ASCE Policy 465: Academic prerequisites for licensure and professional practice

By the ASCE Task Committee on Academic Prerequisites for Professional Practice (TCAP^3) and Brewer Stouffer, Staff Researcher, Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is currently undergoing a significant reevaluation of the education model for civil engineers. In October 2001, the ASCE Board of Direction unanimously adopted Revised Policy 465, a measure supporting "the concept of the master's degree or equivalent as a prerequisite for licensure and the practice of civil engineering at a professional level." While ASCE recognizes that the civil engineering profession will not change overnight, Policy 465 has the potential to transform the practice of civil engineering at every level, from small public works departments to multi-state utilities contractors. If you or someone you know works with civil engineers, please read on.

Revised Policy 465
In October 1998, the ASCE Board of Direction adopted Policy Statement 465, which supported "the concept of the master's degree as the First Professional Degree (FPD)" for professional practice. The policy sparked considerable discussion within the profession, and spurred ASCE to form the Task Committee for the First Professional Degree (TCFPD). In January 1999, the TCFPD was charged with "developing a vision of full realization" of the policy along with a "strategy for achieving this vision." The TCFPD examined the history and forms of civil engineering education in the U.S. and abroad; researched the education, experience, licensing, and certification requirements of other professions; and reviewed current and future challenges to and opportunities for civil engineers. Their work resulted in a report entitled Engineering the Future of Civil Engineering (available on www.asce.org).

The report highlighted the significant and rapid changes that have occurred in the civil engineering profession in the last 25 years, including the:

  • Onset of globalization
  • Rapid rise in information technology
  • Diversification of society
  • Explosion of knowledge and technology in engineering and construction
  • Enhanced public awareness and involvement in engineered projects
  • Complexity of civil infrastructure systems within the United States
According to the report, these changes have contributed to an untenable situation. Civil engineers are expected to simultaneously possess greater breadth of capability and greater specialized technical competence than was required of previous generations. Coupled with a national trend of reduced credit hours for the bachelor's degree, the TCFPD concluded that it will become increasingly difficult for civil engineers to do more with less.

Based on the merits of the TCFPD report, the ASCE Board unanimously voted to implement a Revised Policy 465. Achieving full realization of the policy will require considerable effort on the part of ASCE and stakeholders, but the positive consequences for the profession and the public were deemed significant and worthwhile.

Is this change really necessary?
Requiring education beyond the 125-hour Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering (BSCE) is consistent with other learned professions. The body of knowledge and the skills required to practice civil engineering at the professional level are not significantly less than the comparable knowledge and skills required for other professions. Yet the minimum education requirement for civil engineering—a four-year BSCE—falls short of the requirements for accounting (5 years), architecture (5 years), occupational therapy (5 years), pharmacy (6 years), law (7 years), and medicine (8 years). While professional experience is central to every one of these professions, including civil engineering, what troubles many ASCE leaders is that this "slippage" in education requirements has contributed to the erosion of control civil engineers have over their workplaces and careers in both the private and public sectors.

With increased community involvement, environmental sensitivity, and budget and time constraints, today's engineering projects demand leaders with formal training in communication, management, and leadership. Increasingly, persons with a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Administration (MPA), or law degree are providing these services to public and private clients, often managing civil engineers in the process. To be sure, MBA and MPA graduates bring with them valuable skills, but they do not always possess the technical competence of civil engineers. While APWA recognizes that "a formal education, focusing on engineering and business/public administration, is generally regarded as the best preparation for persons who wish to pursue careers as public works managers," in actuality many managers do not possess a technical background in civil engineering or any other engineering discipline (1990).

