Canadian Consulting Engineer

Jumping Through Hoops

June 1, 1999
By Bronwen Ledger

No doubt Elaine Griffin was not feeling too happy with engineers after her experience last January. She and 200 other people were busy trying to assemble their exhibits in the Montreal Olympic Stadium...

No doubt Elaine Griffin was not feeling too happy with engineers after her experience last January. She and 200 other people were busy trying to assemble their exhibits in the Montreal Olympic Stadium for a car show when they heard the fabric roof rip and piles of snow and ice came crashing down upon them. Nor would William Baxter think too highly of the profession after he narrowly escaped death at the Save-on-Foods (also known as “Cave-on-Foods”) supermarket in Burnaby, B.C. a decade earlier. The store had just opened and Baxter was picking out an English cucumber when looking up he saw a roof beam begin to sag. Moments later the whole structure caved in, suggesting a whole new approach to composting vegetables. Recently in B.C., harried condominium owners have been going to court seeking $1 billion in reparation from engineers and others for the shoddy designs and construction practices that have left them living with hopelessly waterlogged walls and rotting balconies.

With construction disasters taking such a high media profile, there is little wonder the professional associations charged with issuing licenses to engineers are feeling under pressure. They feel bound to show the public that they are keeping a close eye on their members to make sure their skills are up to scratch. Consequently, in the last few years almost all the provincial associations of professional engineers in Canada have tried to bring in programs to monitor their members’ continuing education and professional development activities. These programs usually involve peer reviews at the individual’s place of work. There is also usually a reporting system in which the engineer has to show that he or she is taking courses, and is engaging in other activities such as publishing papers, attending conferences and is contributing to the community in a more general way.

With construction disasters taking such a high media profile, there is little wonder the professional associations charged with issuing licenses to engineers are feeling under pressure. They feel bound to show the public that they are keeping a close eye on their members to make sure their skills are up to scratch. Consequently, in the last few years almost all the provincial associations of professional engineers in Canada have tried to bring in programs to monitor their members’ continuing education and professional development activities. These programs usually involve peer reviews at the individual’s place of work. There is also usually a reporting system in which the engineer has to show that he or she is taking courses, and is engaging in other activities such as publishing papers, attending conferences and is contributing to the community in a more general way.

While the engineering associations of Quebec and British Columbia have been subjecting their members to field reviews since 1980 and 1994 respectively, the impetus for introducing professional development monitoring in the rest of the country came in 1996. The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE), the provincial associations’ umbrella organization, had written a Continued Competency Assurance Guideline and formally adopted it that year. With that as a framework, four associations — in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Alberta — have put competence monitoring programs in place. By the end of February this year the issue had gathered enough momentum — and controversy — that the CCPE invited some of the key players to the First National Forum on Engineering and Continuing Education in Ottawa.

The calm mood that prevailed in the discussions in Ottawa was deceiving. The issue of continuing competence cuts to the very heart of what it is to be a professional engineer. Not surprisingly, then, some associations trying to introduce monitoring programs have met resistance from the rank and file. The council of Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) representing 62,000 professional engineers — more than one-third of all engineers in Canada — decided to stall a program last year. In Manitoba a program seemed all set to go when the engineers and geoscientists rejected it with a resounding 72% vote against.

Most engineers agree that the associations need to show that they are doing something to protect the public from poor engineering practices, but the path to how the associations actually do the monitoring is strewn with difficulties. The engineers are anxious about how they will personally satisfy the requirements — how to fit more courses, conferences, etc. into lives already crammed with work and family activities. But they also have doubts about the logistics, the costs and the bureaucratic machinery involved in the monitoring. Many also find the programs have a lack of clear purpose. They fear that they are more an exercise in public relations, than any real measure of professional skills. As one self-described “average Joe” engineer explained: “I see it as making people go through a whole lot of hoop jumping for not a whole lot of benefit.”

So while on one hand Sir Graham Day, chancellor of Dalhousie University who was the keynote speaker at the Ottawa conference, warned “there are no lifetime tickets” for engineers, and said they have to “grit their teeth” and get on with the job of upgrading their skills and accepting continuing competence monitoring. On the other hand in his closing remarks Day also worried that the initiative may lapse into political debate and inaction.

Swept up in the tide

Why has it suddenly become so important for the associations to start programs for monitoring engineers’ competence and professional development? Are engineers really less responsible than they were 20 years ago? It is not likely. Rather, many feel the need has arisen from deep social and cultural forces at work in our times. David Brezer, P.Eng., pointed out in Ottawa that the move to bring in monitoring programs is happening among engineers in other countries, and in other professions. Presenting a paper he wrote with a subcommittee on the CCPE Canadian Engineering Qualifications Board, he said: “By the spring of 1995, it became clear that national and international forces were changing the way society sought to ensure the competency of its self-governing professionals. Several provincial and state engineering licensing bodies had adopted credit-based continued competency programs, and others were actively studying proactive mechanisms beyond codes of ethics and conduct.” Once the ball is rolling, of course, it is hard to stop. As more provinces and states impose continuing competence programs, it becomes necessary that others have them if they want to engage in reciprocal licensing.

