Canadian Consulting Engineer

To Specialize or Not?

July 1, 2003
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

Rarely does an article in this magazine elicit such a rousing response as two that appeared in the January-February issue. The article "Specialist Engineers: In a Class of Their Own?" and the related ...

Rarely does an article in this magazine elicit such a rousing response as two that appeared in the January-February issue. The article “Specialist Engineers: In a Class of Their Own?” and the related editorial comment “Who is an Engineer?” were on how engineers are starting to acquire specialist certification in different fields of practice. The articles also suggested that if specialist qualifications are introduced, their administration and governing should be done on a national basis.

Obviously the issue touches a nerve in the profession.The e-mails and letters from readers come from a variety of new perspectives, so we print extracts below as a kind of ad hoc debate.

A road already travelled

As I look up at my long-since expired Specialist Certificate (in the class of Structures in the field of civil engineering) issued to me by the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario (APEO) in May 1985, it would seem that we may be returning to a road already travelled.

To provide some context. After much discussion and review, which included a member referendum in 1972, APEO — now PEO — adopted a policy and regulations for the designation of specialists in various fields of engineering. APEO was granted by the provincial legislature an exclusive right to the title “Designated Specialist.” Originally there were nine fields of engineering, covering 28 classes of specialty. The number of classes of specialty later increased to 74, with an openness to the recognition of other specialties.

Recently, much talk has surrounded how to properly address so called “emerging” technologies, like the computer and biomedical fields, as well as how to better safeguard existing essential infrastructure delivery vehicles like our drinking water systems. And yet, a review of the specialty classes of three decades ago reveals that the computer and biomedical fields had already been identified and categorized in the class of electrical engineering, with the computer class covering both hardware and software. And what of recent issues regarding safe drinking water? The environmental class of civil engineering covered among other things, water supply, treatment, distribution and storage.

What was required to be called an APEO Designated Specialist? The APEO member must have been engaged in the practice of professional engineering with five or more years of experience beyond APEO membership requirements in the designated field of engineering. The member could have been required to pass examinations prescribed by [APEO] council, or be called for an interview by three existing specialists, or be exempted from exams or interview because of sufficient experience, or academic or other qualifications.

For my part, in spite of possessing a post-graduate degree and having extensive experience, I had to be interviewed by three specialists. I can tell you that it was much less an interview, and much more an oral exam. No rubber stamping was evident here.

The program was well set up and highly organized. The requirements were written into the Professional Engineers Act. In addition, APEO had a densely packed 21-page pamphlet on the program and it published a directory listing all the members and their fields of specialty. There was even a Specialist Stamp.

Nevertheless, in August 1986 letters went out from the APEO’s then manager of professional services, announcing the discontinuance of the program. On July 17, 1986, the Lieutenant Governor signed the Amending Regulation to delete the relevant sections of O.Reg 538/85. The Specialist Designation Committee and its field committees were officially disbanded, and with that the Specialist Designation Program was unceremoniously ended.

In response to my questions as to how the public interest was better served and protected by having self-designating specialists instead of APEO Designated Specialists, I was informed that there simply wasn’t enough interest within the membership to continue the program. Just another one of those things that make you go “Hmmmm.”

Yet now we are told that there is a growing interest in the professions towards certification in addition to professional licensure, and that “PEO is stepping up to the plate” (Engineering Dimensions, May/ June 2002). I can only hope that the present PEO is stepping up to the plate with a different line-up than the one that forfeited the game 17 years ago.

But in the end it may be too little, and far too late. I see Bill 124, the Building Regulatory Reform Act (which received royal assent on June 27, 2002) as the first step away from engineering as a self-regulating profession and towards a government regulated one.

Angelo Mattacchione, P.Eng.

President, Prosum Engineering, Toronto

Counts for little in greater orbit

Having served for three or more years on the panel of examiners for the PEO’s former specialist program, my memories cause me to differ with the kind of program envisaged in the editorial and article in the January-February 2003 issue.

No special course was required then, nor should it be in my opinion. Designation was based on the candidate’s experience and achievement in practising his particular specialty.

Since most candidates were interviewed, we had the opportunity to enquire about not only the validity of their application but also their reasons for seeking specialist designation. The answers were sometimes surprising. In smaller towns of Northern Ontario practices have to be more diversified and less specialized than in larger centres. Hence, one applicant sought designation in at least two categories.

