Only about 400,000 out of 2 million practicing engineers in the United States are actually licensed by the state in which they practice, says Al Gray, executive director of Alexandria, Va.-based National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). The organization that oversees the standards for licensing, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), Clemson, S.C., would prefer these engineers work toward their P.E. status — only licensed professionals are allowed to offer their services to the public and sign and seal plans — but the council encourages unlicensed and licensed engineers alike to participate in continuing education.

“In order to practice the profession, we feel that continuing education is a critical component of the engineer's background,” Gray says. “ We have always recommended continuing education and lifelong learning, given the complexity and the growing body of knowledge that engineers have to work with. Continuing education is a critical component of professional practice.”

CPC requirements. Accordingly, 30 states now require engineers to fulfill continuing professional competency (CPC) requirements for license renewal. While the number of hours and approval process for courses or activities may vary from state to state, most state licensing boards have modeled their requirements after the manual, “Continuing Professional Competency Guidelines,” published by the NCEES. The purpose in creating these guidelines is to promote comity among the jurisdictions overseeing the CPC programs by assisting the licensing boards with developing the rules, requirements, forms, and instructions for their programs. The manual was also published to establish generally accepted standards for the earning and reporting of CPC credits for license renewal. In addition, the manual may be used to assist jurisdictions in their dealings with licensees and suppliers of CPC activities and in the understanding of requirements, criteria, and processes. “There should be some uniformity for an engineer practicing in New York versus an engineer practicing in West Virginia or California,” Gray says. “There should be some continuity in order for engineers to have some mobility and be able to maintain licensures in various states.”

Some nationwide providers of courses don't see a problem with disparity among the states. “There are a lot of engineers that are licensed in multiple states,” says Mike Holt, principal of Sunrise, Fla.-based Mike Holt Enterprises, Inc. and long-time National Electrical Code (NEC) consultant for EC&M. “But generally, if you look at one program, you'll notice that it's recognized by almost all the states. I don't think that poses any hardships right now for the engineer. So with continuing education, no matter where you get it from — even with all the states are requiring slightly different versions of the same thing — it basically comes down to the same thing.”

The NCEES also hopes the guidelines will encourage engineers to stay up-to-date with emerging technology, as well as promote an opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills in specialized areas. Take the NEC, for example. “When an engineer comes out of college, the greatest chance — 99% — is that he or she will have never taken a course on the NEC,” Holt says. “So when they come out they have no clue what's involved in the NEC, and that's where we come in. We specialize in those engineers that are specifically interested in electrical power as it relates to premises wiring systems.”

Professional Development Hours (PDHs) are helpful for engineers who need a different knowledge base than what they learned for their degree, Holt maintains. Therefore, CPC activities are not solely available for the purpose of license renewal.

Under the NCEES guidelines, engineers would be required to accrue 15 PDHs each year, or 30 if biennial — one PDH is defined as a contact hour of instruction or presentation — although some states range in this requirement from eight to as many as 18 PDHs. One continuing education credit (CEU), earned through 10 hours of class in a continuing education course, equals 10 PDHs. To qualify for PDH credit at all, the class or activity must contain a clear objective that will, according to the manual, “maintain, improve, or expand the skills and knowledge relevant to the licensee's field of practice.”

Got credits? Acceptable activities for fulfilling PDH requirements include courses and seminars as well as activities that vary in scope from attending conferences to acquiring a patent (see “How to Earn PDH Credit”). At this time, only New York, Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina require pre-approval of courses or course providers (Map below). However, engineers should always check with the licensing board in the state in which they practice before proceeding with any course or activity. Contact information for licensing boards in the United States and its territories can be found on the NCEES Web site at www.ncees.org/licensure/licensing_boards/.

The majority of states grant engineers considerable freedom in choosing programs that satisfy CPC requirements. Therefore, it's up to the individual practitioner to choose relevant activities or courses. Many professional and technical societies, universities, and private organizations offer classes that qualify for PDH status. “They are widely available throughout the country,” Gray says.

Because it isn't a technical society, engineers wanting training or courses pertaining to their particular field must look elsewhere. “We don't provide circuitry design for electrical engineers, for instance,” Gray says.