From 1970 to 1980 the number of local public works directors holding a civil engineering degree decreased from 50 percent to 35 percent (APWA 1981). According to Janet Ward of American City & County, non-engineers are continuing to garner positions in local and county public works departments that were once held exclusively by civil engineers. This data fits squarely into a larger, national trend. There is some surprising information about a class of public positions that have historically been occupied by civil engineers: state secretaries of transportation. As of January 2002, only 18 of the current state secretaries earned a BSCE, while one additional secretary without a BSCE earned a master's degree in civil engineering, putting the total of secretaries trained in civil engineering at 19, or just over 37 percent. The education of the national Secretaries of Transportation is even more striking. In the 30 years of this position as the head of the department responsible for the nation's public transportation infrastructure, only one appointee has been an engineer, while nine (9) have been lawyers.

What does it say about a profession when the leaders and managers often come in from the outside? Engineering has not always had difficulty producing leaders: as late as 1929 two-thirds of all engineers progressed from technical work to management positions. But in the 1920s and 1930s engineers were also some of best-educated professionals in the nation at four years. This is no longer the case, and unless civil engineers acquire "more of the right communication and business skills," Myron Calkins, P.E., former Kansas City Director of Public Works and APWA President, warns that the "writing is on the wall" for a gloomy future (Davis 2000). With fewer credits to work with, and with more to include in the curriculum, civil engineering faces a challenging future if it intends to maintain a tradition of excellence and committed public service. Enter Policy 465.

The future has arrived
Civil engineers must decide in which direction they wish to proceed: as leading technicians or as leaders of the engineered environment. With their technical proficiency civil engineers can add great value to society. They can also become effective leaders—but only if they receive training and education in leadership, liberal arts, communication, and management. TCAP^3 is currently working on further defining the body of knowledge necessary to practice civil engineering at the professional level, as well as investigating the accreditation and licensure structures for the profession.

A primary goal of Policy 465 is to change state licensing requirements to make the master's degree or equivalent (MOE) a prerequisite for taking the P.E. exam. The National Council of Examiners of Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) is currently considering modification of their model law for licensure, and ASCE is working with NCEES to incorporate the MOE requirement into the forthcoming model law. TCAP^3 is currently trying to identify two to four states willing to implement this policy in the next five years. It is anticipated that once a few states adopt the policy, additional states will participate. This was the case with accounting, which is in the later stages of implementing a 150-credit-hour requirement for professional practice. The effort, which began in the mid-1980s, has been adopted in over 40 states, with full compliance expected by 2010. Without question, currently-licensed engineers will not be affected by any new education requirements, regardless of their MOE status. For the next 15-20 years, students "in the pipeline" will not be required to have an MOE, either. These students will, however, be encouraged to pursue additional education beyond their BSCE in order to better prepare them for professional practice.

Year 2030 and beyond
As the infrastructure grows more intricate and complicated, civil engineers will need an enhanced set of skills and understanding to safely and effectively practice in the 21st Century. Through Policy 465, TCAP^3 and ASCE intend to prepare individual civil engineers for a complex and demanding future. To achieve this policy directive ASCE will be an active partner with member engineers, other engineering professions, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), NCEES, state licensing boards, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), APWA, and universities and colleges. Still, full implementation will probably not occur for 20 or more years. However, this concept is a legacy for future generations of civil engineers. Policy 465 will help provide tomorrow's civil engineer with the body of knowledge, appropriate experience, and overall outlook to be master integrators of the engineered environment.

Questions or comments? Please contact Jeff Russell at russell@engr.wisc.edu, Stu Walesh at STUWALESH@aol.com or Tom Lenox at tlenox@asce.org.

In addition, the APWA Engineering and Technology Committee is interested in membership comments on this article and the ASCE Policy 465 as to how the public works profession and local governments will be impacted. Please direct your comments to Teresa Hon, APWA Technical Services Coordinator, at thon@apwa.net, and include "ASCE Policy 465" in the subject line.

Sources

  • APWA (1981). Public Works Management Trends and Developments. Chicago, Il.
  • APWA (1990). Public Works Today: A Profile of Local Service Organizations and Managers. Chicago, Il.
  • Davis, R. (2000), "Supervision Debate Roils PEs in Government," Engineering Times, 22(10), pp. 1, 14.