Is a professional engineer license worth it?
Just as the CPA defines the accountant, and a medical license defines the doctor, the PE license is a distinction that sets apart a licensed registered professional engineer.
Not just anyone can use the suffix “P.E.”.
It’s the highest standard of competence in the engineering profession—denoting high levels of authority and responsibility.
Legally, engineers require a P.E. license to work as an engineering consultant or senior engineer, testify as an expert witness, conduct patent work, work in public safety, or advertise to provide services.
With it also comes the privilege to use the P.E. seal or stamp, a symbol of expertise and an assurance of quality to both peers and the public.
All states and territories in the US have laws regulating each method of identification. These requirements are fairly uniform, but they consist of a few variations in education, experience, and examination criteria.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the critical guidelines involving these two essential elements of practicing as an engineer in the US.
Professional Engineer Licensing
Every engineer is required to be individually licensed before practicing or soliciting business. This is the stipulation in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
Each state has its own rules and requirements, but the prerequisites for registration are somewhat standard.
Potential licensees typically need to fulfill some, or all, of the following requirements:
- A four-year engineering degree from an institution approved by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
- Successful completion of the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) written examination. This exam is administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). It is also referred to as the Engineer in Training (EIT) exam in some states.
- Successful completion of a Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. Also offered by the NCEES, this exam is designed for engineers who have gained a minimum of four years' post-college engineering experience in their chosen engineering discipline.
- At least four years of active practice, under the supervision of a professional engineer, in their chosen field. Those without an ABET-accredited degree must prove eight years of engineering experience.
State boards of engineering may sometimes waive the requirement of an ABET-accredited degree or the FE exam.
This is usually in the case of applicants who attained their degree out of the country, or those who have demonstrated experience deemed equivalent to a degree in engineering.
In Texas, for example, an individual can request a waiver if they have a supplemental record documenting at least:
- Eight years of creditable experience—with an ABET or EAC accredited degree.
- 12 years of creditable experience—with a non-accredited degree.
- Five references from licensed professional engineers supporting the supplementary experience record.
- Engineering educator experience that meets the state board’s standards.
Registration in Multiple States
Many engineers find they need to practice in multiple states and territories in the span of their careers. In this case, they can seek reciprocal registration.
Reciprocity or licensure by comity is when a registered engineer in one jurisdiction applies for registration in another by providing documentation that he or she meets that jurisdiction's registration requirements.
To do this, engineers compile all licensure credentials under the NCEES Records program. These can then be submitted directly to the licensing board by the NCEES on their behalf, simplifying the process and saving time.
On top of the above standard licensing prerequisites, some states have additional stipulations that an engineer must fulfill before they can be licensed.
These may include:
- Duration of residency in the state you seek to be registered.
- A reference from a licensed engineer.
- Duration of internship or training.
- Additional experience on top of the standard four or eight years.
- Successful completion of extra jurisdiction-specific exams (beyond the FE and PE).
For example, in Florida, an engineer must provide three references from professional engineers in addition to meeting education, exam, and experience requirements.
Exemptions For Practicing
On the other hand, not all engineers who practice are licensed.
This is because most states have clauses that allow non-licensed engineers to practice. In fact, probably half of the country's 450,000 PEs work in exempt industries.
These exemptions vary across territories, but common provisions include:
- Those who have a limited permit allowing them to practice for a specific time period, or on a specific project.
- Engineers who are employed by, or provide engineering services to the county, city, or federal government.
- People who have been employed by an individual, firm, partnership, or association, for the employer’s business only.
- Engineering work in some industries such as manufacturing, mining, telecommunications, research, and development—provided the work is connected to the products or services of that corporation.
- Consultants, temporary employees, or contract employees of the organizations mentioned above.
- Engineers who work in the design or fabrication of manufactured products.
Remember, each state follows its own rules of exemption.
Engineers should check the board requirements in the state or territory they plan to practice as the requirements vary.
P.E. Stamp Requirements
First the licensing, then the stamp.
Becoming a licensed engineer means you can use two means of identifying yourself: the use of the suffix P.E. after your name, and your P.E. stamp.
The P.E. stamo is a sensitive document—it affirms that an engineer is responsible for the accuracy and legitimacy of a document.
As such, its use is even more strictly regulated and enforced by state engineering laws.
Physical P.E Stamp Requirements
An engineer needs a good quality P.E. stamp. But first and foremost it must be accurate and up to date with state board requirements.
Requirements for a physical P.E. stamp usually include:
- The diameter of the impression area should be between 1-1/2 to 2 inches, depending on the designation of the engineer.
- The signature and date must be placed across, adjacent, or beneath the stamp.
- The signature and date must not obscure the name of the registered professional or the registration number on the stamp.
- The engineer’s name or initial combination with the surname, as listed with the state board and a hand-written signature.
- The engineer’s license number.
- The engineer’s firm’s name, where applicable.
A professional engineer can physically seal a document with a wet seal or embossing stamp. Any stamp that uses ink is a wet seal.
A physical stamp should be clear and legible whether inked or embossed.
Digital Seal Requirements
Many states allow P.E. seals to be produced and issued electronically.
The seal requirements apply to documents issued in electronic format in the same way they apply to documents printed on paper.
They may also require the following components:
- A digital certificate that confirms the integrity and authenticity of the document by identifying its owner and whether it has been changed or altered from the original.
- Third-party certification from a verification entity such as IdenTrust. Once approved, the authority provides a password-protected digital signature file that can be applied to your documents.
- A secure hash standard (SHA) authentication code generator that authenticates the stamp and prevents the reproduction of the files.
There isn’t an accepted commercial standard protocol for the use of digital signatures in the US as yet. Thus, states regulate and recommend their own stipulations for electronic documents.
Examples of P.E. Seals by State
Take a look at the professional stamp in some states:
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