Government pressure is one force driving the ball. For several years now politicians have been indicating that the self-governing professions — lawyers, doctors, as well as engineers and architects — are far from sacrosanct. The professions’ historic right to govern themselves is a privilege that could easily be taken away, officials warn, unless the associations start to prove that they are more than self-serving. Back in 1988, the Closkey Commission that led the B.C. government enquiry into the Save-on-Foods disaster recommended that the engineering association step up its quality controls and bring in peer reviews. The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. (APEGBC) duly complied. In Britain a few years ago, the national government was only halted at the eleventh hour from dismantling the architects’ self-governing organization. The building code, it suggested, was enough to ensure that buildings are constructed safely.

This kind of government interference makes associations in Canada uneasy to say the least. In Alberta in 1990, Ralph Klein’s government wanted the professional licensing bodies to lower the threshold of admissions but raise the requirements for continuing competence. As a result, the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA) introduced a mandatory professional development program two years ago.

Removing the right of the profession to regulate itself would be a serious blow to engineers’ self-esteem and public stature. For consulting engineers, non-regulation could also have a dramatic effect on their bottom lines. Naturally, then, the associations are anxious to show that the profession can govern itself and protect the health and safety of the public at the same time. Each engineer has always been bound by the professional code of ethics and conduct to maintain certain standards. He must work only in areas in which he is fully competent, update his skills and take an active role in professional and public activities. Historically engineers were honour bound as individuals to comply with these rules, but now the associations feel obliged to make sure they are doing so.

Engineers are not the only profession responding to a loss of public confidence. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, for example, will soon require its 32,000 doctors to report their continuing education activities. Though many physicians fought the program, Dr. John Parboosingh, director of professional development for the college, believes it was fruitless to resist and cites the writings of futurist Alvin Toffler. In his 1990 work Power Shift, Toffler suggests we are living in an age of accountability. He writes: “Twenty years ago … medical doctors in the United States were white-coated gods. Patients typically accepted their word as law. Physicians virtually controlled the entire American health system. Their political clout was enormous.” He continues, “Today, by contrast, American doctors are under siege. Patients talk back. They sue for malpractice. Nurses demand responsibility and respect. Pharmaceutical companies are less deferential. And it is insurance companies, ‘managed care groups,’ and government, not doctors, who now control the American health system.”

It is all too easy to transpose this picture onto the engineering world — just switch the players and we have the same situations: increasing litigation, demanding clients, an erosion of the professional’s role to technicians, while all the time government and financiers are calling the shots.

How to measure competence?

In Ottawa Sir Peter Day reminded the audience how critical it is for engineers to keep abreast of new technology. He said that in manufacturing a graduate who has been out of engineering for more than three years will be considered out of date — the technology will have passed him by. Similarly, Andr A. Loiselle, ing. of the Ordre des ingnieurs du Qubec (OIQ) explained: “Competence is volatile and depreciates with time as new knowledge is introduced…. Remaining passive is equivalent to losing ground.”

Societies such as the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and the Canadian Society of Chemical Engineering play a vital role in providing engineers with the technical tools to keep up to date in their fields. Indeed, their umbrella organization, the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC), is setting itself up to act as a broker for schools and other institutions that provide suitable courses. EIC also intends to run a web-based registry of individual engineers’ activities.

It makes eminent sense for engineers to stay on top of changes in technology. And since the code of ethics already requires engineers to maintain competence in their fields, it does not seem unreasonable that the professional associations go one step further and ask their members to report what education activities they are doing. But here is where complications set in. First of all, many engineers feel it may be impossible to measure true competence because engineers work in such a myriad of roles and different fields.

Robert Lorimer, P.Eng., a consulting engineer of Whitehorse and Vancouver, is one who thinks this way (he is also chair of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada, but his remarks are personal). He believes professional development programs are generally a good plan: “The idea that engineers need to add to their skill set as they proceed through their careers is correct, ” he says, “because the world and technology is changing, and the needs and expectations of the public are changing.”

But Lorimer is concerned about how such achievements can be counted: “Competence is a very difficult thing to measure — it may be impossible to measure,” he says. “When engineers graduate from university their competence is measured — that is what the final exams do. But what happens the day after they graduate and increasingly during their careers is that each becomes a unique engineer with a unique combination of qualifications, experience, and all the different expertise that rolls into that. So how do you measure the competence of an engineer at any point? It is not enough just to go back and expect them to write an exam in some mathematical subject, for example, because they may not be using the math at all. They may be using some really amorphous combination of experience and people skills, writing ability, and so on.”

