Canadian Consulting Engineer

Who is an engineer?

January 1, 2003
By Bronwen Parsons

There's an old bridge in industrial east-end Toronto that carries a curious wrought iron inscription in its arch: "This river I step in is not the river I stand in." Every time I pass below it I have ...

There’s an old bridge in industrial east-end Toronto that carries a curious wrought iron inscription in its arch: “This river I step in is not the river I stand in.” Every time I pass below it I have to think twice, first to work out the words’ meaning, and second to marvel that engineers a century ago had the budget and the inclination to incorporate such a whimsical element in a workaday transportation structure.

The message in the arch is an echo from the Greek philosopher Heraclitis, who already 2,500 years ago was talking about the constancy of change. Today the pace of transformation has picked up considerably, and nowhere is the turmoil more apparent than in the engineering world.

A host of circumstances is forcing professional engineers to redefine their roles and their right to use the title. The article on page 20 deals with one aspect: the growing requirement for engineers to have specialist certification before they are allowed to practice in certain areas. The provincial licensing associations are also wrestling with a mounting pile of other fundamental questions related to licensing, questions about technologists, software designers, how to verify members’ continuing competence, etc..

Meanwhile, the general idea of what an engineer represents is diverging in two quite different directions. On one hand, an engineering degree and licence is seen as denoting a general skill in problem solving. Someone has even predicted that engineering will be the liberal arts degree of the 21st century. On the other hand (and lay people tend to see it this way), engineering is viewed as the acquisition of very specific “hard” skills in a diverse field of arcane technologies.

The distinction between those who daily practise “hard” engineering and those who have gone on to managerial roles or non-engineering careers has led some to argue for a whole new approach to licensing — one that severs the title of Professional Engineer from the licence to practice. Such a move could be used to overhaul and bring clarity to the licensing systems, which at present are so complex that even engineers themselves don’t always understand the different designations, let alone members of the public. The rules also vary from province to province.

If engineers were to be licensed to practice according to their technical skills, then surely the way to do it is on a national basis. Then engineers could carry their accreditation with them from province to province, and they might find it easier to make inroads into our large free-trade neighbour to the south. The accreditation process could be done through a specially established College, through the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, or even through the societies like the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, or the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineering.

Of course, whether the provincial associations are willing, or legally able, to give up their territorial rights in the area of licensing is debatable. The “will to power” rules most human affairs, as Nietzsche, a philosopher closer to our own time, noted. But unless we are willing to dismantle provincial barriers, the pointless duplication that hampers Canada’s efficiency in so many areas will prevail.


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