Structural Engineering Licensure: Critical to Our Future

While certain jurisdictions of the U.S. have had structural engineering (SE) licensure separate from the more generic professional engineering (PE) licensure for over a century, an industry-wide promotion of SE licensure has gained momentum in the past several years. The authors, as strong proponents of SE licensure, wish to reinforce the critical nature of this movement to our future.

The U.S. Constitution does not grant federal jurisdiction over professional licensure, so this issue falls to the individual states. In the majority of states, structural engineers practice through professional engineering (PE) licenses. In most states, a PE may perform structural engineering to the extent he or she feels qualified to do so. Eleven states have some form of SE Practice Act. (A Practice Act limits the practice of structural engineering on certain types of structures to engineers holding SE licensure.) Another eight states have SE Title Acts. (A Title Act permits PEs and CEs who meet specific SE requirements to use the title Structural Engineer, but it does not otherwise restrict or regulate practice beyond what a PE or CE can do.)

Formed in 2012, the Structural Engineering Licensure Coalition (SELC), a partnership of the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (SEI), the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA), the Structural Engineering Certification Board (SECB), and the Council of American Structural Engineers of the American Council of Engineering Companies (CASE), seeks to promote SE licensure. SELC does not propose federal SE licensure, but rather encourages the states’ adoption of SE licensure as a post-PE credential.

The need for separate SE licensure is a recognition of the explosion in the volume of structural engineering knowledge necessary to practice competently. One need only compare the 636 pages of ASCE/SEI 7-10 to its slim predecessor ANSI A58.1-1972 or the same explosion in the size of AASHTO’s highway bridge design code to appreciate the impact. We are, by necessity, more specialized and complex today.

Most of the arguments for SE licensure have focused on the current state of our profession. Equally important, if not more so, are future realities. As demanding as our profession is today, it’s getting rapidly ever more demanding.

Largely enabled by advances in technology, engineers are designing increasingly creative, complex, and sophisticated structures. As an example, straight lines and right angles have given way to compound curves and complex geometries that engage three-dimensional systems of structural elements supporting loads in ways not experienced in common beam-and-column structures. Structural systems are more daring, demanding a commensurate escalation of engineering skills.

The adoption of SE licensure on the west-coast, many years ago, was driven by the specialized skill set needed to design structures to resist severe earthquakes. Today, seismic design is substantially more complex and has been adopted broadly in the U.S. At the same time, we recognize the importance of terrorist threats, climate change, flooding, tsunamis, tornados, and hurricanes that require advanced structural considerations, such as analysis for nonlinear response or impact loading, which were not common even a few decades ago. The need to address extreme events is no longer a west-coast phenomenon. It is commonplace throughout the U.S.

The sustainability imperative is driving more resource-efficient approaches to our design. The demand for more materially efficient, optimized structures is enabled by advances in technology and requires a more detailed understanding of the performance of construction materials than commonly held by engineers of the past. Also, highly efficient structures will be less forgiving for unforeseen threats. As such, structural engineers need a higher understanding of the performance of complex structures and increased precision in their analysis to maintain reliability.

One of the antidotes for overly complex, prescriptive codes and an enabler of creative, sustainable design is performance-based design (PBD). Performance-based seismic design has become more commonplace. Performance-based fire design has been practiced on an ad-hoc basis for many years. An appendix to upcoming ASCE 7-16 will introduce performance-based fire design to the code system. Recently SEI formed a new Board Level Committee to encourage the broad application of PBD to various loadings and forms of structural response. PBD requires an understanding of structural behavior beyond that necessary to design using prescriptive codes, mastery of risk assessment, and the strong ability to communicate performance expectations with stakeholders.

We must develop a more common basis for structural engineering registration in the U.S. to recognize the realities of the 21st Century. Many U.S. structural engineers work throughout the country, and globally, diminishing the reasons for regional qualifications. Lack of more uniform acceptance of structural engineering qualifications is wasteful and discourages market efficiencies. The U.S. “national” building codes, once fractionalized on a regional basis, successfully unified into a single nationally applicable code and that has improved our industry.

Whether engineers work globally or locally, most of their design and construction projects today have international influence. In the U.S., we face competition from offshore engineers. Such competition will not abate. At the same time, we have tremendous opportunities to contribute to the great need for a sustainably built environment across the world. We must become global players. Global presence will require structural engineers to be experts in regulatory, political, economic, cultural, language, and construction practices in societies very different from our own.

The global structural engineering community understands that it must become globally interoperable. The United Kingdom, through the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE), has had separate SE licensure (Chartering) for about a century. In pursuit of a global engineering platform, IStructE has been successful in promoting its Charter credential as an international standard. If we, as a U.S. structural engineering community, are to have our rightful place in the international community, we must have uniform SE licensure in the U.S. and join the movement for a global structural engineering platform.

Take a moment to step back from the din of the current debate and reflect on where our profession has been, where it is today, and where we need to go in the future. It is clear we meet our obligation to society and secure our future if we have a credential that demonstrates our mastery of the exploding knowledge required to perform structural engineering. The qualifications to hold a PE alone do not suffice. SE licensure is critical for structural engineers to demonstrate that they have the broad knowledge, creativity, and innovation necessary to serve society, now and in the future.▪

About the author  ⁄ Glenn R. Bell, P.E., S.E., SECB

Glenn R. Bell, P.E., S.E., SECB (info@sgh.com), is the Chief Executive Officer at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Comments posted to STRUCTURE website do not constitute endorsement by NCSEA, CASE, SEI, C3 Ink, or the Editorial Board.

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Paul
    June 29, 2016

    How come I can drive in all 50 states and territories of the USA,the provinces of Canada, states in Mexico, but have to pay each state a license when they all use IBC which then is using ASCE 7-10, AISC, ACI, NDS, etc?
    I see it is an unnecessary tax and disagree with Mr. Bell’s constitutional argument. It is a restraint of free trade between the states that only the federal government should regulate.

  • Reply
    John
    June 29, 2016

    I support Glenn’s position. Professional services are becoming a major issue in World Trade Organization trade treaties. The U.S. is hindered by states’ rights on licensing but where states cannot sign international treaties. There are already GAT treaty complaints against the U.S. from the EU on architects and medics licensing.

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