The Industrial Exemption: What, If Anything, Should The Profession Do?
In many states, engineers who work in industry providing engineering services are exempt from licensure requirements. Of those state licensing boards that responded to a survey by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, 29 licensure jurisdictions exempt employees of industrial or manufacturing firms, and 14 have no such exemption provisions. Of those states with exemptions for industrial employees, many do not enforce licensure requirements on engineers who consult to those industries later in their careers, rather than work as employees. Is a consultant treated as an “employee” and therefore provided the exemption? If so why? In the states that do not have industrial exemptions, licensure requirements for engineers in industry aren’t commonly enforced, in part for fear the legislature would enact an industrial exemption if enforcement were to begin. Such is our system.
A few years ago, Neil A. Norman, P.E., currently a member of the Washington Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, prepared an outstanding summary of the genesis of industrial exemptions in the U.S. This treatise makes for interesting reading.
Industries exerted powerful political influence on a state-by-state basis in the 1940s through 1960s to get these exemptions enacted. A friend of mine who worked for a major U.S. manufacturer throughout that period indicated that the external communication at the time stressed the nature of our legal system, product liability law, and a variety of other broad arguments, but this friend indicated that the internal discussion was that their engineers were to work for one employer – the company – and not have to answer separately to an outside authority. That was the bottom line.
An NSPE member recently sent me an opinion piece from “Signal”, a periodical of the broadcast engineering industry. In that article, Chris Imlay, the general counsel of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, provides an interesting perspective on licensure laws and their impact, or lack of impact, on broadcast engineers. This article, which comes from the perspective of practicing engineers who are not licensed and do not wish to be licensed, addresses both potential practice limitations and the use of the title engineer in those states that restrict use of the title engineer to those who are licensed professional engineers.
The industrial exemption is a major reason why only about 20% of engineers in the U.S. go on to become licensed professional engineers (the other 80 % don’t all work in industry, but that is a topic for another day).
So, the above provides some background on the topic. One of the purposes of these NSPE blogs is to get some conversation going. Feel free to comment. Some questions might be:
1. Is there a problem here? Is the public health, safety and welfare at risk because engineers in industry are not required to be licensed, or does our legal system adequately protect the public otherwise?
2. What, if anything, should the engineering profession do regarding regulatory requirements pertaining to engineers in exempt industries? This is something that is often discussed within the engineering profession, but no one proposes to actually do anything. Is that the best course?
What do you think?