PE Registration Versus ISA CAP Certification

Oct. 10, 2008
Professional Engineers or Certified Automation Professional, Which Certification Is Best?

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.

Captivating Alternative

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.
My electrical PE has been valuable in my career. Those in the industry appreciate the effort involved in becoming licensed and many projects require a PE on staff.

My position as control systems engineering manager at KDC Systems has rarely called for me to stamp electrical drawings, but I constantly apply engineering principles in our work. Core members of our controls group include Mechanical PEs and Canadian PEs, and they bring exceptional value to our work.

I don’t hold a PE in control systems, but a former colleague of mine does. Control senior technical editor Dan Hebert, PE, says, “I passed the California Control Systems PE exam in the mid-1990s. I found the exam to be difficult, but quite fair, as it tested for real-world practical experience rather than theoretical knowledge.”

“I obtained a Louisiana Electrical Engineering PE a few years later. Because of comity, I only had to take a simple exam concerning principles and practices, with no technical test required,” adds Hebert.

“I wanted to get a PE because of its industry-wide recognition. I also needed it so that I could get licensed in other states,”  says Hebert. “For me, the benefits of the PE have exceeded the time and trouble required to obtain the certification.”

Should You Get a CAP?

With ISA’s backing, and a system that allows qualified people from many technical backgrounds to take the test, there is every reason to believe the CAP will continue to gain momentum. It offers an option that works specifically for the process control industries.

In my case, the CAP was another avenue for professional development. Studying for the test was a valuable way to revisit topics I don’t use on a daily basis and to identify areas where I needed improvement. The CAP tested me on topics outside of those covered by the electrical PE, but still key to a successful automation career.

Gerald Wilbanks, PE, vice-president at Documentation & Engineering Services in Birmingham, Ala., and member of the ISA CAP Steering Team, has produced a CSE PE study series for the ISA. He says, “CAP certification is a personal and professional attainment that provides documentation and clear proof that an individual has the tools and knowledge to work in the varied areas of automation. It has filled a true need by providing recognition for individual achievement for those who may or not be engineers.”

What’s Best for You?

Each person must decide which certification, if any, is more applicable to his or her work intent and career development. It is desirable to become both a PE and a CAP.

I would always encourage degreed engineers to pursue the PE in their discipline as soon as possible in their career. If you know you are focusing on the process control industries, then the CSE PE is a good option to obtain an official engineer title. However, keep in mind the possible limitations of the CSE PE not being a full practice act.

Likewise, obtaining the CAP should be a goal of all automation professionals. If you are already targeting the PE, then the CAP can be obtained concurrently or later. There is no downside to achieving widely accepted and high quality credentials in the control systems field. 

Paul Darnbrough PE, CAP, Engineering Manager,
KDC Systems,


Technical disciplines always cover a range of subjects, but the control systems field is particularly wide-ranging. Even a straightforward control system design requires proficiency with physical processes, mechanical equipment, electrical power distribution, control panel design, instrument and valve selection, and much more.

The work must be performed in compliance with a variety of codes, standards, and regulations, and the design must be drawn and documented, test plans created and executed, and field commissioning performed.

Doctors, lawyers and accountants enter their professions by way of specific higher-level education and degrees. Control systems professionals, on the other hand, follow a variety of paths. Some are degreed electrical, mechanical or chemical engineers who gravitate to controls. Others are mechanics, maintenance personnel or technicians who become proficient with one type of equipment and then expand into other types or gain expertise with associated computer software.

Universities typically do not offer control systems degrees, and when they do, they are often math-based specialties or minors of other degrees. There is value in having a theoretical understanding of control algorithms, but much of the actual work in industry revolves around applying commercial off-the-shelf components to offer a complete solution.

How do you certify such a profession? The goal of the CSE PE and the CAP is to answer this question.