Engineering Competency Model: Uses, Relations, Implications, and Rodney Dangerfield

September 8, 2015

My purposes in writing this blog are threefold: introduce the recently released Engineering Competency Model, describe some of its immediate uses in engineering education and practice, and consider some of its long-term implications in relation to other efforts.

The ECM was prepared by the federal Department of Labor with major help from the American Association of Engineering Societies. As an AAES member, ASCE participated in the project, and I was invited by ASCE to be its representative on the subject matter expert group that advised AAES over the nearly two years it took to complete.

pyramid WEB HORIZ
Click the graphic for a version of the competency model with interactive tiers

The ECM includes five tiers, with essentially all of Tiers 1 through 4 intended to be applicable to all of engineering. Tier 5 is available for any engineering discipline that wants to add competencies specific to its specialized area. Note the breadth of technical and nontechnical topics and compare them with the education and prelicensure requirements of today’s engineers. Do you see a gap? I do.

Immediate uses of the model

First, the Engineering Competency Model is an important resource that can be used for a number of purposes:

• Guide engineering education and subsequent lifelong engineering practice
• Inform prospective engineering students
• Assess engineering curricula and those who teach within them
• Upgrade continuing education and training programs
• Prepare job descriptions
• Recruit and retain qualified personnel
• Assist those who supervise and/or mentor engineers
• Establish individual professional development goals
• Stimulate engineering accreditation and licensure discussions
• Enhance criteria of specialty certification boards
• Support engineering societies in preparing discipline-specific bodies of knowledge

Very broadly, the ECM can be used to help prepare engineers to function effectively in a rapidly changing world.

Related efforts, long-term implications

Participation in the ECM project reminded me of one of my evolving observations. Whenever a group of conscientious engineers takes the time, with open future-oriented minds, to collaboratively and thoughtfully think about their profession’s future in our rapidly changing world and then document the results, the products tend to be aspirational. That is, these focused temporary groups inevitably define a professional engineer of the future who has an attributes–profile beyond that of today’s engineer.

Recent examples of reports of such collaborative and thoughtful groups within ASCE are The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025 (2007) and Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century, Second Edition (2008). Some examples from outside ASCE are the National Academy of Engineering’s The Engineer of 2020 (2004), Environmental Engineering Body of Knowledge (2009), produced by what is now the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES), and NSPE’s Engineering Body of Knowledge (2013). More formal education is recommended or implicit in all of these reports, and these are just the results of recent studies. Earlier ones conducted during the last century had similar recommendations.

In informal settings, when senior engineers who serve as managers in the business and government sectors freely discuss younger and even middle-level engineers, they inevitably express general satisfaction with the engineers’ basic technical competence. Just as inevitably they express dissatisfaction with the engineers’ nontechnical or professional practice knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs). The engineers come up short in communication, project management, business fundamentals, marketing, and legal KSAs. These essential KSAs should be part of their education! Formal education must do a better job of meeting expanding needs. And these senior engineers are talking about today’s engineers in today’s professional and business environment. If you asked these executives to look forward a decade or so, they would be even more concerned about the adequacy of an engineer’s nontechnical KSAs.

Bottom line: Collaborative groups of engineers conclude that the engineer of the future – and not just civil engineers – needs a wider range of KSAs, and accomplishing that requires a broader and deeper formal education. The ECM is another reminder.

A few questions

In all this, some fundamental questions come to mind about preparing engineers: If the engineer of the future needs to be very different from the engineer of today, and if creating that engineer requires a broader and deeper education, why do so many engineers and their professional societies still define the basic education as the bachelor’s degree? Why is most of engineering apparently satisfied with being the only profession with such a low education requirement? How do we justify continued use of a nearly century-old education model to prepare engineers for functioning effectively in the 21st century? Why don’t we, across our profession, want to bring engineering up to the minimal education bar for licensure (master’s degree) required by essentially all professions?

As for attracting bright and motivated young people to engineering, how can we explain that engineering has the shortest length of formal education of all mainline professions? What smart and aspiring high school student would see that as a strength?

Consider this story (which doesn’t prove a thing but caused me to begin to get a fresh perspective about 25 years ago): I worked as the dean of an exclusively undergraduate engineering college and was meeting with a prospective engineering student and her mother. Wisely, they were researching and visiting engineering colleges. This high school student was prepared. She asked, “How long does it take to earn an engineering degree here?” I proudly said “four years” (we tracked this as one of our metrics and the average was precisely 4.05 years with a very small standard deviation). My pride suffered a setback when she said this: “If it only takes four years, it can’t be worth much.”

