Niagara Gazette

June 24, 2013

CONFER; New York needs to correct engineer training loophole

By Bob Confer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — New York state’s Office of the Professions regulates 50 professions that require licensure or certification. Some of the 800,000 practitioners under its watch are certified public accountants, physicians, and psychologists.

Engineers, just as those other professionals, have to meet specific criteria in order to be licensed.

Among the requirements is mandatory continuing education. During every three-year period during which an engineer is registered by the state, he or she must complete at least 36 hours of continuing education.

That makes perfect sense. Engineering is a fluid science — an art — that must adjust to new technologies, materials, and standards in order to offer the strongest, most-attractive and safest designs possible.

Only with a lifelong engagement in learning the ever-changing nuances of his trade can an engineer appropriately do his job.

This standard of NYS Education Law (Article 145; SS7211) does have its weaknesses, though. It’s most glaring? Engineers who work for the state of New York, its public authorities and local governments and were employed by such entities as of Dec. 31, 2003, are excluded from the training requirement.

So, unlike their private sector brethren, the long-tenured government engineers are not required to make themselves better or learn the intricacies of, or new developments in, their chosen career path.

This disconnect is not only an insult to the licensed engineers in the private sector, but it is also an insult to our citizens. The impact that the under-trained public sector engineers have on our day-to-day lives is vast. Their handiwork is anywhere and everywhere. They are the ones who design the roads we travel on, the bridges we drive across, the power plants that supply our electricity, and the facilities that provide our drinking water.

Being now more than nine years removed from their degree and/or constant and appropriate education these engineers may not offer the best concepts possible. Their designs might not reflect the use of newer materials or methods. Because of that, their designs have the potential to impact taxpayers in extraordinary ways: With no certified exposure to what other engineers practice, government engineers may be unable to apply some of the less-costly, energy-conserving and material-saving tactics that others use. For that reason, construction and maintenance costs will be higher than necessary.

The old ways of doing things are not only more costly, but quite possibly, more dangerous as well. A key reason behind the continuing education requirement (clearly called-out in the law itself) is the guarantee of professional engineers offering a product or process that includes “the safeguarding of life, health, and property.” If this is so important — which it should be — why should seasoned government engineers be excluded from the clause when what they do so highly affects all of these factors? As mentioned, they are building our infrastructure and creating the facilities that give us sustenance. If they err in their ways, take an ill-advised shortcut, or use outdated if not suspect methodology than they are destined to put the citizens at risk. What if their inappropriately-prepared ways cause a bridge to collapse, a road to crumble, or the water supply to be tainted?

Because of this, government-employed engineers who have been under the employment of the taxpayers before 2004 need to be held to the same high standard that private-sector engineers or younger public-sector engineers are. Continuing education makes for a better individual and, in the end, a better and safer product. If this licensing situation is not changed this ill-advised placation of its longterm employees by our state government could put us all in harm’s way.

Consider that last week Transportation of America issued a report that said New York has 2,170 deficient bridges, a whopping 12.5 percent of the state’s 17,420 spans. Is that a symptom of the lack of training? Or is it a call for more training to help make whole our state’s infrastructure?

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American magazine at TheNewAmerican.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.