For a list of resources offering technical continuing education opportunities, see “CPC Resources for Electrical Engineers” on page 50.

The honor system. Because so few states require vendor or course pre-approval, the responsibility for taking courses or participating in exams that cover material needed for professional practice lies with the engineer. “The land surveying division in the state of Missouri will pre-approve surveyors' programs, if requested by the sponsor, but the engineering licensing division has not agreed to do that to date,” says Sue Turner, director of distance & continuing education at the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR) in Rolla, Mo. “It requires the ethics of the engineers to actually take programs that increase their capabilities. We have certainly seen an increase in individuals inquiring ‘Does this apply?’ And, of course, we can't guarantee that it does because the requirements for each state are different.”

The incongruity between state requirements became more obvious when Turner's institution held a conference in New York State. Luckily, one of the members of the conference's planning committee was also a member of the engineering division in New York, so the sessions were eventually pre-approved for PDH in New York. At another conference for surveyors, the UMR continuing education department requested a peer review, which it then sent to Texas for approval by its licensing board. “They approved all of the programs and allowed them to receive professional development hours,” Turner says.

However, back in Missouri and many other states, it's still up to the engineers to determine the relevancy of the programs to their professional practice and the organizations and vendors offering programs to police themselves. “The first thing we check is the instructor's background,” says John Huang, president of PDHonline.org, an organization based in Herndon, Va. that provides a fully automated virtual classroom dedicated to the online continuing education for engineers, surveyors, and architects. “We have to make sure they are qualified to teach.”

Huang's site offers online, correspondence, and Web seminar technical continuing education courses and seminars, all taught by professional engineers. “They have to have a P.E. title,” Huang continues. “And then we also look at their educational background. They need to have at least a B.S. degree in their own field. Then we look at the content. Once in a while we have a peer review. If it's necessary, then we'll have another evaluation to look at the content.”

PDHonline.org submits its courses to the different state boards for approval, especially for the states that mandate pre-approval. “Some states require each individual course to be approved, but in most cases they just approve the providers,” Huang says. “In other words, they're counting on us to do the quality control.”

Certifiable. Just as determining the content of the courses and activities is left up to the continuing education providers, so is the determination of awarding credits. Some organizations rely solely on attendance records and fees to prove participation while others require successful test results before issuing certification. “We have an online quiz that is used to enhance the understanding of the course material and to verify the comprehension by the students,” Huang says. “These types of assessment tools are what we call ‘results-oriented.’ We rely on the test scores. You have to be able to score a 70 and above in order to claim the credit.”

In other programs, pass/fail tests are given to course participants. In the case of conferences, however, attendee comprehension cannot be determined in any concrete way. “For conferences, all we can do is verify that engineers did indeed pay the fee and check in, but we can't verify what they attended,” Turner says. “We do provide a list of the sessions and the content, length, and presenter of the session so that the engineer can then keep track of the sessions they've attended and claim the ones that legitimately can be claimed.”

There is a verification process for UMR's online courses. Once the engineers have finished the course they go through the assessment engine where they receive five random questions from a pool of 25 to 30 questions that are generated for each course. The engineer must then correctly answer four of the five questions. If they don't, they're given the opportunity to retake the test — at the end of which they're given another five random questions. Some of the questions may be the same, but most aren't. “That recognizes that either the students knew the information and were able to answer all the questions, or they participated in the program and completed the assessment. That gives us a little bit of leverage if the state decides to audit that particular engineer and comes to us to say ‘We need to verify this.’ Then we can say, ‘Well, yes, he did take the program. He signed up here. He had 90 days to complete it. The assessment was graded on this day, and the certificate was issued on this day.’”

Lust for learning. Continuing education is a critical component in any field that requires a vast body of technical knowledge for licensing and certification. The number of states that now require CPCs for engineers to maintain their licensed status continues to grow at a steady rate. Estimates are that by 2008, nearly 40 states will require continuing education through PDHs that satisfy CPC requirements.

