Civil engineering as a profession

Judgment distinguishes professionals from technical expert

The word engine comes from the same root Latin word as ingenious. The original meaning of the word engine was more like, “cunning, clever” or “the product of ingenuity.”

Originally, “engineering” was synonymous with military engineering — i.e., the design and construction of fortifications and the siege engines necessary to overcome them. Civil engineering is called such to distinguish it from military engineering, and consequently civil engineers work in the service of civil society — i.e., public works, such as roads, bridges, dams, and waterworks or treatment plants.

The origins of Civil Engineering date back to Britain in 18th century. However, recognition of civil engineering as a formal program of study and a professional discipline in the United States came much later. The first civil engineering degrees were awarded by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1835. The first Ph.D. in engineering was awarded to J Willard Gibbs by Yale University in 1863.

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This cross-section of the Erie Canal (completed in 1825) shows how water flows from Lake Erie in Buffalo NY, thru the channels and locks of the canal, down to the Hudson River at Troy NY. The success of the canal made New York City the financial capital of the Western Hemisphere.

Geographically, RPI was advantageously located in Troy NY, the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, the northern-most portion of the Hudson River still influenced by ocean tides, and proximate to the Military Academy at West Point, where military engineering was already established as a program of study. The economic and social success of the Erie Canal had enormous consequences for the development of civil engineering as a profession, the expansion of powers of central government authorities, and the ascendance of New York City to the position it now enjoys as the financial center of the Western Hemisphere.

By the early 20th century, engineering became a licensed profession. As then, licenses to practice engineering are now granted by the individual states. Requirements vary between states (as they do for driver’s licenses), but in general license applications are acted upon by a State Board of Professional Engineers who judge the qualifications of individual applicants. Some combination of education (typically from an ABET accredited program) and practical design experience is required to be eligible for licensure. Additionally, applicants are required to pass two exams: the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam (typically first attempted in the senior year of an undergraduate engineering program), and the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam.

The argument for licensing usually hinges upon protection of public safety, as incompetent engineers might put the public at serious risk. However, one additional practical consequence is to create barriers to entry that keep the number of engineers smaller, thereby increasing market rates that professional engineers may charge, and increasing the prestige associated with belonging. Therefore, professional engineers have an incentive to self-police their own ranks. Failing to punish “bad apples” would put at risk the privileges and subsidies enjoyed by the entire profession.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) published a Code of Ethics to which all engineers are expected to adhere. Not surprisingly, paramount among the professional obligations of an engineer is the protection of public safety. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a code that is similar to the NSPE, as do other disciplinary-specific professional societies.

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Most graduates of engineering education programs never become fully licensed. Rates are highest among Civil Engineers, but even then less than half of all graduates from ABET accredited programs eventually become fully credentialed Professional Engineers (PE). The high rate among civil engineers is likely due to the fact that many civil engineers are directed funded by government contracts (e.g., for design of public works) that require the work to be performed (or directly supervised) by a PE, who will stamp the design drawings. By contrast, an electrical or computer engineer working on the design of a new microchip may gain no advantage from licensure, since the same requirement does not exist.

One of the defining characteristics of a profession is the expectation that practitioners (i.e., professionals) are able to set aside their own individual self-interest, and act for the benefit of others. Professionals are expected to acquire and apply expertise. As a result of having both a higher moral purpose and their expertise, professionals are typically empowered to exercise judgment, which we can understand as the knowledge to act in the absence of rules or guidelines (or when to break those rules).

This video from Dr. Michael Loui, from the University of Illinois explores the question, “What is engineering?” and whether engineering is a profession.

Professions are characterized by expertise, license standards, standards of conduct, and self-governance.

Dr. Loui emphasizes the role of expertise, ethical standards of conduct, and self-governance in defining a profession. Nonetheless, these distinctions impress me as too simplistic. For example, marriage requires a license. Fishing requires a license. Driving requires a license. None of these are recognized as professions, so licensing standards are insufficient to define a profession. None of Dr. Loui’s characteristics of a profession are sufficient to distinguish a profession when each is considered individually. So perhaps Dr. Loui would claim that it is in combination that these characteristics define a profession.

Instead, notice that he mentions judgment as one of the critical characteristics of a profession. But what does judgment mean? An how does judgment separate a professional from a technician (i.e., someone with specialized knowledge and skills, but lacking the authority and expertise to make judgments)?

Judgment is not exhibited in strict adherence to rules (or codes), but in understanding when those rules and codes either don’t apply, need to be broken, or are inadequate.

While all of these characteristics are present in professions, they do not define the profession. Rather, what distinguishes a professional from an expert technician is judgment. Professionals are expected to have expert judgment and deploy it. Mere technicians are not granted any such responsibility.

Judgment is knowing when to break the rules.

That is, a professional is aware of the rules, but has the authority and wisdom to break them in the service of some higher good. Technicians do not.

Also, Dr. Loui makes a distinction between the old adage, “The customer is always right” and the obligation of a professional to advance the client’s best interest over their own. This is the most important distinguishing feature of a profession — the professional is expected to set aside their own interests (such as profit) and work in the interest of society. In return, they enjoy a privileged position within that society (so long as they uphold the implied social contract).

In this video, Dr. Loui shows how ethical responsibilities don’t always align with legal responsibilities. Nor are ethical failures always attributable to single individuals. Sometimes failures occur at a larger, systemic level. This includes the responsibility of an engineer to accept responsibilities that have not been specifically assigned to them.

I experienced a situation very similar to the example Dr. Loui describes in the video above. On a job interview while I was in graduate school, I was touring labs at a University where I was hoping to secure a job offer. During the tour, I noticed their compressed air tanks were not tied off. It’s an obvious safety violation. I pointed this out to the faculty member hosting the tour.

I didn’t get the offer.

Nonetheless, my self-interest in making a good impression on the search committee should not supplant my professional obligation to protect the safety of the students working in the lab. Here’s Dr. Loui on conflicts of interest.

Because engineers (as professionals) are required to exercise judgment, they must avoid situations in which their judgment is subject to question. That is, they must avoid the perception that they are acting in their own self-interest, rather than the interests of their clients. It undermines the social contract, and thus risks damaging the privilege enjoyed by all engineering professionals.

In the last video in this post, Dr. Loui makes a distinction between ethical decisions, rather than technical or other kinds of decisions.

There are several philosophical approaches to moral reasoning and they do not always agree. The conflict between different moral ideas is a popular basis for comedy. The famously successful television series’ Seinfeld and M*A*S*H were based on exploration of moral issues. Professional ethics education typically focuses on the duties or obligations of the professional to society.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind. If it does not involve personal risk, or sacrifice on the part of the decision-maker, it’s not a moral decision. For example, if you are getting paid to do the “right” thing, then this hardly constitutes a test of your moral character.

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