Paul Martin, P.Eng. of Toronto is a chemical engineer working in manufacturing. Unlike Lorimer who finds his day filled with management and business issues, Martin describes himself as “100% engineer.” It seems relatively easy to assess the technical competence of someone with his role, but he is sceptical about the usefulness of the professional development monitoring formula that he saw proposed in Ontario some years ago: “I felt that the day-to-day learning that I do on the job was not respected enough in that whole process,” he says. “It is quite a task just to gain the level of knowledge to keep abreast of what is going on in my business. That kind of competence-building is important but it is not easy to demonstrate. You can’t count it like you can count courses, or you can count publications.”

Martin feels he would have practical difficulties fulfilling the requirements of a continuing competence program. First he finds it very hard to find courses that are useful in his specialized field. “I look frequently to find courses that are applicable to my work. There are lots of courses that are very expensive, and that I would have to pay for out of my own pocket,” he says. “They might broaden my outlook a bit, but they wouldn’t really make me more competent in my day-to-day duties.”

Another hurdle would be his employer’s need for confidentiality. The proposed Ontario program encouraged engineers to have articles published, but sharing his employer’s industrial secrets with the rest of the world is not exactly going to shoot Martin up the ladder to success. Field reviews could also be a problem as his employer would not want someone coming into the office looking at the work and drawings. Martin thinks employers might stop hiring professional engineers in order to avoid the problem. On the other hand, many professional engineers like him might decide the licence is not worth it and give up the title — resulting in declining memberships for the associations.

Weaving a coat to fit all

Both Lorimer and Martin suggest that the answer might be to have programs that are not standardized scoring tests, but rather flexible professional development programs adapted to the individual engineer. “If you are going to have a continuing competence program,” says Martin, “then maybe it should be based more on an individual evaluation rather than a counting session where you are assigned so many points for courses and so many points for academic papers.” Lorimer goes further and suggests programs should be partially self-directed: “I think the key is for the individual engineer to define what it is they need to do their job properly, and then develop a program of continuing education to meet that need.”

But if their programs are not quite that loose, the associations have tailored their continuing competence programs to be very broad and accommodating vestments. The field reviews are probably the best test of an individual’s skills, but these are hardly onerous. The Association of Professional Engineers of New Brunswick program, for example, sug
gests a two-hour interview on site, and the individual helps to choose his assessor. The assessors can be retired engineers. If things seem a trifle easy-going in the Maritimes, Alberta does not even include field reviews yet as part of its program.

In the reporting part of these programs engineers are required to log their annual professional development activities to score a number of points. But most programs count in a wide range of activities that include informal as well as formal activities. They cover everything from reading technical journals, to attending trade conferences, to contributing to church or community. In New Brunswick you could easily pass muster without taking any formal technical courses at all. The Alberta, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia programs are similarly lightweight. No wonder that most of the programs have dropped the CCPE guideline title “continued competency” in favour of the less specific term “professional development.” The Ontario program was even renamed “professional excellence” in an effort to make it more palatable.

The associations have evidently decided that their programs must be broad to accommodate the many different faces of the profession. David Lapp, P.Eng., director of professional affairs at CCPE, explains the challenge: “The issue in part is that the diversity of practice is so wide ranging. Some engineers stay in technical areas, but others gravitate into management. Others go into law and business. The challenge is to come up with a program that addresses the diversity of the profession.”

Indeed, many believe it would be a backward step for professional development programs to focus narrowly on engineers’ technical skills. In Ottawa, speaker after speaker argued that engineers should be broadening their expertise. Sir Graham Day said: “We have migrated to a state where knowledge of your field is not enough.” He wants to see more engineers moving into management, which means developing their communication and teamwork skills. Leslie Dolman, P.Eng. of the University of Toronto’s Professional Development Centre had an extensive list of global trends that make it vital engineers stay on top of new technology, but she also suggested the key is to “have a broad knowledge.” Wendy Whyte of the University of Western Ontario Ivey Business School said the “underlying core of all programs is developing general management skills.” She estimated that engineers make up about 30% of the enrollment in their executive MBA and non-degree programs.

But the inclusion of non-technical professional studies in continuing competence programs muddies the waters. The general public — for whom these programs are being introduced after all — should not care whether the individual who calls herself a professional engineer is a good manager or not. The engineer’s clients and employer might care, but that is purely a business concern. It is not an issue of public safety. The public is only concerned with engineering practice as it affects the physical world we live in. They do not need to know — nor is it any of their business to know — that an engineer has mastered the principles of management and economics. Nor, as some people have argued, do the concerns about competence mostly apply to disciplines such as structural engineering. If a chemical engineer designs an industrial plant that has the potential to pollute the ground water, then his work carries a great deal of risk to public health for decades to come.

