Insight from Dr. David T. Williams on Licensed Engineers
A farmer knows that next year’s harvest depends on this year’s planting. The same philosophy can be said for any company that employs engineers today. Next year’s success depends on planting the right seeds in terms of your hiring choices. So is it best to hire a candidate with a Professional Engineer (P.E.) license? How does a licensed professional engineer weigh up to an unlicensed professional? Is hiring someone with a P.E. license worth coughing up the extra money?
To investigate this question, we interviewed the two-time former president of the International Erosion Control Association (IECA), Dr. David T. Williams, who is currently a licensed Professional Engineer in eight states as well as a Registered Professional Hydrologist (PH), Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control (CPESC), and Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM) with more than four decades of experience. Some highlights of Dr. Williams’ breath and depth of accomplishments include being the founder and president of DTW and Associates engineering consulting firm, National Technical Director for Water Resources for PBS&J, co-founder and President of WEST Consultants, a top hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for almost 20 years, and adjunct professor at SDSU.
P.E. License Holders vs. Unlicensed Engineers
Based on Dr. Williams’ 40+ years of technical and real-world experience, he’s come to realize that many aspiring certified engineers and engineering hiring managers misinterpret how difficult it is to secure and maintain a P.E. license today. Back in the day, being a licensed Professional Engineer wasn’t as emphasized as it is today.
But with deteriorating infrastructure and the rise in catastrophic engineering failures—such as overloaded flood management structures following Hurricane Florence and Harvey, the Oroville Dam crisis, the Miami and Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses, and a variety of other fiascos and systemic failures—the experience and technical know-how of licensed professional engineers is more important than ever.
Compared to unlicensed engineers today, P.E. license holders are responsible for ensuring the functionality and performance of structures and systems depended on by the public. P.E. licensees do this by developing, signing, sealing, and submitting essential engineering plans that unlicensed professionals aren’t legally permitted to handle in many states across the country.
If you ask P.E. license holders how having those credentials has benefited their engineering career, Dr. Williams says they’ll probably all tell you, in one way or another, that it was one of, if not the best career decisions they ever made. Whether the reason is earning potential, job satisfaction, overall engagement, additional career opportunities, endless upward mobility, making a tangible impact today and on future generations, or the whole nine yards.
Yet, the vast majority of engineers don’t get licensed. There’s also been an increase in (unsuccessful) attempts to deregulate and even eliminate the P.E. license for those engineers that have already earned those credentials after their name.
So why are there so few licensed professional engineers? And…why have there been more and more attempts to devalue P.E. licensure? Is hiring someone with a P.E. license worth it over an unlicensed professional?
How Many Engineers are Licensed?
Out of all the engineers in the United States today, only about 820,000 have a P.E. license. To put this into perspective, only about 1 in 9 graduates from a certified engineering college or university get a P.E. license. On top of that, some engineering applicants may have graduated from another major but then decide they want to pursue engineering. When accounting for these candidates, which aren’t included in that staggering low 1/9 ratio, only about 20% of engineering applicants are professionally licensed. These licensees are the distinguished individuals who successfully overcome the common barriers involved in getting licensed and the 3 levels of attrition.
Advantages of hiring a P.E. Licensee
Having a P.E. license speaks volumes about a potential candidate and what they’ve accomplished during their engineering career. While being licensed does make an engineering candidate stand out from the rest of the crowd, it also typically means a bigger paycheck. This tends to be true for all the different engineering career pathways, in fact. But when you consider the incredibly high cost of engineering failure (think Hurricane Harvey and Katrina, for example), going with a licensed engineer is a no-brainer.
Seamless Transition. The strong mentorship culture and robust on-the-job-training requirements ingrained in the P.E. licensing process is great news for companies today. When you hire a licensed P.E. to do the job, you don’t have to worry about the “handoff”, losing critical knowledge, or having to deal with costly month of gaps in productivity. Rather, when hiring someone with a P.E. license vs. an unlicensed engineer, you get peace of mind that your new hire will be able to seamlessly transition into the job.
Achieve Balance. Dr. Williams emphasizes the value of employing a combination of P.E.’s in all 3 phases of the engineering career as well as non-P.E.’s. Having engineers on board with a variety of skill-sets and backgrounds is always a good idea and sometimes even required.
Say, for example, an engineering candidate doesn’t have a P.E. license because they took some time off to pursue something else. But during this time, they may have gotten familiar with important new technologies (e.g. GIS for water resources engineering and hydrologic design) that someone that went through the P.E. licensure process didn’t have the opportunity to learn or wasn’t exposed to in college. But there’s no doubt that both of these engineering candidates play an essential part in maintaining critical infrastructure and moving the needle forward.
Financial Considerations. Licensed professional engineers tend to earn significantly more than unlicensed engineers. But, P.E. licensees also tend to design more cost-effective and higher performing infrastructure and systems day in and day out, which more than makes up for the salary difference. And when considering the high cost of recurring maintenance, repairs, and (heaven forbid) infrastructure and/or system collapses, it’s hard to deny the immediate and long-term benefits of hiring someone with a P.E. license vs. an unlicensed professional.
When P.E. licensing is absolutely necessary
If your company has a hand in designing roads, buildings, power plants, or any structure or system of substantial size, chances are you need a licensed professional engineer to seal the plans. This is particularly true for mechanical engineers in charge of building and maintaining pumps and pipes, as well as for civil engineers tasked with managing many critical components of our built and natural environment. Granted, professional civil engineers do tend to earn less than licensed engineers in other areas of practice and engineering career pathways. Of course this depends on the scope of the specific position and required experience. Many civil engineers in charge of life-sustaining projects, for example, earn a much higher salary than the average professional civil engineer, but this goes with the territory.
Output Depends on Input
What you get out of something usually depends on what you put into it. So is hiring someone with a P.E. license worth it? According to Dr. Williams, the value of hiring a licensed professional engineer is immeasurable in terms of economic benefits, public safety, environmental stewardship, and the vitality of future generations. P.E. license holders also help to ensure a more consistent approach to engineering that brings with it infrastructure and systems defined by high performance, structural integrity, and favorable lifecycle costs. Not only does this mean more profit for employers, it also means less problems, legal exposure, and fee erosion.