home |
About |
Contact Us |
Editorial Info |



Why Should You Become a Licensed Professional Engineer?

by Mitchell A. Thornton

When contemplating professional licensure, the central question for many electrical, computer and software engineers is: How will licensure benefit me? I will answer that question in this article, but first I’m going to review some of the purposes of professional engineering licensure.

The word “license” means official or governmental permission to do something.  Regulating agencies usually enact licensing laws for the protection of the public.  As an example, states require operators of motor vehicles to hold licenses before they can legally drive on public roads.  The idea being that some type of minimal competence in driving should be demonstrated before an individual is allowed on the roads in command of a very large and heavy piece of machinery moving at a fast speed.  Almost everyone I have encountered (with the exception of a few teenagers less than sixteen years of age) agree that requiring drivers to be licensed protects the public. 

The very same idea is behind licensing professional engineers.  It is unarguable that many engineers practice in areas that affect the health, safety and welfare of the public.  Whether it is practice in the power utility industry, the design of a microcontroller to be used in a medical implant device, or the design and implementation of algorithms for an air traffic control system -- the examples are numerous.  All U.S. jurisdictions agree with this viewpoint and have licensing laws in effect.  These laws differ slightly, but they all refer to some form of provision of protection for public safety.

At this point you may be thinking, “Wait! I am a good engineer and I create technology that could affect the public and I am not licensed nor does my employer show any interest in me becoming licensed.”  This is often the case in our profession since a large majority of practicing electrical, computer and software engineers are employed by companies.  The licensing laws across the U.S. contain “industry exemption” clauses.  These clauses state that individuals who practice engineering exclusively for their employer do not need to be licensed as long as those individuals do not offer engineering services to the public. 

Another common response is “I am a good engineer already, just look at all the great things I have done professionally.  Why should I have to go and take yet another test to show how good I am at engineering?”  The analogy with driver licensing is useful to consider this viewpoint.  It is true that both the winner of the latest NASCAR championship race as well as a young person just turning sixteen must both hold driver’s licenses to legally operate vehicles.  However, it is not about how “good” you are, rather licensing is about establishing “minimal competence” in an area in order to protect public safety.  Such minimal competence must be demonstrated by both the NASCAR champion and the sixteen-year old before they are allowed to drive.  The same is true for the practice of engineering.  The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) examinations are not designed to grade the skill level of a person practicing engineering, they are about demonstrating some basic minimum threshold of knowledge so that it can be expected no harm will come to the public if that person is allowed to practice engineering.

Now I will answer the question “How will licensure benefit me?”  You should be licensed if you have aspirations to work as an engineering consultant or start your own engineering company.  Many electrical and computer engineers tell me they wish to eventually start their own companies.  Under most U.S. state laws, it is illegal to start your own engineering business without being licensed or at least having a company officer in charge of engineering who is licensed.  Licensure gives you the privilege to offer engineering services to the public.

Although it is true that some large companies do not promote licensure among their engineering employees, this is not true for all companies.  In fact, some companies do encourage licensure and offer incentives.  Even if your company does not actively encourage licensure, gaining this professional credential would probably be viewed favorably by your employer and would certainly demonstrate your sincerity and professionalism.

Whether IEEE members are licensed or not, they abide by a code of ethics. The very first element in the IEEE Code of Ethics mentions the “…safety, health and welfare of the public….”  This language is practically identical to that found in the various engineering licensing statutes of the U.S. jurisdictions.  Abiding by the IEEE Code of Ethics is implicitly agreeing with and supporting the intent of professional engineering licensing.

There are other reasons that licensing can be beneficial, but I will end this article with one final thought.  Ask yourself if anything you do in your professional engineering activities affects the safety, health or welfare of the public.  If the answer to this question is “yes,” then perhaps you should consider obtaining licensure for both ethical and professional career reasons.

To learn more about licensure and registration, see:

IEEE-USA's Licensure and Registration Committee


The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)






Mitchell A. Thornton, Ph.D., P.E. is a professor of computer science and engineering and a professor of electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He currently serves as chair of IEEE-USA’s Licensure and Registration Committee.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2010 IEEE

 search archive


reader feedback
  search by date
also in this issue
Career Focus: Circuits & Systems
Cogent Communicator: How to Listen
Backscatter: Toys for Techies
Lessons of the Internet Age: The International Telecommunications Union and the Internet Society
NCEES Model Law Revisions Impact Professional Licensure Education and Experience Requirements
Free IEEE-USA E-Books for Members in December 2014 and January 2015
Your Engineering Heritage: Which Stimulates Innovation More, War or Peace?
World Bytes: American Ingenuity Awards
Tech News Digest: December 2014