Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

Home | Background and Experience | Services | Affiliations | Projects | Newsletter Archives | Newsletter Sources | Contact Us

Last Issue

6 April, 2006

Next Issue




I was mistaken when I wrote in the last issue that Electric Code requires one to figure office lighting and receptacle loads at 6 watts per square foot.  That was the New York City Electric Code back in 2001, when then National Electric Code was still, I think, calling for figuring those loads at 5 watts per square foot.


The National Electric Code (NEC) has since called for office loads at 31/2 watts per square foot (energy saving lamps and ballasts and localized task lighting have, in fact, made a difference in the world), and miracle of miracles, New York City finally adopted the NEC, with a few fairly minor amendments, via its Local Laws 64/2000, 41/2002, and 81/2003.


Licensing, Consulting, and Education, or, Us vs. Them


Last July, the piece I wrote dealt with what was meant by being a professional with regard to licensing of what’s called “learned professions” (that’s “lear-ned”, not “learned”).  At other times I’ve either alluded to or written directly on the subject of the professional licensing process and the administration thereof.   In April and May of last year, in fact, I spoke of the reason for the State’s licensing of design professionals being to protect the public safety.


Of course, there’s a little more to it than that.  I mean, how does the mere existence of professional licensing protect the public safety, and how does such a license differ from a driver’s license or a hunting license?  Why does  “the State” refer to New York State (or California, or Illinois, etc.) and not the Federal Government?


Well it’s not the existence of such licensing which protects the public safety; it’s the licensing process which does it.  In the case of each of the licenses mentioned above, things have to be proven to the licensing authority’s satisfaction before a license is granted, usually by passing an examination.  In medieval times a king might grant his nobles license to hunt on royal lands, but the privilege thus conferred was a matter of birth, not of any proof of competence.


The point is that while issuance of a hunting license might be dependent upon completion of a Hunter Safety Course and a driver’s license hinges upon written and road tests, the knowledge for both can be absorbed in a matter of hours.


Furthermore, because injury to the public from incompetence is immediately and visibly apparent, the conferred privileges can be revoked before such injury becomes widespread.  Professional licensing is different precisely because such injury may remain latent long enough for it to become widespread before it makes itself visible.


Between the enormous amount of knowledge needing to be acquired to practice a profession competently and the possible consequences of malpractice, licensing authorities are justifiably somewhat touchy about making sure all i’s are dotted and t’s crossed before issuing a professional license.  Members of the various professions are similarly so concerned and join in professional societies to address those concerns. We engineers, in fact, sometimes make the point that while incompetent physicians and engineers can both kill people, the difference is like that between retail and wholesale, that is, one at a time, or en masse.


Unfortunately, both the licensing authorities and the professional societies sometimes lose track of this, their prime reason for existence.  The former, like all bureaucracies, not infrequently become fixated upon process, while the latter become more and more concerned with maintaining their profession’s turf.  Ironically, the educational establishment which dispenses the knowledge required to practice a profession gets away with ignoring both licensing authorities and professional societies.


While what follows may seem like a digression, stick with me.  It’s not.


As I may have mentioned before, New York, like other states has something called the “industrial exemption” for the practice of engineering.  That is, a manufacturing concern like, say, General Electric, is not required to be headed by a licensed design professional, even though the products designed by their engineers, and offered for sale, have a direct effect upon the public safety. This is because of a form of legal schizophrenia which says it’s all right to do something which harms the public if your pockets are deep enough to pay compensation after the fact.


Isn’t that just peachy?


I’m licensed to prevent harm to the public but GE and GM can maim you so long as they can pay what wages you would have made prior to being disabled, or for a nice funeral plus the absent wages in case you don’t make it, with, in either case, a suitable additional financial penalty to teach them a lesson.


So here I am, licensed in the states of New York and Connecticut, doing a bit of a tap dance to become licensed in New Jersey because, horror of horrors, New York allowed me to take the licensing examination without first having had the benefit of a formal college engineering education.  That they can allow such is related to the fact that Federal rather than State licensure of any profession would make things worse.  Building Codes and other laws vary from region to region in response to environment, as do licensing requirements.


But; never mind that the exam I took is the same one given by virtually every state in the union, nor that I passed it on the first attempt after having been notified by New York State that I could sit for it, in a sudden reversal of their original position,  only 4 days before the exam was being given.  Never mind that I watched graduate engineers take and fail the exam over and over again when I was with Bechtel in the early sixties.


I’d been so humbled shortly after I’d become licensed that I wrote a letter to the editor of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) periodical, Engineering Times, adding my two cents to the discussion of an article they’d published on licensure without a degree, that whole the point of the examination was to demonstrate that what you claimed to have learned actually “took.”


Attorneys make sure that I’m licensed before they approach me about acting as an expert witness or as a consultant, but unlicensed PhD university faculty members do it every day, figuring, I guess, their PhD is kinda like the industrial exemption.  Yeah, and there’s no reason for MD’s to go through an internship after they’ve completed medical school.


NSPE is in fact exploring finding ways to get engineering faculty licensed without the hassle of internship/examination, but you will find faculty already licensed in direct relationship to the kind of engineering they teach, with most civil engineering faculty licensed and few electrical engineering faculty licensed.


It begins to seem as though the engineering profession is becoming viewed more and more as the meal ticket usually ascribed to a skilled trade, what with engineers so concerned about their jobs being taken away by immigrants on H1b visas and faculty pushing for immaculate licensure.


A little less concern with process, privilege, and turf, and a little more with competence would do us all good.

Next Issue