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Mandatory Continuing Education

Canon 7 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics reads as follows: “Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.” Category (a) in the guidelines to practice for this canon states that “engineers should keep current in their specialty fields by engaging in professional practice, participating in continuing education courses, reading in the technical literature, and attending professional meetings and seminars.” The contrast between these two provisions—the first making professional development an ethical obligation, the second listing particular types of continuing education as recommendations rather than requirements—mirrors the debate over mandatory continuing education for civil engineers, a debate that has persisted in the civil engineering community for more than four decades.

Although state licensure of civil engineers can be traced back to 1907, it was not until the late 1960s that the concept of mandatory continuing education gained popularity in state legislatures. Scandals in the health care and other professions were undermining public confidence in the competence of licensed professionals, and states began to give serious thought to the idea that the public interest might be best served if they supplemented the requirements for initial licensure with requirements for continuing professional development. In 1970 the California State Senate asked its Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors to issue an opinion on the subject of mandatory continuing education, and at least three other states set up groups to reexamine state licensing procedures for engineers and other professionals.

Continuing education has long been a central focus of the civil engineering community as a means through which practition-ers can share information, stay informed of changes and advances in their fields, and advance the science of engineering. In fact ASCE was established in part as a forum for continuing education; the Society’s 1852 constitution listed “professional improvement of its members” as a business objective of the organization and stated its intent to support that goal by, among other measures, providing for “periodical meetings for the reading of professional papers and the discussion of scientific subjects.”

But the concept of regulating continuing education met with strong resistance from the Society and the profession at large. Many argued that, both for ethical reasons and as part of sound business practice, engineers already had ample reason to seek continuing education and that regulations on professional development would do no more than codify what the profession was already undertaking on its own. They observed that state licensing boards were struggling to manage the task of licensing new professional engineers and expressed doubt that these boards could handle the extra administrative burden of certifying that continuing education requirements had been met. Above all, they challenged the idea that a mere statement of hours spent attending a seminar or course could demonstrate an engineer’s competence and questioned whether such regulations would serve any benefit in policing the profession.

In 1975 the Board of Direction approved a formal policy stating that continuing education should not be required for relicensure. At a time when only a third of all civil engineers held a valid professional license, ASCE believed its resources would be better used in promoting registration of engineers and expanding the reach of state laws that set baseline standards of education and experience for practicing engineers. It was feared that continuing education requirements might discourage those who were considering professional registration, and in the eyes of the Society leadership, increasing the number of engineers seeking professional licensure was of greater value to the public than establishing new requirements for those who had already become licensed.

Notwithstanding these objections, continuing education became a requirement for some practicing engineers in 1977, when Iowa became the first state to pass legislation mandating it. On the recommendation of a committee established in that state to study professional and occupational licensing, the Iowa legislature made formal continuing education a requirement for the renewal of all professional and occupational licenses issued by the state. Thus not only architects and engineers but also those in other fields of endeavor—for example, watchmakers and barbers—were affected. Professional engineers were required to spend 15 hours a year attending technical meetings, training seminars, or similar courses.

Although continuing education classes in Iowa saw a significant increase in attendance and supporters of the legislation pointed to this surge as proof that continuing education regulations would strengthen the profession, there was little increase in continuing education regulation for well over a decade. It was not until the early 1990s that a second state, Alabama, imposed mandatory continuing education requirements on licensed engineers. This time, however, other state legislatures were quick to follow suit. By 1993, 2 other states had joined Iowa and Alabama in mandating continuing education, a third had implemented a voluntary compliance program, and as many as 10 other states had given notice of their intent to enact legislation requiring continuing education for licensed professional engineers.

In 1994 ASCE’s Committee on Professional Development approached the Board of Direction with a recommendation for reconsidering its stance on mandatory continuing education, and in April of that year, the Board approved Policy 425 (“Continuing Professional Development”). Citing the engineer’s ethical obligation to continue his or her professional development and the calls both in state legislatures and in the international community for measurable indicators of an engineer’s competence, this policy proclaimed ASCE’s support of “demonstrat[ing] continuing professional development as a condition for relicensure.”

As of January 2009, some 32 states have made continuing education certification a requirement for the relicensing of engineers, and 2 others, Virginia and Wisconsin, have passed legislation requiring continuing education for licensed engineers and are now drafting regulations to implement the laws. ASCE’s Policy 425 (renamed “Uniform Continuing Professional Development for Licensure”), last amended in May 2008, reaffirms ASCE’s support of state-mandated continuing education and recommends “uniformity of continuing professional development requirements among licensing jurisdictions.”

It is worth noting that while many of the states regulating continuing education state that engineers may receive credit for training that is “technical, ethical, or managerial,” only three states—Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana—expressly require some form of ethics training as part of a professional engineer’s continuing education requirements. As a long-time proponent of ethics education for engineers, ASCE supports state-mandated training in this area. Policy 376 (“Ethics Training for Continued Licensure”), adopted by the Board of Direction in 2007, notes that “professional ethics is the cornerstone of engineering practice” and recommends that state boards require professional engineers to take a minimum of one hour of ethics training per year.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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