Canadian Consulting Engineer

PROFESSION: In a Class of Their Own? the Engineering Specialist

As shareholders of Bre-X Minerals saw their investments collapse back in 1997, they began to wonder how it was that an apparently reputable mining company had managed to manoeuvre the biggest gold-fie...

January 1, 2003  By Bronwen Parsons

As shareholders of Bre-X Minerals saw their investments collapse back in 1997, they began to wonder how it was that an apparently reputable mining company had managed to manoeuvre the biggest gold-field hoax in history. Bre-X shares plummeted from $280 to pennies, and de Guzman, the company’s chief geologist, plummeted from a helicopter over the jungles of Borneo to his death. How had the public been so easily tricked by a geologist’s salting of ore samples into believing that the Busang deposits held fabulous wealth?

About the same time, people living in the damp, chilly climes on Canada’s West Coast were watching water run down the walls and rotting the structures of their condominiums. The so-called “leaky condo crisis” in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland saw hundreds of people filing into courtrooms to sue the builders and designers for the wreckage of their homes. Over $1 billion had to be spent on repairs.

The last decades have seen a number of other disconcerting catastrophes. The collapse of the Save-on-Foods supermarket roof in Burnaby, B.C. in the late 1980s, and of part of the Olympic Stadium roof in Montreal in the 1990s, brought down with them some of the public’s confidence in structural engineers. Then came Walkerton; suddenly rural Ontarians found out they were susceptible to the kinds of water malignancies we associate with the Third World. Where were the engineers who designed water treatment systems, and how come those systems were not as foolproof as we had believed?

Engineers and geologists were not always responsible for the disasters, but they were often implicated, and their reputations took a battering. When buildings fall, or systems fail, people want answers and they turn to the professionals entrusted with their safety. Over the past few years, then, the public has started to want more proof of engineers’ capabilities.

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Meanwhile, as governments outsource more functions to the private sector, they want reassurance that the experts charged with taking over these roles are competent and responsible. They need to know, for example, that someone verifying the environmental condition of a brownfield will given an honest report and will recognize a carcinogenic effluent when he sees one.

Identifying an engineer who has the required expertise is not that simple. Though each engineer graduates in a set discipline — civil, mechanical, chemical, etc. — and though each is licensed after proving his or her skills in that discipline, their professional title remains the generic “professional engineer,” or “P.Eng.” Unlike doctors, dentists or accountants, engineers do not have official titles to set the specialists apart. A doctor who goes on after graduating to spend years studying the human brain becomes qualified as a neurosurgeon. An accountant who has branched out into an area like taxation or insolvency qualifies with the right to place additional letters after his name. But the engineer who is a renown authority on, say, seismic design, uses the same official title as the engineer who long ago became the office administrator, or even the one who left and now might be operating a dog kennel or selling Xerox machines. Once qualified, an engineer keeps the right to the title so long as he or she pays the fees and abides by the rules of the provincial licensing association.

All that may be changing. The professional associations are rethinking their licensing mechanisms on several fronts as they wrestle with issues such as software engineering, technologists, and corporate licensing. One measure they are already implementing in British Columbia and Ontario is the certification of specialists. The possibility of having a whole new echelon of engineering specialists who are differentiated from the mass of “P.Engs” is clearly on the horizon.

The advent of “Qualified Persons”

In Ontario, the licensing association’s activity in identifying specialists has so far been a matter of collaborating with government authorities. On several fronts — mineral exploration, brownfields, and building construction — the government has passed legislation requiring engineers and others such as geologists to prove their special expertise. No longer is the generic P.Eng. title enough to warrant that the person doing that work is competent and responsible.

The Ontario Securities Commission rewrote their rules after the Bre-X scandal in an effort to reassure investors in the mineral resources industry. They now require that only a “Qualified Person” signs off on company geology reports. The person must be an engineer or geologist with five years of experience in the field.

Similarly, Ontario laws will soon require that only a Qualified Person is allowed to verify the condition of a brownfield site for redevelopment. The province passed legislation in November 2001 and Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) has been working with government officials to decide exactly what credentials will make a person “qualified.”

