Study suggests licensing restrictions for engineers may limit opportunities for minorities
A recent study published by The Center for Public Integrity suggests that licensing restrictions for Professional Engineers in many states may be disproportionately limiting the opportunities for Black engineers. Take the story of Ida Habtemichael, who has spent 14 years working as an engineer for Micron Technology, but who would have difficulty getting licensed as a professional engineer in many states:
She is an equipment engineer, developing robotic monitoring systems. She founded a Black Employee Network 12 years ago that she is still involved in and heads a women’s leadership group.
But all that experience and a deep understanding of how to keep mechanical processes efficient are insignificant when it comes to getting a license to work in one-third of the country.
In nine states, engineering technology graduates like Habtemichael are prohibited by law from becoming a licensed professional engineer.
In those nine states, Habtemichael’s 4-year engineering technology degree means nothing. In other states—including Nebraska—engineering technology graduates (as opposed to engineering/engineering science graduates) are virtually locked out of licensing opportunities.
In Alabama and Nebraska, for example, Habtemichael would have to go back to school and earn a master’s or doctorate in engineering before that state’s certifying board might allow her to become licensed. Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Rhode Island have similar rules requiring additional graduate-level degrees or credits, which create roadblocks for working engineers with technology-stamped degrees to apply for licensure.
The ultimate problem here is not whether or not a person can pass the test, but whether they will even be allowed to sit for the professional licensing exam given their education. The difference in engineering students’ educational experience versus engineering technology students seems to be conceptual skills and design versus practical application.
Being unable to receive a license doesn’t necessarily mean that an engineer can’t work in the field. Still, it often means less pay and limits to career advancement because you can’t serve as the lead engineer without the license and are often relegated to sort of a “second-tier” engineer position.
Recognition of parallel pathways to licensure should be part of all occupational licensing reform. If a state has an exam and the person can pass the exam and proves a level of competence in the job, the state ought not to withhold licensing opportunity.
Likewise, suppose someone has been licensed to work in an occupation in one jurisdiction and can show that they can competently perform the same work in a new jurisdiction. In that case, states irrationally limit who can come to their state and be productive workers.
Some of those barriers may be put in place by those in the occupation to limit competition. As one person described, concerning engineer licensing and the different treatment of those with engineer technology degrees: “The fight against changing (treatment of ET degree-holders) is always ‘public safety.’ This is the shield they hide behind. It’s gate-keeping instead of gate-tending mentality.”
Those who spend a lot of time studying and attempting to reform occupational licensing see barriers to entry—for those coming from other states, for those who had taken different paths to arrive at their career, and for those who have spent time in the military, as we saw with Mike Beyer who spent eight years as a U.S. Navy construction electrician, only to be told that his time wouldn’t count toward testing for his Nebraska license.
It’s time to tear down some of those barriers to success. In fields where licenses have been deemed necessary for the public’s health and safety, lawmakers should create a framework for universal recognition of licensing, and one which creates more parallel pathways for workers to be licensed.