What are the best and brightest high school students asking today about engineering and other professions, and what are they thinking about the answers? Assume some of them don’t like what they learn about engineering, especially its low formal education requirements and what that might mean for their futures. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for us, they have many options in the form of professions with higher formal education and preparation expectations – options like accounting, architecture, audiology, dentistry, law, medicine, occupational therapy, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy, physician’s assistant, psychiatry, psychology, and veterinary medicine.

Some of us complain, Rodney Dangerfield style, that “engineers don’t get no respect.” Who is doing this to us? Not those other professions. We are doing it to ourselves. We are our own worst enemy.

Proudly, as a civil engineer, I applaud the ASCE Board of Direction for adopting Policy Statement 465 in 1998, which calls for a master’s degree in engineering or equivalent as a condition for future licensure. As a member of the broader engineering profession, I am embarrassed to note that no other engineering discipline has taken that forward-looking position and some have opposed it.

I am encouraged to learn that the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, the group that represents state engineering licensing boards, recently approved a position statement that supports the need for a master’s degree or equivalent in the future.

What do you think?

Okay, enough of my questions, which reveal my growing frustration with engineering’s decades of passivity and inaction. Clearly, I hope that my questions will generate answers, maybe action … and, if not, better questions. Perhaps I’m wrong and the engineering profession is doing just fine and is well-prepared for the future. What do you think?

13 Comments
  • Without a doubt, educational requirements should be increased for engineering licensure.

    Work experience is not sufficient because many design firms do not use, and some are not even aware of, the more recent advances in the discipline. Some design firms just keep doing things the way they have always done them.

    That said, I think that engineering education also needs to provide programs that are more practice-oriented in content taught by licensed faculty members with design experience. Licensure and design experience should be required for all faculty members. Summer design internships should be provided for faculty members by professional organizations, industry, and government agencies.

    As a profession, we need to increase the educational requirements, require actual design experience, and also redesign the PE exam to measure the knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed in professional practice, including those that are essential, but not technical.

    We need to ensure that all three portions of the licensure triad (education, experience, testing) are strong and well-connected so that our profession is prepared for the future.

  • The article makes tries to make a point and then totally refutes it! Ahem! From the article, “The engineers come up short in communication, project management, business fundamentals, marketing, and legal KSAs. These essential KSAs should be part of their education! ”

    Then the article states that it “conclude that the engineer of the future – and not just civil engineers – needs a wider range of KSAs, and accomplishing that requires a broader and deeper formal education”.

    Actually, the position statement of ASCE says that at least 50% of the proposed advanced education is required to be “engineering”. So which is it? And how is one supposed to be educated in these supposed short-comings in a degree that is at lest 50% “engineering”? Show me a program that meets these requirements!

    Like I’ve said before, making a position statement is easy, but the devil is in the works!

    You know, among the leadership of ASCE, all I see is gray hair. Not that that is necessarily bad, but where are the younger members in this foray?

    Also, comparing the legal and medical professions with engineering is a bad comparison, because at the undergraduate level, many degree programs can get you into law and medicine. Biology, political science, humanities, chemistry, etc, etc, etc. But the engineering degree starts with engineering fundamentals. Math is somewhat overdone, but other than that, all is necessary to advance to graduation.

    If you want to equate the legal profession to engineering, then make engineering a 2-year Master’s program open to any bachelor degree holder. Then they would be equivalent.

    If the author thinks that students believe “it can’t be worth much.”, then wait until they find out they need a Master’s to begin at a salary of $40k. Be careful of what you wish for.

    • Regarding your first two paragraphs: ASCE calls for making “communication, project management, business fundamentals, marketing, and legal KSAs” part of a broader baccalaureate education. The master’s degree supplements that by being primarily technical. Please read the 2008 CE Body of Knowledge report.

      Comment about your second last paragraph: Ambitious young people can already earn a BS degree in variety of science-based fields and then go on to get an accredited master’s degree in engineering.

      Regarding your last paragraph: Professions that have raised the bar have done very well in terms of attracting students and in having those students, when they graduate, find employment and be paid in accordance with their educational accomplishments.

      Yes, the devil is in the details.

      Thank you for sharing your views.

  • The four years of work experience, followed by successful completion of the PE exam and receipt of the PE license, should be the goal, rather than more time spent in universities. Here’s how I see it:

    There are parallels between the professions of engineering, medicine, and law.

    Doctors get a bachelor’s degree; then take the Medical College Admissions Test; go to medical school; do residencies; finally, get a license.

    Lawyers get a bachelor’s degree; then take the Law School Admissions Test; go to law school; finally, pass the bar exam, and get a license.

    Engineers have a parallel path: get a bachelor’s degree (in engineering); take the Fundamental of Engineering exam (sort of like the law school admission test); then, work for a professional engineer (licensed in the same branch) for four years; finally, take and pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam and get a Professional Engineer license.