The risk of making competence programs too easy to satisfy is that they will end up serving no real purpose other than as window dressing. Patrick Quinn, P.Eng. of Toronto has that fear. Quinn (he is president of PEO but speaks personally) thinks the programs introduced in many provinces are too weak to be any real test of expertise: “If you make the bar low enough, what is it exactly you are measuring?” he asks. “Are we just giving a perception to the public?”

Even with the programs they have, the associations are struggling over how to enforce them. In Alberta, for example, 18 per cent of the association members are still not bothering to send in their reports. These people could be brought before a discipline committee, but as Len Shrimpton, P.Eng. of APEGGA reported in Ottawa: “At this point the number of those members who have not submitted their reports is too high to handle.” New Brunswick aims to hold 50 random field reviews of its members every year, but that represents only 11/4 per cent of its members. The number of engineers in Quebec also makes the logistics of monitoring seem overwhelming. Loiselle of the OIQ said that the association’s requirement that members have 45 hours of continuing education “has proved to be impossible to supervise.” The institute is therefore relying on 2,000 inspections a year to ensure its 36,000 members are fulfilling their obligations.

Survival of the fittest

Quinn also questions the need for such programs from the special viewpoint of a consulting engineer. As consultants, he points out, engineers have to prove their competence daily in order to obtain and keep clients. Hence he feels the market place is a good enough monitor of their skills. “With consulting engineering we are dealing with sophisticated clients –municipalities, etc. Sophisticated clients don’t care whether you have filled in so many points in your professional development log book, or whether you have coaxed the local hockey team…. They want to know if you can do the job.”

Quinn, a co-founder of Quinn Dressel Associates, consulting structural engineers, believes the market imposes its own checks and balances to ensure competence: “Years ago we got jobs by word of mouth. Now most projects are awarded by proposal calls which have elaborate requirements. They demand, for example, that a firm should report its job experience and give client referrals.” As well Quinn points out that a consulting engineering firm in Ontario has to have insurance, and the insurance companies run their own tests to make sure a firm is practising responsibly before they agree to underwrite them.

For Quinn the whole issue comes back down to the old core principal of the profession: the code of ethics. “Most of the problems we are dealing with are really based on ethics — where people are practising in an area they are not competent in.” he says. Quinn suggests therefore that instead of introducing professional development programs, associations should ask engineers to retake the professional practice and ethics examination every seven or eight years, perhaps with field reviews as well. He would rather see engineers grow as human beings and professionally through other routes rather than by forcing them to report their activities, and is keen to promote the role of the technical societies.

With this tangle of competing interests, who would envy the professional associations their task? On one hand as guardians of the public trust they feel obliged to monitor their members more closely. On the other hand because engineers are such a large, multi-faceted and independent minded group, it is extremely difficult — perhaps impossible — to find a system that is any meaningful measure.

The associations have to contend with many other issues in introducing competence assurance programs. How, for example, do they deal with the retired engineers — distinguished people who have contributed a great deal to the profession in the past — when they resist having to give up their licences to practice? And won’t the programs push the associations even further into a policing role, thereby driving a larger wedge between them and their members?

Quinn’s way of looking at all these troubles through the lens of ethics is a useful one. He points out that it helps to understand another problem that has plagued the profession — fee cutting: “If you are ethical, you won’t sell your services for less than they are worth, ” he says. Engineers in the last decade have undercut their fees so severely in competing for projects it has become very difficult to do the work without taking shortcuts.

Here a
gain we see engineering drawn along by larger forces at work in the late 20th century. From a gentler era where the public placed great trust in its professionals, we have succeeded to a consumer-driven world which demands service and accountability. The competitive rules of the market dominate in almost every sphere. When the roof came crashing down on the tomatoes and cucumbers in Burnaby’s Save-on-Foods store, it was because the beam had been designed incorrectly. But the enquiry found that part of the reason for that error was that competitive bidding for the construction project had driven the engineering fees down to a level that had compromised the level of service. Low fees are no excuse for the incompetence of a design, but they might be a very important part of the explanation.

Province Type of program Notes
Prince Edward Island
Nova Scotia
New Brunswick
British Columbia
Northwest Territories
United States

Do other professions in Canada have their competence monitored or have to engage in continuing education?

DoctorsNo mandatory requirements to engage in continuing education for licensing. However, the certifying colleges have special requirements for membership. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, for example, will impose mandatory continuing education in 2001.

LawyersNo mandatory continuing education activities required for licensing. The Barreau du Quebec required members to take courses in the Civil Code a few years ago.

ArchitectsContinuing education has recently become mandatory for licensing in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba. Requirements satisfied by “self-reporting.”

Chartered Accountants Practice inspections are held as part of licensing. No mandatory continuing education or professional development activity required.


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