Canadian Consulting Engineer

Keeping Up: Mandatory Continuing Professional Development Programs

February 23, 2015
By Bronwen Parsons

Are mandatory continuing professional development programs necessary to show that engineers are competent? Some engineers support them, and others are passionately against.

From the January-February 2015 print issue, page 30.

I am surprised that these questions are still being asked,” wrote one respondent to CCE’s question about whether engineers should be required to do continuing professional development courses and activities.
“Mandatory professional development is what the public expects and requires of our professional engineers,” continued Dave Chalcroft, P.Eng. of Calgary, a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta. He gives three reasons: “P.Eng.’s must be current in practices that affect public safety”; “provincial legislation requires our provincial professional associations to license only those individuals who are competent to practise”; and (last but not least) “mandatory professional development is the way to ensure every licence holder remains competent through his or her career.”
Certainly, most members of the public assume that practising engineers are required to demonstrate that they are competent and educating themselves on an ongoing basis. When they find out that is not the case, they “express surprise and concern,” said one executive from a licensing organization.
Engineers work in the physical realm, creating structures and systems that people rely on to be safe. So we expect and trust that they will stay on top of their skills and abreast of the latest technologies and knowledge. That’s why we call them “professionals.”

Ontario and British Columbia still don’t have it
Today most of the traditional licensed professions: doctors, lawyers, accountants and teachers, for example, are required to do continuing professional development (CPD). Architects too. Hence sessions at Construct Canada in Toronto are packed with architects anxious to accumulate their required number of continuing education hours.
Yet for engineers the situation with CPD is patchy. In two of Canada’s largest provinces — Ontario and British Columbia, which together represent approximately 110,000 licensed engineers or 40% of the total in Canada —  CPD  is not mandatory. Nor is it mandatory for engineers in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. (APEGBC) tried to pass a bylaw to introduce mandatory CPD in 2009, but failed to get the required two-thirds majority approval. Now the association is consulting its members for feedback and is set to have another vote this fall.
In Ontario, Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO), which has 80,000 members including EITs, has come under pressure since October 2014. That’s when Justice Belanger issued his report as Commissioner of the Inquiry into the collapse of the roof at the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake (CCE December 2015, p. 25). The Commissioner recommended that PEO “should establish a system of mandatory continuing education for its members as soon as possible, and in any event no later than 18 months from the release of this Report.”
Gerard McDonald, registrar of PEO, says their task force was already in place to look into different models of mandatory programs and is due to report back right on cue by the end of 2015. The task force is headed by Annette Bergeron, P.Eng. and includes members of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), the voluntary advocacy organization which has been lobbying PEO for years to introduce mandatory CPD. In June 2013 OSPE issued a lengthy report and recommendations for a program, which the PEO task force is reviewing.
Alberta is the model
Many of the provincial associations that have already adopted mandatory programs have used Alberta’s as a model. The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) was the first licensing body in Canada to make continuing professional development a requirement for its members — approximately 15 years ago.
Based on the Alberta model, most existing CPD programs allow members credit for hours in six categories: professional practice (working as an engineer or geoscientist); formal activities (e.g. university and other courses of at least four hours); informal activity (attendance at conferences, seminars and meetings); participation (being a mentor, providing service on public bodies or technical committees); presentations (at conferences outside your normal job function); and contributions to knowledge (helping to develop codes and standards, writing papers, reviewing articles).

Self-declaring as “non-practising”
What’s interesting is that Alberta has a provision for members to opt out of the program if they are not actively practising engineering, a policy which other associations have also adopted.
Michael Neth, director of registration at APEGA, explains: “If someone isn’t able to keep up with their CPD, then they can self-declare as non-practising. And that takes away the obligation for them to keep up with their CPD.” Importantly, he adds: “It allows them to continue to use the title Professional Engineer or Professional Geoscientist. They remain bound by the Code of Ethics and all of the obligations of the profession in terms of professional conduct. But they are indicating to the profession and to the public that they aren’t practising.”
Why do some engineers choose to opt out? Neth explains: “Some people go through steps in their career where they just aren’t doing any actual engineering work. People might sell real estate for a couple of years, or they might do other things that take them away from their practice.”
Only about 4.5% of APEGA members are currently opting out of the program. This figure is surprising. In other provinces it’s generally known that a larger proportion of licensed engineers have gone into other fields and so might be expected not to bother participating in CPD programs.
In B.C. too APEGBC intends to make exceptions. Ailene Lim, professional development coordinator at APEGBC, explains: “If members are unemployed, or have health issues or disability, or are on parental leave, then we intend to give them special consideration, whether it would be whole or partial exemption, in terms of what they have to do to fulfil their CPD requirements.”

Different provinces: different rules
Engineers Canada, the umbrella national organization, has endorsed mandatory CPD programs. The policy was endorsed in February 2012 and is part of its Canadian Framework for Licensure.
The organization would like to see the different provincial licensing associations agree on a consistent program. Uniform requirements and centralized reporting could ease the provincial associations’ administrative burdens. It would also cut down on the time engineers have to spend on reporting their CPD activities — something that is a sore point, especially among those who work in more than one province and have to file multiple CPD reports.
Currently, most of the provinces/territories require their members to do the same number of professional development hours: 240 PDHs over three years.
However, Quebec is an exception, requiring 30 hours over two years, and of course Ontario still has no requirement.
Between the provinces the reporting requirements vary. So, for example, while the Alberta association requires all its members to report their CPD hours, Saskatchewan makes it voluntary, and New Brunswick requires reporting only when the association requests it.
The OSPE report recommends that practising engineers in Ontario should only have to report on an “as requested basis.” As well, OSPE recommends that only a sample of the reports from licensees would be reviewed. The sample would be chosen partly on the risks involved in the engineer’s field of engineering. OSPE also recommends that engineers of 50 years and older should not have to complete the full number of hours.
A standard and consistent program for engineers across Canada still seems a long way off.