    Instead of paying tuition for medical school or law school, engineers can earn while they learn.

    If this was more widely known, and viewed in this way, it would help engineers in planning their career path, and help more of them to successfully complete their professional training and licensure.

    Engineers should view the work requirement and PE license as a required part of their profession, parallel to the requirements in the medical and legal professionals.

  • David e Booth, Jr.

    I would respectfully suggest that when the child asked, “How long does it take to earn an engineering degree here?” You should have said, “That is the wrong question. You should be asking ‘How long does it take to become an engineer with a degree from this school?’ The degree only takes four years, but earning a degree in engineering does not make you an engineer. After you earn the degree, it takes a minimum of four years to qualify to sit for the licensing examination. Becoming an engineer may take less formal education than, for example, an attorney, but it takes more practical education. Engineering is like medicine; it requires a combination of formal education and practical experience. This institution will prepare you for performing in the work place to gain those additional practical skills.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statment that most graduating engineering students do not know how to communicate. If any additional formal education requirement is added to engineering programs, I would like to see a strong emphasis on vocabulary, grammer, spelling, and general writing skills. Most of the interns and EIT people I have encountered lacked basic writing skills. Further, I do not believe that those necessary communication skills are necessarily acquired through the acquisition of an advanced degree.

    • My role was to answer the questions that were asked — not to tell prepared high school students and their parents what to ask.

      Engineering is like medicine except that engineering probably affects the safety and health of more people around the globe than does medicine. The experience part of preparing to “become an engineer” (licensed professional) is essential and should be improved. However, given the responsibilities and potentials of licensed engineers, so should the formal education.

      Communication and other professional practice knowledge and skills are addressed in the ASCE raise the bar effort. It calls for a broader bachelor’s degree coupled with a technically-intensive master’s.

  • First, from Mitch Daniels: At the 2013 annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D. C. on 6 October 2013, Mitch Daniels, the past governor of Indiana, and the president of Purdue University, said about the possibility of educating too many engineers: “But even if we were to somehow outrun the market’s need for engineering talent, we will be a far stronger country if the engineering mentality takes a more prominent place in our national conversation.” Second, there is no way that engineering should become exclusively a post-graduate degree like law and medicine. The market uses engineers for a wide range of jobs, many of which do not require more than a BS degree, e.g., technical sales, some industrial operations, municipal engineer, and some nongovernmental organization positions. Why try to force the engineering degree to be solely a post-graduate degree? I’d say we’d be better off if we continue the way we’re going and even make more undergraduate engineering degrees, such as a liberal engineering degree. Why not a liberal B.S. in engineering? It could still be ABET accredited yet have a significant number of non engineering electives. It could be used as prelaw, premed, pre-engineering graduate school, or pre-whatever. How better to increase the engineering mentality in society? Many engineering specialties, e.g., structural engineering and environmental engineering, already, for all practical purposes, require a masters degree. A masters as a requirement for licensure is one thing, but a less technical BS degree used to force people into a masters is another. Let’s maximize our options. You should have told the female student that it takes four years to get a basic engineering degree, but if you really want to do specialized engineering, you’ll need at least a masters. In passing, I find it interesting that the word “engineering” doesn’t even appear until Tier 4. Is engineering not also a body of knowledge?

    • The “liberal B.S.” you call for is part of the ASCE Body of Knowledge/master’s effort. It calls for a broader undergraduate program followed by a technically intensive master’s degree.

      Young people who know they do not want to become licensed professional engineers already have a solid option in the form of ABET-accredited four-year engineering technology programs. Another alternatives is two-year technologist programs.

  • Stu,
    Your discussion would be more balanced if you included the current cost of a 4 year education vs. a 5th & 6th year and how all of the education is being financed e.g. binding government loans, out-of-profession menial jobs, etc.

    Phil C

  • Theresa O'Malley, P.E.

    Yes, you are completely wrong; yes, engineers are prepared for the future. I think you hit the nail on the head, when you said your pride took a blow. So some ignorant person comes into your office and judges the value of a degree by the length of time required to complete it. What a poor example of a reason to add more schooling requirements on engineers. You are comparing apples to oranges; doctors study longer, so we need to study longer too or people won’t think we’re as smart as doctors. ASCE’s statement “Retaining a four-year undergraduate engineering education will negatively impact engineers’ professional stature as leaders…” expresses this same pride-filled nonsense. Everyone knows engineers are smart in a different way than doctors or lawyers. Feel free to get another degree if your puny egos can’t handle it. But don’t force it on the rest of the wonderful young people who choose engineering. By the way, I have a B.S. in Biology and a M.S. in Civil Engineering.

