Canadian Consulting Engineer

News – 01-OCT-99

Language is a slippery beast, and has a way of escaping the grasp of anybody or organization that tries to control it. The professional engineering associations have found that out in their struggle t...

October 1, 1999  By Bronwen Ledger

Language is a slippery beast, and has a way of escaping the grasp of anybody or organization that tries to control it. The professional engineering associations have found that out in their struggle to restrict use of the word “engineer.” The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers even took a trademark out on the word 10 years ago. Now Memorial University in Newfoundland has taken out a rival trademark on the word “software engineer” and the two parties are embroiled in a legal squabble over whether the university has the right to offer a “software engineering” course in a non-engineering faculty. Meanwhile Microsoft Corporation, all-powerful and ubiquitous, blithely carries on graduating people as Certified Microsoft Systems Engineers who have gone through only five months of training.

The problem over who and what holds rights to use the term “engineer” has become extremely complicated now that the whole field of technology involves computers. If the associations want to have control they have to be able to define precisely what engineering is, and today that means identifying where engineering starts and stops in the world of computing. That task is not easy. If we take the broadest definition and allow that all computer hardware and software design involves engineering of a kind, then to have any control over the term becomes almost impossible and almost meaningless because the field is so wide.

Some associations even insist that non-technical skills such as project management and product review fall under the rubric of engineering, which blurs the lines of definition even further. As the industry becomes more complex and inter-disciplinary, they are loathe to shrink the scope of the professional’s role back to the traditional disciplines.

Hence the quandary facing the associations and the drama that is being played out in the courts. The Ordre des Ingnieurs de Quebec, for example, has found that the Engineering Act no longer serves as a legal instrument for defining who should be doing engineering. It is watching carefully as the province prepares a revised Act, hoping the new legislation will be more precise about engineers’ roles and give the Order “more teeth” (see page 9).

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The truth is language belongs to the society that uses it and no word can be appropriated by an individual group or private interest. “Engineer” and its derivatives have been in common usage for centuries and must stay in the general pool.

It is a different case, however, when someone starts using “engineer” as a job title. Then the word is specifically being used to communicate professional credentials, and the associations are right to go to war in defence of the truly accredited. Some say that the associations should concentrate on defending the title Professional Engineer as opposed to just “engineer,” but that may not be enough since 90 per cent of the public will not be aware of the difference.

It will be interesting to see how far the Canadian associations will go in trying to control the title. It is one thing to take on a Canadian university in the courts, but will they have the same appetite for a legal spat with an opponent as formidable as Bill Gates?Bronwen Ledger

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Engineering


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