Supporters and outliers
When APEGBC held its vote on mandatory CPD in 2009, it did not receive the two-thirds majority it required, yet it did receive 57.7% support. When this magazine held an informal website poll in 2011 the response was 75% in favour of mandatory CPD. This past December we again asked our readers for input on the question and received e-mails about 50/50 on either side. Some of the responses are reprinted in this article. Whichever position engineers take, they are all passionate in their opinions. Clearly a good proportion of engineers support mandatory programs. But there’s also a lot of unease.
“The concerns are actually sometimes misconceptions about the whole program,” says Lim of APEGBC. “One of the concerns is that it is too expensive. The assumption is that CPD is just about taking courses, or attending seminars, all of which essentially lead to costs. Whereas the guideline is structured to be very flexible. There are a variety of different ways to obtain PD hours, and taking courses is just one of them. It is up to members, as professionals, to determine what professional development is relevant to their practice.” She adds: “Our members’ practices are diverse and our program is flexible to reflect that.”
McDonald of PEO agrees that the prospect of a mandatory CPD program is causing concern. “In the past 25 years we formed at least three committees or task forces to investigate the need for it. Obviously the fact that we weren’t able to implement it on the past three occasions speaks to the apprehension that’s out there.”
“That being said,” he continues, “I think there are a lot of proponents for continuing professional development and they see that certainly if we’re going to remain relevant as a self regulated profession, it is something that we should be seriously considering.”
Neth of APEGA says: “In general the people are welcoming of the CPD program.  As professionals they see a need to continuously improve and enhance their skill set. But as in any large population when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of people, there are a few outliers. By and large the concerns that they bring are not that they have an issue with CPD per se, it’s just that they disagree with the mandatory reporting portion of it. But those are very small in number. We get a few people a year who bring that concern to us. And they come around.”
It is almost certain that mandatory CPD programs will become part of the engineering landscape across all Canada very soon. How those programs can be implemented and organized effectively is the difficult question now. Engineering covers such a conglomerate of different fields and individuals that the licensing bodies will have their hands full for many years sorting through the details, not to mention dealing with all the emotions that these programs evoke among their engineers.                     cce


Opinions from CCE readers across Canada about mandatory continuing professional development (CPD):

It’s just public relations
“Get rid of it. Engineers need to do professional development, but the most effective methods are also the hardest to monitor. So there is no real way to check compliance, which makes mandatory CPD meaningless. As far as I can see, CPD programs are just a public relations exercise.” — Anon.

Firms seldom pay
“I think CPD is worthwhile as long as it’s not fluff (e.g. how to become a better manager). However, I do not think it should be mandatory. I have been in the engineering consulting business since 1971 as both an employee and self-employed. I have seldom seen a Canadian consulting firm pay for employee CPD unless it was absolutely necessary for the person to have the course certificate. Usually any training is paid for by the employee at his own (after-tax) cost and with lost wages.” — Steve Graham, P.Eng., P.Geo., Delta, B.C.

Make it more rigorous
“I would make the CPD requirement much harder so that professional members really think about whether they wish to continue as active professional members. You could easily double the number of required hours. At the moment, I do not feel the amount of work required to maintain a professional status is sufficient for members to take the program seriously.” — David P. Thompson, P.Eng., Calgary.

Exempt consulting engineers
“Simply remove the CPD requirement for the consulting engineering industry. In this industry we constantly explore and maintain currency in our disciplines. Otherwise we can’t compete. So it doesn’t have to be a regulatory requirement.” — Hubert Alacoque, P.Eng., St. John’s, Nfld.

Should be consistent across Canada
I strongly believe that there should be a common CPD process and program nationally to allow engineers to be registered in other provinces and to be able to seamlessly update their CPD credits. I detest the balkanization of separate provincial associations deriving their own processes and systems, which likely leads to the less-than-enthusiasic support.” — Geoff McDonell, P.Eng., Vancouver.

Problems with “dabblers”
“I strongly believe that all practising professionals are obligated not only to maintain competeny, but also to be transparent in reporting CPD. [In B.C.] there can be issues with “dabblers,” generally older, semi-retired engineers who have not kept up with current practice requirements. An example could be sealing a Record of Sewerage System and Certification as a favour for your neighbour’s summer cabin. Septic system design is much more complicated than it was 15 years ago and if you haven’t kept up with current regulations, there may be a complaint laid. A mandatory CPD reporting requirement on an annual basis may convince a retired engineer that when you stop CPD, it’s also time to stop practising. — Jeff Holm, P.Eng., Kamloops, B.C.

Self-directed study is valid
“Self-directed study should remain a recognized means of fulfilling professional development requirements for licensing, as not all professional engineers can afford to go to increasingly expensive conferences, short courses and university courses. This especially applies to senior engineers who only work part-time, unemployed engineers, and professional engineers in the more low-paying branches of the profession. Nevertheless, the means of evaluating self-directed study are presently based on the honour system i.e. there does not seem to be a standard way of evaluating self-directed study compared to evaluated courses.” — Brian C. Burrell, P.Eng., Fredericton, N.B.

Should focus on the non-practising
“I believe that CPD programs need to focus on those who no longer practise engineering, or very little, but who still maintain their professional status. However the difficulty comes in targeting these people over those who do regularly practice.” — Paul Sceviour, P.Eng., St. John’s, Nfld.


Stories continue below