Engineering Competency and Areas of Expertise
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What does it mean to be competent or an expert? It may seem like a straightforward question, but there are many different ways of answering this.
Competency is a very important concept in engineering. An engineer who does not have the necessary expertise to perform certain tasks may put public safety at risk, and this can lead to legal problems or loss of license.
This article will help you understand what competency means in the engineering profession, how you can assess your level of expertise, and what you can do if you feel that your level of competence is insufficient for certain practice areas.
Determining Competency and Expertise
How can you determine if you are competent to perform engineering services in a subject area? This is a fundamental requirement of every state engineering board’s canon of ethics.
What is the best way for an engineer to see if they are competent? They might ask themselves a few questions:
- What do other people think of my skills and abilities
- What do I do at work each day
- Am I known as an expert by my peers
- What would a review of my body of work reveal
The answers to these questions provide a strong indication of whether you are an expert. If your colleagues respect your abilities and seek your advice in a particular area, then you likely meet the competency requirement.
If your daily work and overall experience don’t make a compelling case that you are an expert, then you should beef up your credentials. You can do this by working with an expert to improve your skills or completing a University course in the subject area.
Education, training, and experience are three ways that a competent person obtains his or her qualifications. Experience can be an excellent teacher as long as it is obtained under the supervision of a competent professional. Some people do better than others in this area because they learn quickly through education and mentoring with an experienced professional to guide them along their career path.
A Professional Engineer’s licensing credentials provide assurance to the public that they have the qualifications and expertise to provide services in a safe and competent manner. A registered engineer has proven his or her minimum competency through a combination of education and experience gained though supervised training, and by passing two rigorous exams. In addition, most state boards require continuing education to maintain competency.
Using the Code of Ethics as a Guide
The NSPE Code of Ethics States the following:
- Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.
- Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields involved.
- Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence.
Let’s break these requirements down further in the following sections.
1. Area of Competence – What does it mean
The first thing we should clarify before discussing how one determines their level of competency as an engineer is what exactly do we mean by “area of competence.” It essentially refers to specific practice areas within which an individual has sufficient knowledge, experience and skill set required for safe performance. For example, a civil engineer would be expected to know everything about building construction from foundation design through
This canon is saying that an engineer should only work on tasks they are qualified to do. This prevents them from trying something outside of their expertise, which might not go as planned or cause harm in some way. It also means we can trust engineers with a given task because they limit their work to areas where they have a high degree of skill and expertise.
2. What does qualified mean
A professional engineer must be competent in their specific field of engineering before they can take on a project.
Competency is determined by the area in which you are working and can vary depending on the profession. For example, someone who has worked for 10 years in a field might have more experience than another person with 5 years of work experience. An expert is typically someone that has amassed knowledge and experience from their work as well as outside sources such as conferences or seminars.
Engineers should not perform services in areas where they lack the knowledge or skills to do so.
3. What is acceptable education and experience
The canon of ethics allows engineers to gain their expertise through education or experience. Most people interpret this to also mean some combination of education and experience.
Many state engineering boards have indicated that education includes the following:
- formal education such as college or graduate school
- professional seminars
- technical courses in a subject area
What counts as “experience that contributes to being competent” is difficult to define. Many engineers ask if the experience must be under the supervision of a competent professional engineer, or whether they could perform the work on their own. If an engineer made a mistake and no one pointed it out, they would be learning the wrong way of performing their job.
Generally, it is probably best to take a conservative approach to this question. The preferred experience is gained under the direction of a competent supervisor. However, it is reasonable to count work experience done independently if it was peer reviewed by a subject matter expert.
Engineering Continuing Education and Competency
Does continuing education improve engineering competency?
Most state engineering boards believe it does, which is why they require PEs to earn professional development hour credits every year. Currently, 46 states require engineers to complete continuing education courses as part of license renewal. This indicates they see the value of ongoing training to having a competent profession.
The consensus of engineers also believes technical training helps them maintain their skills and learn new things as well. In a 2015 survey conducted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, nearly 90% said they feel continuing education is essential to improving their knowledge and skills.
States that Restrict Practice to Engineering Discipline on License
Several states limit professional engineers to only practice engineering in their specific discipline. California, for example, restricts engineers to providing services in the engineering discipline listed on their license. This is done, in part to ensure engineers only work in their area of competence. Other states, like New Jersey, leave the question of competence to the individual engineer.
Final Take on Engineer Competency
Engineers have a responsibility to only provide services within their area of expertise. This is one of the most important moral obligations owed by engineers to society.
Competence is gained through education, experience, or a combination of the two. It is important for engineers to constantly assess their skills and expertise to ensure they are practicing within their area of competence.
This factor has been critical to the strong sense of trust the general public has in engineers and the profession of engineering.