In the United States, registration or license of Professional Engineers is performed by the individual states. Each registration or license is valid only in the state in which it is granted. Many Professional Engineers maintain licenses in several states for this reason, and between states can make it easy to obtain a license in one state based on licensure in another state without going through the full application process.The licensing procedure varies but the general process is
- Graduate with a degree from an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology accredited four-year university program in engineering.
- Complete a standard Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) written examination, which tests applicants on breadth of understanding of basic engineering principles, and optionally some elements of an engineering specialty. Completion of the first two steps typically qualifies for certification in the U.S. as an Engineer-In-Training (EIT), sometimes also called an Engineer Intern (EI).
- Accumulate a certain amount of engineering experience. In most states the requirement is four years, but in others the requirement is lower.
- Complete a written Principles and Practice in Engineering (‘PE’) examination, testing the applicant’s knowledge and skills in a chosen engineering discipline (mechanical, electrical, civil, for example), as well as engineering ethics.
For standardization, the EIT and PE exams are written and graded by a central organization, NCEES. However each state’s Board of Professional Engineers individually sets the requirements needed to be allowed to take the tests, as well as the passing scores. For example, in some states applicants must provide professional references from several PEs before they can take the PE test.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have engineering boards that are represented by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), which administers both the FE and PE examinations
Degree requirements in the United States are evolving. Effective 1 January 2020, the NCEES model will require additional credits beyond a bachelor of science in engineering. The type of creditable activities that will satisfy the additional educational requirement are under development by NCEES. This has received some support from civil engineers.
There is a fairly large range in exam pass rates for these exams (FE and PE), but the pass rate for repeat test takers is significantly lower
In a few states it is still possible for an individual to bypass Step 1, and apply to take the registration examinations as long as a P.E. will sponsor the applicant, and work experience can be substituted for academic experience. The years of experience may also vary; for instance, in California it is possible to take a Principles and Practice in Engineering examination with only two years of experience after a bachelor’s degree, or one year of experience after graduate school. In Nevada, college graduates are eligible to take the Principles and Practice exam immediately after graduation and passing the EIT, before acquiring the required experience. Some states also have state-specific examinations, most notably California where there is a state-specific structural engineering exam and two additional exams in land surveying and earthquake engineering for civil engineering candidates.
Some states issue generic Professional Engineering licenses. Others, known as “discipline states”, issue licenses for specific disciplines of engineering, such as Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering. In all cases, however, engineers are ethically required to limit their practice to their area of competency, which is usually a small portion of a discipline. While licensing boards do not often enforce this limitation, it can be a factor in negligence lawsuits. In a few states, licensed Civil Engineers may also perform land surveys.
In addition to the person’s licensure, most states require that firms engaged in providing engineering services are authorized to do so. For instance, the State of Florida issues a Certificate of Authorization to firms that are owned by a Professional Engineer.
Civil engineers account for a large portion of licensed Professional Engineers. In Texas, for example, about one-third of licenses are for civil engineers, and civil exams make up over half of the exams taken. Many of the remainder are mechanical, electrical, and structural engineers whose practice involves areas that states regulate, such as HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems for buildings or public infrastructure. However, some engineers in other fields obtain licenses for the ability to serve as professional witnesses, or just for prestige, even though they may never actually sign and seal design documents.
Since regulation of the practice of engineering is performed by the individual states in the U.S., areas of engineering involved in interstate commerce are essentially unregulated. These areas include much of Mechanical Engineering, such as Automotive Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, and Chemical Engineering, and may be specifically exempted from regulation under an “Industrial Exemption”. An industrial exemption covers engineers who design products such as automobiles that are sold (or have the potential to be sold) outside the state in which they are produced, as well as the equipment used to produce the product. Structures subject to building codes are not covered by an industrial exemption, though small residential buildings often do not require an engineer’s seal. In many jurisdictions, the role of architects and structural engineers overlap.
Many private companies employ non-degreed workers in technical positions with engineering titles such as “test engineer” or “field engineer”. Such position may not require an engineering degree at the discretion of the company. It is important however, to make a distinction between a “graduate engineer” and a “professional (or licensed) engineer”. A “graduate engineer” is anyone holding a degree in engineering from an accredited four-year university.