Another big change in Ontario is coming for all those engineers who design buildings. Following the passage of an Act to Improve Public Safety and to Increase Efficiency in Building Code Enforcement last June, the provincial government is busy formulating the examinations that engineers and others will have to pass in order to prove they are knowledgeable in relevant sections of the Ontario Building Code.

In British Columbia, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (APEGBC) has taken matters into its own hands. It now requires structural engineers who work on buildings that come under Part 3 of the building code to pass examinations and acquire a special stamp and certification as a “Structural Engineer of Record.” The B.C. association is also revising and finalizing a special designation for “Building Envelope Professionals.”

The prospect of instituting specialized engineering credentials is looming large on other radar screens across the country. In Quebec, the Ordre des ingnieurs du Quebec (OIQ) is discussing requiring companies to have a special permit of practice which could be tied to disciplines and specializations. On a national level, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers believes the issue of specialization is so important it is developing a policy on how programs might be implemented and standardized across the country.

Waste of time and effort?

Asking engineers to go the extra mile (and more) to become specialists flies in the face of a long-held position. The orthodox view has been that the generic “professional engineer” title is enough to signify to the public that a skilled person is in charge and that the engineer will safeguard the public interests. Only by promising to put the public’s health and safety first are engineers allowed to regulate themselves.

Many engineers also argue that there are enough safeguards in place already to ensure that engineers practice only in the sectors where they are competent. In Ontario, for example, the Professional Engineers Act, Regulation 19411, Section 72(h) states that an engineer will be guilty of professional misconduct for “undertaking work the practitioner is not competent to perform by virtue of the practitioner’s training and experience.”

But others feel that the issue of competence has become too weighty to hang on such a tiny clause. Richard Braddock, P.Eng., past president of PEO, even went so far as to suggest that all engineers should be licensed according to their special discipline in Engineering Dimensions last August: “… The public needs reassurance, beyond that provided by the Code of Ethics, that engineers are operating within their areas of competence…. I [personally] am firmly of the opinion that we should, again, license professional engineers as we did years ago, based on discipline.”

Not everyone agrees. Not even all clients, who are supposedly the ones who would benefit. Jay Ramotar, P.Eng., Deputy Minister of Transportation with Alberta Infrastructure, thinks the existing system already protects the client. “When we hire engineers we hire them through
the engineering firms. For them to be hired they need to demonstrate that they have the qualifications and experience in the area that we want them to work in. So I don’t care how many certificates they have, I hold the engineering firms totally responsible for the work. If there are errors and omissions the firms have to cough up the money or we take them to court. It’s just that simple. I don’t believe that we should complicate the process.” Ramotar, a true Albertan, doesn’t mince his words: “We should cut out the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.”

John Gartner, P.Eng., P.Geo., former chair of Gartner Lee of Markham, Ontario, was around the last time Ontario had a program of specialist designations, which was during the 1980s. “I didn’t see that it made any difference,” he says. “I don’t know that the public was any better protected by having this specialization.” Obviously, he notes, in the end PEO thought the program was not worthwhile because the association abandoned it after about five years.

Support grows

Generally, however, engineers in Ontario appear to be in favour of introducing specialist qualifications. A survey of over 3,000 engineers done in 2001 by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers broached the question. Asked if they would be interested in pursuing a specialty in engineering with a defined right to practice if it meant higher remuneration, a total 67% of respondents were in favour. Of that group, 43% were somewhat interested and 24% were “very interested.” Consulting engineers were a large contingent (40%) of the “very interested group.”

Mike Van Dusen, P.Eng. of Halsall Associates in Toronto is a strong supporter of the new requirements for building engineers in Ontario. He thinks that forcing designers to pass examinations to show their knowledge of the provincial building code will expedite the building approval process. It will mean that architectural and engineering drawings are standardized and building department decisions are more predictable.

More to the point, he suggests that the new requirements will ensure that designers do a competent job. “The leaky condo crisis [in Vancouver] reflects that there is a risk to owners if they don’t have somebody who is knowledgeable designing a building envelope,” he says. “There are [also] enough examples in Ontario to show that with respect to practitioners there needs to be some improvement in how people are trained and certified as qualified.”

