The licensing of engineers to offer their services to the public is a legal matter regulated by each of the 50 states in the U.S. The purpose of registration law (external link) is to protect the public just as in law and medicine. Not all engineers have to be registered. The nature of an engineer's employment will often decide if registration is necessary. Owning a company that offers engineering services to the public is one example. Some government engineering positions require it. One needs to be registered to serve as an expert engineering witness in court cases. Among other things, being registered means that one is legally liable for their work. At the same time, being registered opens opportunities that non-registered engineers will not have. Click here (external link) to get one opinion on the importance of registration. Another description of licensure can be found here (external link).
It is important to note that licensure is not "accreditation". Accreditation usually signifies the passage of a course or set of courses, or meeting a specific set of criteria, with no other obligations. Licensure entails both legal and professional obligations, the latter governed by a code of ethics (external link).
In North Carolina, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors is the agency responsible for licensing engineers and enforcing registration law. It is funded by fees collected from registered engineers, NOT from taxpayers funds.
Becoming registered is a five-step process:
- Graduation from an ABET-accredited college of engineering. ABET (external link) stands for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
- Passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination. This is an eight-hour exam that is usually taken during the last semester in college. The passage rate if taken at this time is usually above 90% at the top-rated colleges of engineering. The exam can be taken after graduation but the passage rate drops to about 50% or less regardless of where one graduated from. Upon successful completion of the exam, one is considered to be an engineering intern or EI. The former designation was EIT or Engineer-In-Training. In general this exam covers science, mathematics, and engineering course work taken up through the junior year of college. Engineers who have passed the FE exam and who specifically intend to pursue licensure will sometimes designate themselves as EI's or engineering interns. Note that this does NOT imply that they are working for free as many interns in other disciplines often do.
- Completion of four years of engineering practice under the supervision of an engineer.
- Passing the Principles and Practice (P&P) Examination. This is another eight-hour exam covering principles common to one's engineering specialty including senior-level college course work as well as associated practices learned during employment.
- Licensure by the board of registration in the state in which one intends to practice engineering. One must apply to the state board and be granted a license. Simply passing the exams and meeting other criteria do not automatically produce licensure.A very detailed description of licensure can be found at this web page (external link). It should be noted that there are, and the web page just noted will describe, other paths one may follow to licensure. The above is the most common and direct.
Upon licensure, you are granted the privilege of calling yourself a professional engineer and may append PE to the end of your name. A professional engineering license must be renewed yearly. Depending on the state in which one is licenced, one may have to complete professional development credits to retain the right to practice engineering. This requirement is becoming more common throughout the country. North Carolina requires the completion of 15 professional development credits each year.
You are strongly encouraged to take the FE exam when you are a senior in college. It will cost you a small fee and a Saturday but it will give you another career option (the opportunity to take the P&P exam and to designate yourself as an engineering intern) and will be an important item to put on your resume.