The earmark that distinguishes a professional engineer is the authority to "sign off" or "stamp" on a design or a structure, thus taking legal responsibility for it.
The term Professional Engineer is a legally protected title; the practice of engineering is protected in both Canada and the United States, and only registered Professional Engineers are allowed to use the title or carry out the work of Engineering. Common equivalents outside these countries include Chartered Engineer and European Engineer.
Post-nominal letters used vary from location:
- P.E. or PE are used in the U.S.
- P.Eng. is used in Canada except the province of Quebec.
- Eng. (French:Ing.) is used in Quebec.
- E.I or EI Engineering Intern (future professional engineers).
- E.I.T. Engineer-In-Training (also future professional engineers).
- CEng and IEng in the UK & Republic of Ireland.
- CPEng in Australia
- Inż. in Poland (pre-nominal letters)
Registration and regulation
Each country or state/province has specific procedures and requirements for the license. The procedure in the US and Canada is significantly different.
In United States registration of engineering is generally done by a state board. The exact procedure can vary from state to state, but the general process is
- graduation with a degree from an accredited program in engineering
- completion of a standard (e.g. "fundamentals of engineering" (FE)) exam which tests on basic courses and some elements of an engineering speciality
- accumulation of some years of experience (typically four) doing engineering work under the supervision of a PE
- completion of a second "principles and practice" exam which tests higher level skills, and knowledge of practice in the specific field that they operate on. This also includes a test on ethics.
Engineers are often only permitted to practice in the areas for which they have passed exams.
In Canada regulation including registration is accomplished through a self governing body (Association of Professional Engineers) that is given the power to register and discipline engineers as well as regulate the field of engineering in their province. Many of these associations are also responsible for regulating other related professions (such as Geoscience). The process for registration is generally as follows:
- graduation with a degree from an accredited program* in engineering or applied science,
- completion of an Engineer in Training program under the direction of a P.Eng. (This is normally a 4 year program)
- review of work experience by the Association,
- pass a professional practice exam (essentially an engineering ethics and law exam).
Engineers are not registered in a specific discipline, but instead are prohibited by the Code of Ethics from practicing beyond their training and experience. Breaches of the Code are often sufficient grounds for Enforcement which may include the suspension or loss of license as well as financial penalties and now, through recent changes to Canadian Law, could also result in jail time should negligence be shown to have played a part in any incident in which there is loss of human life.
The Canadian Engineering Licensing model is unique in that Engineers are not tested on technical knowledge during the licensing process, but instead the accreditation of schools and their accredited degree granting status are tightly monitored and controlled. Unlike many countries where accreditation processes are typically quite broad and simply ensures a low minimum standard, leaving the ultimate testing of the Engineer to the licensing stage, the Canadian system ensures a that a very specific and regimented curriculum is offered and tested with strict accordance to set national standards. This streamlines the overall licensing process and ensures a firm national standard on the quality of Engineering in Canada. This accreditation process is governed by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers through their active group the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board. The accreditation process is continuous and enforced through regular accreditation reviews of each school. These reviews typically include the review of the school's curriculum (including marked final exams and assignments), interviews of current students, extra curricular activities and teaching staff as well additional areas the visiting board may feel need addressing. The specific areas considered are: Curriculum Content, Program Environment, and General Criteria.
Legislatively the Code of Ethics is legally binding on Professional Engineers.