But whether electrical engineers are licensed or not, they still should take advantage of the classes and programs offered by many professional organizations, universities, and private companies. Many of these programs and activities are based in local areas and can also be attended during off-work hours. They allow engineers to hone the skills they learned in school, as well as develop new fields of expertise and interest, in order to continue successfully practicing their profession.




Sidebar: How to Earn PDH Credit

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) guidelines suggest these activities for earning PDH credit.

  • Completion of college or continuing education courses

  • Completion of correspondence, televised, videotaped, and other short courses or tutorials

  • Presenting or attending qualifying seminars, in-house courses, workshops, or professional or technical presentations made at meetings, conventions, or conferences

  • Teaching or instructing in the above

  • Authoring published papers, articles, books, or accepted licensing examination items

  • Active participation in professional or technical societies

  • Acquiring patents

“Whatever the discipline is going to be, they need to keep learning,” Holt says. “All engineers need to stay up-to-date in their field.”




Sidebar: CPC Resources for Electrical Engineers

Continuing education courses and activities vary in time from one to eight hours or more. The price per professional development hour (PDH) ranges from $60 to $200. The following are just a sampling of the providers of CPC courses geared toward practicing electrical engineers:

Private Sector

Mike Holt Enterprises, Inc.
(www.mikeholt.com)
This Sunrise, Fla.-based continuing education program covers everything you need to know about the NEC. The company specializes in online and correspondence classes that focus on electrical power as it relates to premises wiring systems.

PDHengineer.com
(www.pdhengineer.com/index.htm)
The online courses from this Houston-based company comply with the NCEES guidelines. Electrical engineering courses include “Seismic Restraints for Electrical Equipment,” “Introduction to Area Classification,” and “RF Systems: Fundamental Concepts.”

PDHonline.org
(www.pdhonline.org/)
This Herndon, Va.-based organization offers an “open-course library.” Not only does the site serve as a continuing education tool, but engineers may also use it as a technical resource.

RedVector.com
(www.redvector.com)
This Tampa, Fla.-based company offers online courses designed to meet state requirements. Topics for electrical engineers include NEC, lighting, wiring and protection, and boiler cycles.

Colleges and Universities

Auburn University
(bece.auburn.edu)
The Auburn, Ala.-based university offers a series of distance learning courses designed specifically with the engineer and technical professional in mind. Electrical engineering courses include “Electric Motor Application and Selection,” “Electric Power System Protection,” and “General Lighting Design.”

George Brown College
(www.georgebrown.ca)
The Toronto, Ontario-based college offers several classes for electrical engineers in its technology department. Current offerings include electrical construction and maintenance, electrical safety code review, electrical estimating, and fire alarm technology.

University of Missouri-Rolla
(dce.umr.edu)
Accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, this Rolla, Mo.-based university offers in-class and online PDH courses, conferences, and seminars using streaming video. “Lightning and Lightning Protection” is now available to take through the university's online program.

University of Texas at Arlington
(www.uta.edu/engineering/distance)
This college of engineering in Arlington, Texas offers a wide range of online streaming video and correspondence classes, including one on power quality.

Professional Societies and Organizations

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
(www.ieee.org/web/education/Continuing_Education/index.html)
The Piscataway, N.J.-based organization offers its members access to short courses at conferences and section meetings and society education events. Many of its members are involved with university and corporate partner programs/certificate programs and serve as speakers and consultants at its conferences. Many of these IEEE education experiences offer CEU and PDH credit.

National Society of Professional Engineers
(www.nspe.org/education/ed1-stateopps.asp)
The society's own training programs encompass aspects of ethics and professionalism in the engineering field. Located in Alexandria, Va., the organization's Web site includes a list of continuing education opportunities — conferences, seminars, and activities — by state.

American Society for Engineering Education
(www.learnon.org)
The Washington, D.C.-based organization maintains a list of continuing engineering education and distance learning opportunities. At no cost, engineers can search the database by course subject matter, geographic location, price, or course provider. Listings include traditional classroom courses, distance learning courses, evening courses, weekend seminars, Web-based, CD-ROM and video courses offered by U.S. engineering colleges and universities and engineering professional societies. The site also contains articles, academic papers, conference announcements, and news items.