and legislatures to study the exemption issue, with emphasis on public protection.

The federal government (e.g., the Federal Aviation Administration, the Chemical Safety Board) could require that certain engineering functions, such as aircraft, motor vehicle, and utility design as well as chemical manufacturing processes, be conducted under the guidance of and with engineering approved by PEs, whose paramount responsibility is public protection. This mandate could be articulated in federal regulations that would override contrary state law and be consistent with the US Constitution.[1] For example, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig tragedy prompted the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to require that a PE certify casing and well design before issuing a drill permit (Eiser 2015).

In the interest of a fresh approach, state or federal governments could consider modified or new models for earning a license to practice engineering—a replacement for or modification to the traditional education-examination-experience model. For example (McMeekin 2021),

  • A candidate-prepared portfolio, which documents the necessary knowledge and skill, might reduce the content or scope of the PE examination, or completely replace it.
  • The experience requirement could be similarly modified to place more emphasis on quality and less on duration.
  • Peer reviews, or interviews by committees, could modify or replace some parts of the three-step model.
  • National licensure, administered by state boards with assistance from engineering societies, may be feasible.
  • Given emerging technologies and increasing socioeconomic-political complexity, consider placing more emphasis on career-long learning.
  • Explore, in the interest of public protection, a non-PE option. For well-defined engineering processes, state or federal governments could require engineering organizations to certify conformance with applicable engineering standards.

Suggestions for the Engineering Community

Consider what members of the engineering community could do to reduce the harmful effects of licensure-exemption laws. This discussion excludes the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) because that pan-engineering organization has been a leader in opposing exemptions.


ABET accredits engineering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. It prescribes criteria for 29 bachelor’s programs, but only two—civil engineering and -construction—are required to include licensing in their curricula. Furthermore, public protection is never mentioned by ABET as the paramount responsibility of engineers, especially PEs (ABET 2022).

ABET should explore revising its Program Criteria so that they require teaching the purpose of engineering licensure and its educational, examination, and experience requirements. Stress public protection as the engineer’s highest duty. If Program Criteria improvements attract widespread attention among engineering disciplines, the changes could instead appear in the General Criteria. Whether or not engineering students eventually select the licensure option, all future engineers should understand that engineering’s purpose is to meet society’s physical needs while keeping public protection paramount.

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

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.” The Council adopted eight professional policy statements and 37 position statements.[2] Only one of these statements mentions exemptions, and none advocates reducing exemptions “to safeguard public health, safety, and welfare.”

All future engineers should understand that engineering’s purpose is to meet society’s physical needs while keeping public protection paramount.

NCEES should consider adopting a position statement that addresses the potential harmful effects of exemptions and suggests remedial actions.

National Academy of Engineering

The NAE’s vision is “to be the trusted source of engineering advice for creating a healthier, more secure, and sustainable world.” Its mission is “to advance the welfare and prosperity of the nation by providing independent advice on matters involving engineering and tech-nology,” primarily to the federal government.[3] Relative to the content of this article, the Academy’s website is virtually silent about licensing, and its use of the term professional engineer describes any member of an engineering society, not necessarily a PE.

The NAE should consider

  • using the term professional engineer to apply only to licensed engineers;
  • urging the federal government to reduce licensure exemptions applicable to its engineers; and
  • studying the effectiveness of US engineering education and the effect of licensure exemptions, and making appropriate recommendations to academic, practitioner, and business communities.

Engineering Societies

These societies provide forums for engineers to continuously improve engineering education, licensure, and practice—and sometimes stimulate reform. Now is the time to help reform engineering licensure.

Reconsider Society Support of Licensure Exemptions

Some engineering societies explicitly support exemptions. For example, ASME recommends “that any -person in responsible charge of the practice of engineering be a legally licensed engineer, except where state statutes allow for exemptions” (ASME 2015). The AIChE affirms “its support of an engineering policy known as the industrial exemption, while continuing to strongly encourage individual engineers to pursue licensure” (AIChE 2014a). Looking forward, it also states, “If the overwhelming majority of engineering licensure boards can adopt a streamlined form of reciprocity…AIChE would reconsider its support of the industrial exemption” (AIChE 2014b).

Engineering societies should consider removing their support of licensure-exemption laws and work with states toward streamlining license reciprocity.

Accordingly, the first suggestion, for the sake of public protection, is that some discipline-specific engineering societies consider removing their support of licensure-exemption laws and work with states toward stream-lining license reciprocity. Because NSPE has an admirable track record in opposing licensure exemptions, it is a source of strategies and tactics.

Negative Aspects of Employment in Licensure-Exemption Environments

The second suggestion: Engineering societies ought to help prospective and current engineering students understand the negative aspects of employment in licensure-exemption environments. Students and their parents are likely to welcome help in making sound decisions consistent with their values and aspirations.

All engineers tend to do challenging technical work, earn a favorable salary and benefits, and enjoy job security. However, many engineers employed in the licensure-exemption environment, in contrast with other engineers, have to tolerate nonengineer man-agers making major engineering decisions and a loss of career and business startup flexibility because of the lack of an engineering license. Later, these engineers may regret helping to implement engineering decisions that put the public at risk instead of taking corrective action.