Bryan Kozman, a government official who is implementing the new Building Code Act reforms, has hard evidence to show why designers need to prove their skills. Two years ago Kozman’s department of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing commissioned Trow Consulting to survey about 21 municipalities from both rural and urban regions. The researchers asked: “What proportion of projects designed by professionals and non-professional designers require significant correction by your plan review staff.” The results were astonishing. Municipal staff had to alter between 30% to 70% of plans submitted by professional engineers and architects. “If it’s any consolation,” Kozman adds later, “the technologists and non-professionals scored even worse.”

If the goal of specialist certification is to give a better guarantee of public safety, Meiric Preece, P.Eng., a civil engineer overseeing the SkyTrain Millennium Line expansion for ND LEA in Vancouver, isn’t sure certification is the complete answer. He notes that the technologist and engineer who designed the faulty roof at the Save-on Foods supermarket in Burnaby had excellent technical skills. “Both graduated in the top 5% of their classes at the University of British Columbia and would have no trouble passing an examination.”

Preece has a different reason for supporting specialist qualifications. He says they will level the playing field between Canadian and U.S. engineers. At present, Preece is not allowed to design a bridge in the U.S. without undergoing a three-day technical examination. However, a U.S. engineer can readily come to Canada and qualify to practice even in B.C.’s seismically unstable zone without having to pass examinations to prove his expertise.

Drastic changes

If the demand for specialists continues, professional engineering associations across Canada may find themselves having to revamp their licensing machinery. A spectrum of possibilities exists.

They may take an extremely hands-off approach, and let client authorities and governments define what they want in a “Qualified Person.” The Ontario Securities Commission, for example, defines who is eligible to sign off on mineral reports. PEO merely acts as the back-up when asked to verify whether the engineer has the right credentials.

Or the associations may decide to take a more active role. They might choose to examine and certify specialists, and then give them an extra title on top of the standard P.Eng. licence.

The most radical approach would cut right through the ranks. The associations may start licensing all engineers according to their discipline or special expertise. That approach would probably involve measures to ensure engineers’ continuing competence and new titles to distinguish between those who actively practise engineering and others who no longer practice but want to hold on to their professional title.

Even if the associations take the second, less contentious option, and decide to supplement the “P.Eng.” with new specialist titles, the implications are enormous.

First, who will administer the huge bureaucracy necessary to test and register specialists, and where will the money come from? Could the programs be managed through a national accreditation bureau? In that case, qualifying engineers would find it easier to transfer their skills between provinces. The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers or the Engineering Institute of Canada might take on the role.

Second, what would be the effect on consulting engineering firms? If only a “Qualified Person” is allowed to sign off on designated work, firms will have to ensure they have the right individuals for every job. It will mean investing more in staff education and paying more in staff salaries for those who become specialists. On the other side, young engineers will have a real goal and incentive to improve their skills.

The average member of the public today is surprised to find out that engineers are not already designated as specialists. The lack of differentiation among the profession does seem strange given that engineers work in such a vast range of activities. Doctors all deal with the human body. Accountants all deal with numbers. But the engineers’ hand is present in every aspect of the physical world. In fact, but not in title, engineers are specialists in myriad fields, splintering off from the major disciplines into as many different industries and products as exist. Perhaps the overwhelming possibilities for specialization are the reason such titles have not been adopted so far.

But as the world is transformed more and more by technology and requires increasing levels of arcane knowledge and expertise, it’s becoming clear that engineers need to define their profession in new ways. Lately provincial engineering associations have been reaching out to embrace groups of other technology experts. They have courted geologists, software designers and technologists to come into the engineers’ regulatory fold. As the associations’ broaden their mandate in this way, they may need to identify their members’ skills more precisely. Giving specialist titles is an obvious tool.

The real story is at heart a human issue. It is about what will happen among the profession when a good number of engineers start to brandish their credentials as designated specialists. Obviously, there is a danger of divisions emerging. Human nature is such that over time the specialists may come to be seen as an elite group, set apart from the run-of-the-mill P.Engs. The non-specialist and non-practising engineers have no desire to see their titles downgraded and many will resist change that leaves t
hem feeling like second-class citizens.

On the other hand, engineers who have acquired special skills, who are the sole experts in a particular area on which the health and safety of society depends, should be clearly distinguished. These individuals are not in any way superior from the rest, and probably don’t see themselves in that way. Nonetheless, they have a right, and an obligation, to identify themselves as in a class of their own.

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