Going Pro - Embedded.com

Going Pro

Like Rodney Dangerfield, electrical engineers don't get the respect they deserve. A lot of people don't regard them as “professionals.” How can engineers change that perception?

The recent introduction of the .PRO top-level Internet domain (short for “professional”) and especially the narrow restrictions placed upon its use have got me thinking: Why don't engineers qualify as professionals? According to the charter of .PRO, only doctors, lawyers, and accountants qualify to register such domains. I couldn't, for example, register the domain MICHAELBARR.PRO and thus market my services as an electrical engineer on the Web.

Why are doctors, lawyers, and accountants considered professionals distinct from other workers? Why aren't engineers, and specifically electrical engineers, members of that elite group? Like doctors, electrical engineers attempt to debug complex systems and proscribe solutions and workarounds that may or may not work. Like lawyers, we're masters of arcane languages and skilled in making stuff work even in the face of seemingly bad precedents. And like accountants, we sit in our cubicles and crunch numbers—and thus make someone else's life easier. All four professions are known to pay well and consist predominantly of white-collar work.

It can't simply be that only doctors, lawyers, and accountants are certified to practice in a particular state, as there are professional licensing examinations and boards for electrical engineers, too. Engineers who've been licensed in this way are generally termed professional engineers (PEs). In some states and other fields of engineering, PE licenses are required for performing related engineering work.

I wonder if it's because electrical engineering as a profession hasn't been around as long? Or perhaps it's that electrical engineers and the role we play in society hasn't, until recently, been as widespread or recognized. In a sense, the empowering of doctors, lawyers, and accountants with the imprimatur of the state—which developed over a long history as the importance of these professions to large numbers of people increased—is what really made them into elite professionals.

Based on the long-term success of the three professional fields cited, it seems like anything engineers could do to be more professional would be good for individual engineers, engineering, and society as a whole. For example, during the current downturn there's been much lament that engineering jobs are disappearing overseas. If, however, it was a requirement that any engineer involved in the design of a safety-critical product (or one simply to be approved by the FDA or FAA or another government agency) be certified, such jobs would be tied to this country.

Another upside of the professionalization of engineering might be the wrenching of the power over engineering out of the hands of corporations and management and into the hands of independent engineering firms. Like law firms, such companies would be skilled in specific areas of engineering and licensed to practice in one or more states.

To accomplish this, of course, greater emphasis needs to be placed on continuing education, engineering ethics, and state licensing. What do you think? Do individual engineers, such as embedded systems designers, have more to gain from state licensing and continuing education than they have to lose? What about society or the greater profession?

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