Clarify Career Options for an Undergraduate Engineering Degree

Licensure of some engineers is essential to engineering’s ideology of meeting society’s physical needs while holding public protection paramount. Licensure enables the grand bargain. However, not all, or even most, graduates of ABET-accredited four-year engineering programs need to become licensed because that degree offers three attractive careers (Walesh 2021). Therefore, the third suggestion for engineering societies is to articulate more effectively the options.

Walesh 2 figure 1.gif

As illustrated in figure 1, three principal career options are PE, engineer with license optional (ELO), and other career (OC). Note the many and varied positions or functions associated with each of the options. While the options are not new, labeling, defining, and pro-actively publicizing and using them would be. -Explanation of the options should begin in high school so potential engineering students, and their parents and teachers, understand the full range of careers available to engineering graduates.

The three options indicate that engineering is like medicine, law, and other professional occupations, in that each offers various points of entry and types of participation. For example, if a high school student expresses interest in medicine or the health field, he or she is likely to learn about nurse practitioners, physicians, emergency medical technicians, physician assistants, physical therapists, and so on. The PE, ELO, and OC options provide a way to introduce young people, and their parents and -counselors, to engineering’s array of options.

The three options form a large net that can introduce an even more varied group of young people to the highly -varied engineering field so that they can consider studying engineering. Frequently remind engineering students about the three options, including their pros and cons, so that they can make wise postbachelor’s degree decisions.

Finally, when we engineers of all stripes get into discussions of “how much education,” “how much experience,” “who must be licensed,” “who is liable,” and “what does engineering leadership entail,” we could first ask: Which of the three graduate engineer options are you referring to?

Individual Engineers

We engineers naturally share ideas, experiences, and research results with other engineers. However, talking among ourselves is not enough—we must write to, speak to, and interact with the public.

When doing that, be aware of the prevailing public perception paradox. Surveys and experience reveal that the American public holds engineers in high regard (Nordland 2019). In sharp contrast, the public is unaware of the way omni-present engineering licensure-exemption laws deny them the protection they deserve. That’s where individual engineers should weigh in. Richard Weingardt (1998, p. 75), a PE, said, “The world is run by people who show up.” We need to “show up” more in the public arena.

How can engineers “show up”? Weingardt suggested the following broad areas of public sector involvement:

  • Civic organizations: Chambers of Commerce, homeowner’s associations, planning boards, service clubs, historic preservation boards, and ad hoc task forces
  • Educational organizations: School boards, college or university advisory boards, and student and faculty groups
  • Public communication: Op-eds, letters to the editor, news releases, talk shows, and blogs
  • Politics: Candidate support, candidacy, caucuses, and communication with state and federal legislators.

In communicating with the public, include topics such as engineering’s massive impact on societal quality of life, the unnecessary risks imposed by licensure exemptions, and the need to have PEs in charge of projects that put the public at risk.

Individual engineers can help the engineering and broader communities understand the destructive consequences of licensure-exemption laws.


The American engineering community’s widespread claim that “public protection is paramount,” enshrined in professional and society codes, conflicts with equally widespread state licensure-exemption laws. This dichotomy places the public at unnecessary risk.

Engineer employers, state and federal government entities, and the engineering community should enhance public protection by leading the effort to reduce the exemptions. An engineering community that historically produces amazing individuals and results can, if it so wills, correct this critical weakness and create what could be the greatest profession.


ABET. 2022. What programs does ABET accredit? Baltimore. Available at what-programs-does-abet-accredit/.

AIChE [American Institute of Chemical Engineers]. 2014a. AIChE affirms strong support for both licensure and the industrial exemption. May 7. New York. Available at aiche-affirms-strong-support-both-licensure-and--industrial- exemption.

AIChE. 2014b. Full statement: AIChE and the industrial exemption, April 2014. New York. Available at full--statement-aiche-and-industrial-exemption-april-2014.

ASME [American Society of Mechanical Engineers]. 2015. Society Policy 15.2 – Engineering Licensing. New York. Available at aboutasm e/who%20we%20are/governance/societypolicies_15- 2_engineerslicensing.pdf.

Eiser A. 2015. Five years after Deepwater Horizon, a solution that requires professional engineers. PE Magazine, Jul/Aug.

Iacocca L, w. Novak W. 1984. Iaccoca: An Autobiography. Bantam Books.

McMeekin M. 2021. Licensure Models for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Summit 10 Report. Engineering Change Lab USA. Available at

Nordland S. 2019. Americans say these are the most respected professions. Nov 20. Available at profession.

Robison P. 2021. Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing. Doubleday.

Walesh SG. 2021. Engineering’s Public-Protection Predicament: Reform Education and Licensure for a Safer Society. Hannah Publishing.

Walesh SG. 2023. Engineering’s grand bargain vs. licensure-exemption laws. The Bridge 53(1):51–56.

Weingardt R. 1998. Forks in the Road: Impacting the World Around Us. Palamar Publishing.


[1]  The Constitution’s Article VI, Supremacy Clause states that federal laws, made pursuant to the Constitution, take priority over any conflicting state laws.

[2]  See NCEES engineering licensure,

[3]  The NAE vision and mission are posted on its website,

About the Author:Stuart Walesh is a PE and independent consultant, teacher, and author who previously worked in the business, government, and academic sectors.