    I certainly hope that high school seniors and college students are choosing their majors based on something beyond the skewed perception of status demonstrated in your article. I imagine many reasons that they might choose engineering, but I can’t imagine anyone who thinks, “I want to become an engineer so I can stay in school longer, defer my income earning years longer, accrue more student loan debt and spend another year doing homework”. I imagine they are thinking something along the lines of, “This seems like a good fit for me. I have always had a knack for math and I love the challenge of solving problems. I am fascinated by the engineering works I see around me and have learned about through the media. So-and-so’s mom is an engineer, and when I shadowed her I saw such cool projects that I think I would enjoy.

    It is no surprise that senior engineers “express general satisfaction with the engineers’ basic technical competence”. As engineers advance through their careers, they often move from the technical side of engineering into project management. Recent graduates of today have had so many more opportunities to experience advanced technology and have far more intern experience than was available when I was in school. The new engineers I have worked with in my career have been impressively sharp. The skills mentioned in your article that are lacking in entry level engineers are skills that are developed through years of experience, often as one shifts into project management roles. Senior engineers seem to have forgotten that they were once newbies too. What entry level engineer has the communication skills, maturity or the big picture understanding to handle client relationships or management duties?

    The stereotype of the nerdy engineer with limited communication skills exists for a reason. A PhD in communication wouldn’t help those people. No, it is not the majority of engineers, but the proportion is definitely greater than in most fields. As for the rest of us, communication experience is a skill developed over a lifetime. I remember how I hated speaking on the phone or talking to adults when I was a child. I’ve been gaining communication skills and the maturity to handle a variety of situations all through my life.

    I am satisfied with the current requirements in my state because I realize that four years of solid engineering experience, working under the supervision of a professional engineer is required before an engineer intern can sit for the P.E. exam. Do the professions you listed have this requirement? Only doctors have a similar requirement in their residency programs. And let me turn your argument on its head; formal education level does not equate with respect. Scientists go to school for advanced degrees and still get no respect in society as evidenced by their salaries. The pay scale of PhD research biologists is $41,217 – $105,351 after spending an extra 5 years of their lives in school at a cost of $123,500-$181,500.

    No, there is something else going on with this push to increase the formal education requirements for licensure; some hidden agenda of protecting the status quo. I love the repeated reassurances that these new requirements won’t apply to current professional engineers. So, you experienced engineers don’t need more education; you have learned whatever you need on the job. Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Unless you make these requirements applicable to everyone, you are just typical old geezers bemoaning the ignorance of the younger generation. License renewal could include formal education requirements. How does that sound to you? Does it seem unfair to ask you to give up those hours of your busy life? Does it seem unfair to ask you to fork out that money for school when you have other expenses in your life? Then perhaps you have begun to walk a mile in the next generations’ moccasins.

    • Your long and detailed message is an great example of arguing for the status quo. I’ve heard all of your points over the time I and forward-looking colleagues have worked on reforming the formal education and pre-licensure experience of engineers. You do not answer one of the questions I asked in my blog: “How do we justify continued use of a nearly century-old education model to prepare engineers for functioning effectively in the 21st century?” By the way, been a long time since I heard that word “geezer” and the first time I’ve been called one. Thanks for weighing in.

  • I, too, see a gap. Let me tell story to illustrate: Years ago, I was a senior VP for a major international consulting firm. I was in charge of all of the transportation practice in a significant region of the U. S. We had a change in CEO and shortly after the new CEO assumed his role, called all of his senior management into a meeting. There was about 50 executives there, I was one. He started his remarks by asking “How many of you have project managers working for you?” A number of us, me included, raised our hands. He responded:”Wrong, we work for the PM’s, the only way this or any other consulting engineering firm can be successful, is if our PM’s are successful.” He went on to add additional comments, but the point is that the ability of a civil engineer to manage a total project requires a myriad of skills, including technical, communication, ability to analyze risk, track project progress with sometimes vague or subjective data, ability to work with adversaries and gain their respect and on and on. We need an emphasis on this at a very practical level somewhere in this hierarchy. Granted some individual skills are identified but the whole is not.
    Good article, good comments but a few tweaks would improve this.

  • George R. Herrmann

    I agree whole-heartedly. After 13 years in the engineering profession, and having held a license for several years, I decided that if I was going to support the need of an advanced degree for engineering, I was going to have to have one myself. I returned to obtain a Masters at age 45. I later continued on to get a Ph.D. at age 56, so no one can lecture me about being too old or too busy to return to the university. If you believe in our profession, you should be willing to advance it by being the best you can be.

    In my opinion, those who do not support an advanced degree as a requirement for licensure are those who don’t have one, don’t want to put forth the effort to get one, and don’t want to admit that they need one to be the best engineers they can be. Dare I say lazy? Maybe complacent is a gentler term.

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