By Paul Darnbrough PE, CAP
Stop me if you’ve heard this one… A doctor, a lawyer and a controls engineer are led to the guillotine for various professional crimes. The doctor is first in line, but the falling blade jams halfway. The executioner spares the man, declaring divine intervention. The lawyer is second in line, but again the falling blade sticks and the man is spared. Finally, the controls engineer is marched up, but before he enters the device he looks up, points and says, “I see your problem, it’s right there in the actuator…”
Engineers tend to help themselves less than other professionals do. Everyone is familiar with the rigorous schooling and exams that doctors, lawyers and accountants must pass before practicing, and few would argue for any easier benchmark. Certification and licensing for control systems practitioners is not as widely known, but they’re no less important for these professionals, the companies they work for and the public at large.
Why Do You Need Professional Credentials?
Every profession wants to improve its practitioners’ technical competence, and the process of obtaining credentials helps achieve that goal. In addition to familiarizing professionals with applicable codes and standards, this process contributes to better practices, results in safer designs, increases breadth of understanding and improves standardization and efficiency.
The process also benefits employees and employers. Potential employees gain a documented means to demonstrate their qualifications to potential employers. Employers have some assurance of the competence for new hires, and they can represent qualifications of credentialed employees to customers.
Certification and licensing work in conjunction with a formal education and work experience to provide a level of personal prestige in industry. Furthermore, they encourage an employment structure where senior personnel provide training for newer employees along with a means to hand down practical experience. The Professional Engineering (PE) process, in particular, requires senior PEs to provide references for engineers planning to take the test.
To PE or Not to PE
PE licensure was first developed around a century ago at the state level to ensure that public works were designed safely. Today the major PE disciplines parallel university engineering degrees: civil, electrical, and mechanical.
Though PE licenses are state-specific, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying represents and administers the examination process across the U.S. To obtain a PE, a person generally needs to get a four-year degree in the selected field, pass a Fundamentals of Engineering exam, obtain six years of professional experience under the direction of another PE, and pass a Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.
When you obtain your PE license in one state, you will often find that a path called comity will enable expedited licensing in other states. Once obtained, the PE can be renewed for life, although some states require continuing education units.
The PE license is a legal right to practice in a certain area of expertise. The title “engineer” is legally protected in many states, and usually a company offering engineering services must have a PE in a position of responsibility.
The major PE disciplines are called practice acts, meaning that persons holding these licenses also have the authority to sign and seal engineering drawings. Government engineering employees may be required to have a PE, and engineering work performed for government agencies usually requires a PE stamp.
Controls Systems Engineering (CSE) is not one of the primary PE fields, but instead is a fairly recent development available in many, but not all states. It is focused on process control topics and is supported by the ISA.
However, the CSE PE is called a title act, meaning that persons receiving this PE can use the title but have no authority for signing documents and drawings.
This brings us to another professional certification, the ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP). The CAP is a relative newcomer, but it has the goal of defining the control systems professional. As with the PE, the CAP is also intended for persons working at the highest levels in their field.
While the CSE PE focuses on process control, the CAP targets a wider range of automation topics to demonstrate competence in the entire field. As detailed on the ISA web site, the control systems domains include feasibility study, definition, system design, development, deployment, and operation and maintenance.
The technical fields covered include continuous control, discrete control, reliability, safety, integration, software, maintenance, start-up, and engineering work structures. Economics and estimates are also covered.
Where the PE requires a four-year engineering degree, the CAP is open to those with a four-year technical degree so that physics, math and other similar majors may apply. There is also a path for two-year degree holders with extensive documented industry experience to obtain the CAP.
One final difference is that the ISA CAP bills itself as a worldwide program, which may be important to certain companies or industries. The PE, on the other hand, is specific to the United States, although many countries around the world offer similar engineering licensure.
Is the PE Worth It?
The PE is the most widely recognized credential, with the CSE PE most directly applicable to the control systems field and the Electrical PE a close second. In reality, almost no control systems work truly requires a PE stamp, yet obtaining a PE is a valuable demonstration of an engineer’s training and experience.