Should such a program accommodate the type of practice being pursued? As an example, should an engineer whose greatest structural challenge had been the design of several eight-storey, load-bearing masonry residential buildings with precast concrete floors be designated a structural specialist? In the eyes of local townsfolk perhaps, but not in the greater world if designation is to be a sign of excellence. Should specialization be a sign of excellence or just a classification for all engineers based on training and experience?

Specialist designation might have an impact on a panel of laypeople that is assigning a project to a very small practice, but in the greater engineering orbit, it would count for little. Recent past accomplishments and a proposed method of tackling a project are likely to be the significant criteria for a client selecting an engineer.

In relating the specialist designation of engineers to medical specialists, the editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer is on the wrong track. She would do better to consider lawyers who, although they develop special skills according to the type of work they pursue, do not carry official specialist titles.

Both this magazine’s editor and I come from a compact European country in which almost all significant matters are controlled by a central authority. Canada is not such a country but a federation of semi-independent provinces. It has been suggested that specialist designation be controlled by some central but non-government authority. I am opposed to such a proposal. Not only do the provincial associations have the resources to undertake specialist designation on a province-by-province basis, their current exercise of authority over engineers renders them the logical choice. While I do not wish to be under the control of a bureaucrat in Ottawa, I expect the response of an Albertan or British Columbian engineer would be nothing short of explosive. Despite the supposed benefit of having a central designating authority, I have had no difficulty in obtaining temporary licences in other provinces for specific projects. In comparison, except for two dissenting maritime provinces, an interchange agreement between provincial law societies has only just been reached.

John Springfield, P.Eng., Structural engineer


Engineering principles same from B.C. to Newfoundland

I have never been able to understand how engineering can be so fundamentally different in each province that it requ
ires a separate license. Surely the need to understand and apply engineering principles holds true as much for the British Columbian as it does for the Newfoundlander? Why on earth do we duplicate effort in each of our jurisdictions, when what we should be doing is ensuring quality to the ultimate user of our services?

Rather than maintaining a host of different regulating bodies, my view is that we should seek and maintain consistent high standards throughout the country by way of a single body.

Colin Alston, P.Eng.


Separating the mediocre from the exceptional

Do I think we need specialist engineers? I think we need a clear way of separating the mediocre from the exceptional. I think we need a way of letting the mediocre know areas they need improvement on. I think we need a way of letting the public know that we are taking mediocrity seriously.

I fully recognize that mediocre engineers are better than no engineers. The problem with specialization is that many cannot pass the tests at the levels they really should be at. Most people fail the Certified Professional examination in B.C. for proficiency in the building code even after taking the course. If the standards are lowered, the designation is meaningless. If the standards are kept high, not enough people can pass to meet the demand.

Perhaps the solution is that certificate programs be developed such that they are not mandatory, but rely on their marginal value — like LEED accreditation (although I am currently working with an engineer who is LEED-accredited and yet lacks any vision to be green), or RCDD. The professional associations could list the members who have these kinds of certificates to promote them.

Kevin Cheong, P.Eng., RCDD


Beyond the code of ethics

In a recent conversation with two professional engineers from the U.S., they were really surprised that our licensing system does not require legally administered exams in the areas of practice. This puts a shadow of doubt on our engineering abilities.

For those engineers who follow the PEO Code of Ethics, having extra exams to pass will not mean a substantial extra effort, since they are already working only in the areas they qualify based on education and experience. However, we only know of those engineers who don’t comply with the code of ethics when things fail and damage has already occurred. This seems to be too late to protect the public interest. Furthermore, the code of ethics is not legally enforceable and only carries disciplinary action after the problem was generated.

The tests or exams will be an excellent opportunity to improve our standards. The current system is too complacent and there are no incentives for improvement. In addition, senior engineers will have to pass knowledge to the juniors through this process. We will all learn. The system will be also more transparent. It will be clear what level of skills, knowledge and experience is required in each area since exams will be set for each one.

I wonder if the system can be implemented with the cost being born by the engineers themselves. Having to pay for the exams will mean that engineers will have to think carefully about choosing the sub-discipline in which they want to work.

Alejandro Gidi, Ph.D., P.Eng.

Oakville, Ont.


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