Canadian Consulting Engineer

Continuing professional development for engineers should be more targeted

Are continuing professional development programs for engineers adequate? Should they be mandatory? Are they really measuring an engineer’s knowledge and adequacy, or are they just window dressing?

February 19, 2015   CCE

Editorial Comment from the January-February 2015 print issue.

Most professional engineers across Canada now have to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) activities if they wish to keep their licences to practice. The big exceptions are engineers in British Columbia, Ontario, Yukon and Northwest Territories. However, chances are these holdouts will soon be entering the fold (see “Keeping Up,” p. 30).
The big question today is whether the CPD programs that have been mandated are adequate. Are they really measuring an engineer’s knowledge and adequacy, or are they just window dressing?
The main purpose of mandatory professional development programs is presumably to protect public safety. For structural and civil engineers it’s obvious why they have to keep abreast of current knowledge and research. When buildings fall, they kill. For mechanical HVAC engineers a mistake is generally not so dire, but still there are issues like Legionnaires’ disease and ventilation that have a health impact. Water and wastewater plant engineers need to know their treatments and flows, fire protection engineers their systems, and so on. Almost every field that engineers work in has its health-safety aspect, which is why the public has to rely on the engineer’s ongoing knowledge and competence.
So it only makes sense that engineers should take CPD programs that relate to their technical fields of practice. Industry codes and standards change; knowledge increases; brains and aptitude can always be honed. But if an engineer takes a business management or marketing workshop as part of his or her CPD requirements, the activity may help them run a successful business but it has nothing to do with public safety. Such activities are essentially self-serving. Or if an engineer mentors a young professional or internationally trained engineer, it shows the mentor is kind and has a social conscience, but the activity doesn’t protect anybody from danger.
Yet most CPD programs count business, outreach, and other non-technical activities as professional development and allow them as part of an engineer’s required CPD hours.
Most CPD programs also give a large percentage (35%+) of their credits to “professional practice” i.e. one earns them simply by doing one’s job. While experience is the ultimate mark of expertise, it doesn’t guarantee that the person is keeping up his or her skills. And the value of those practice hours in terms of public safety depends on what role the engineer is playing.
In my opinion, therefore, the demands of current CPD programs are too diluted. If CPD programs were to focus on each engineer’s specialist field and required him or her only to take the necessary technical update courses in that field, then the number of professional development hours engineers are required to complete could be greatly reduced.
Admittedly, focusing CPD programs more tightly on technical learning will be difficult to administer. Who, for example, decides what are appropriate courses for each individual engineer? Would it be the licensing associations or perhaps the learned technical engineering societies?
As others have speculated, perhaps within the P.Eng. designation there could be different streams: those who are technical experts or specialists; those who work in project management (which would include many consulting engineers); and those who like to keep their P.Eng. title but are not working in engineering at all.

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