"I Have a Job, Therefore I Am?"
By Bruce Peachey, P.Eng.
One of the toughest questions most engineers have to ask themselves throughout their careers is: "Am I competent to do this type of work?" In many cases, the answer will be a clear-cut "No", in other cases, a clear-cut "Yes", and likely a good deal more often it will be "Maybe". Over the past few years, a lot of effort has gone into discussions of how competency is measured, regulated and verified. One of the most common responses is that, if you are employed or people hire you to do engineering work then you must be competent. In the majority of cases this is true, but other possibilities do exist.
If you are employed, you are perceived to be competent at something that is of greater value than your compensation. It may not be engineering, even if that is implied in your job description or title. Part of the test of engineering competency is whether or not the work you do is engineering. Many corporate presidents, engineering managers or plant managers of companies may be engineers by education and past experience, and are definitely employed and contributing something of value, but are they still competent engineers after years of dealing with financial, legal, organizational management and business strategies? If they leave the executive or management role, can they pick up where they left off doing engineering design?
In some cases, the perceived value of a contribution may be too high, and this situation can persist until some disaster or significant event occurs. Engineering specialists can be highly valued by an employer, because they come in on weekends, work unpaid overtime, or defer vacation to solve problems that arise, or the work is too complex for the employer to assess acceptable performance. However, to someone who understands the standards of competent work in that field, it may be obvious that the specialists need additional skills, knowledge or assistance to properly do the work. This does not mean that these engineers intentionally are doing work they know they are not qualified to do, but they may be unaware that their capabilities are below the current standards of others in the same field. The purpose of lifelong learning and professional practice processes is to help identify and remedy problems before they damage the employer, the public, or the engineers career.
Engineers in training, changing jobs, returning to active practice, or just adjusting to technological change require some method of ensuring that competency is established, re-established or maintained so that employment will continue. Losing a job because you have not achieved or maintained competency is a poor indicator of a need to test or expand your capabilities. Maintaining competency may mean returning to school, finding a mentor more active or advanced in a specific area of practice, or just testing your competency against your peers. The value of continuing competency processes is to qualitatively test the components of the system, including the engineers, and trigger preventative actions, rather than waiting until a disaster occurs.
The degree of regulation, checking and bureaucracy associated with any assessment process is always a concern and needs to be subject to value tests as well. Spending large amounts of your working time on competency issues is very appropriate if you are designing a hydrogen sulfide plant, but could be overkill if you are a QA engineer for the manufacture of plastic tent pegs. Clients employing an engineer to design a hydrogen sulphide plant also need to look for some outside assurances that the designers involved are competent, and that the design process has sufficient checks and balances to ensure that a safe plant is the result. The client may not be familiar enough with the process being designed to assess the acceptability of the work themselves. Firing the design engineer after a major H2S release is hardly a satisfactory result for anyone.
So, the competency issue is not, and never will be, something that can be reduced to a simple, black-and-white indicator, such as whether or not someone is employed. The very complexity of the issue is why it is important for decisions and input on professional or technical competency be made by engineering peers, through formal professional engineering associations, or through the informal networking and educational processes of technical societies (such as the CSChE). If we do not do this ourselves, then it will be left to politicians, the media, lawyers, judges and the weight of public perception to judge our competency whenever a negative event occurs. Which process is likely to provide the best result and meet the needs of both the public and the individual engineers?
Bruce Peachey can be reached at by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org