Episode 15 – Professional Engineers

Topics: Professional Engineers

Talking Traffic Episode 15 – Professional Engineers

Hello and welcome to episode 15 of Talking Traffic. My name is Bill Ruhsam and today is Tuesday March 3, 2008. Today’s episode is about engineering and engineers. More about engineers than engineering.

I am a Professional Engineer, also knows as a P.E. My legal name in the engineering world is William M Ruhsam, Junior, P.E. That P.E. is very important. The term professional engineer has a specific legal meaning in the United States. It has nothing to do with whether I am paid for my efforts or not. It would not affect my eligibility to the engineering Olympics. What a professional engineer is, is someone to whom the public safety is entrusted. The public safety, in this case, isn’t the direct day to day safety that a police officer takes care of. Nor is it the emergency safety concerns that emergency medical service personnel or fire fighters need to deal with. No, professional engineers are entrusted with the public safety in a future, nebulous, vastly complicated yet immensely deadly sense. As an example, let’s talk about the recent Interstate 35 E bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Thirteen people were killed in that engineering catastrophe, and more than a hundred injured. From the release of initial findings by the National Transportation Safety Board, it seems like an engineer may be directly responsible for the primary cause of failure of the bridge. A “professional” engineer, I should say, because no mere “engineer” is entrusted with the authority to approve the plans of a bridge which carries almost 50 million vehicles every year. A professional engineer was responsible for designing the bridge in a fashion that ensured the safety of the public.

Just there, I denigrated the term “engineer” a bit, but not because I think I’m all that *and* the bag of chips because I’m a P.E. The connotations of the word need a bit of explanation, especially when it comes to dealing with the legal application of it.

I attended an Engineering College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. When I was there, about 40% of the school was in an engineering curriculum. We were all called “engineers.” It didn’t matter if we were studying mechanical or civil or computer systems, it was still all engineering. Fast forward to graduation. I was initially hired by a manufacturing company that builds electrical and fiber optic connectors. My job title was “engineer”, but I didn’t do much real engineering. Part of that was because I was a wet-behind-the-ears graduate who was just learning the ropes and part was because of the nature of the job. I did more change control documentation than anything else. Still, I was called an engineer and that was what was on my business card.

Then I moved to Texas and became an employee of the Texas Department of Transportation. That was when I learned about Professional Engineers and why, if I wanted to advance in the Civil Engineering arena I had to become one. I also learned that it was inappropriate (perhaps illegal) for me to have the title engineer on my business cards during my first job. Why? Because the various states have enacted laws that require engineering graduates to have specific experience and certifications before they are considered “Engineers.” In order to become a Professional Engineer and use the title Engineer in a business setting, you must have an engineering education from an accredited school, pass a preliminary test called the fundamentals of engineering exam, have four years of progressive experience, and finally pass the Principles and Practice examination. Only then can you be a registered, certified, obligated Professional Engineer. Each state has a board of licensing which is empowered to sanction persons who are illegally using the title Engineer. That is reserved for licensed P.E.’s.

This might seem like red tape, and it probably annoys engineers who don’t have any reason to become P.E.’s. I hadn’t learned about the process before moving to Texas because in my first job, there was no need or reason to become a Professional Engineer. It had absolutely no bearing on my job, and only one person in the whole department was a P.E. Thus, for the computer systems engineers, or the mechanical engineers like I was, or the electrical engineers who only deal with circuits, there’s no job incentive to go through the arduous process of becoming certified.

But for Civil Engineers, it is a necessity. You cannot advance in your job unless you are licensed. That is because of the reason for the licensing in the first place. Civil Engineers design and build things that can have a direct impact on the safety of people. If a building collapses, or a levee fails, or a bridge flys apart, people die. The certification process behind the P.E. ensures that the Professional Engineer is cognizant of the responsibilities that he or she has taken on, and that they have the skills and knowledge to accomplish the goal of providing safe structures. It also places responsibility for work done under that engineer firmly on the engineer’s shoulders. As a part of the certification process, engineers get license numbers and a seal. When I submit a set of plans that I prepared, or were prepared under my direction, I sign and seal the cover sheet. If anything goes wrong, it will be me they come to with the lawyers and lawsuits, and rightly so. It is my responsibility to make sure that any plans that go out over my signature are designed to an accepted professional standard. I am liable for mistakes and omissions. This is not to say that I am responsible for anything that might go wrong, just the things that are generally accepted as within my scope of responsibility. If there is something in that plan set that I do not have the expertise to evaluate, I had better get another professional engineer on board to approve it, or I am violating the law. The flip side of that last statement is that I am not responsible for actions and activities that are far outside the generally accepted practice of a particular item. As an example, I don’t believe anyone has been sued because the World Trade Center couldn’t stand up to the burning jet fuel from the kamikaze aircraft. That is something that would not have been appropriate to design for.

What this all boils down to, is that Professional Engineers are legally the only people allowed to call themselves Engineers when advertising their skills. A professional engineer is someone who is educated, experience, and examined before being approved to be a PE. A Professional engineer is responsible for the safety of the public and is liable for negligence, mistakes, or omissions that he or she might commit. Being a P.E. is an important stepping stone for people on my career path, but I often joke that what P.E. really stands for is “Able to be Sued.”

Thanks for listening to Talking Traffic. Today’s episode is released under a creative commons 3.0 attribution non-commercial, no derivatives license. If you like what you hear, you may copy and redistribute to your heart’s content, but please give credit to me and Talking Traffic and don’t change or sell the podcast. The music you heard was by Five Star Fall and is found on magnatune.com.

If you have any questions or comments, or need to know where you can send a process server, please send an email to bill @ talkingtraffic.org. Or you can leave a comment online at the shownotes. Just go to www.talkingtraffic.org. I appreciate all of the feedback.

Until next week, take care.

Theme Music: Five Star Fall, Mercurial Girl, Magnatune.com

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