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Professional licensing

DEBATE

Under the Engineering & Technology Board proposals, monitoring of continuing professional development is set to become much stricter. But how should this be enforced? This week we ask: Is it time for the engineering professions to be licensed?

Yes

Anyone can call themselves an engineer. In fact, according to Coronation Street and by association most of the public, I should be able to fix cars!

But then the Hatfield train crash happened. And before that the Ramsgate walkway collapse followed by the odd car park collapse. In my own discipline, thousands of home owners were stranded as flood defences failed - or were perceived to have failed - last winter.

Despite the headlines, the public appears none the wiser about who makes and runs the services and products they trust and about who is responsible for keeping them safe. It seems only we know that professional engineers are ultimately to blame for those failures.

Engineers are almost unique among the professions in the UK through having almost no regulation of our work. As a result the 'regulating' Engineering Council (EngC) only represents the minority of the industry.

However, there is overwhelming support from engineers on the ground - and in the EngC Senate - for statutory licensing in many areas of engineering.

Such a scheme could provide huge benefits to the country by supplying long overdue public accountability.

But it could also vastly improve the industry's skills base through mandatory continuing professional development;

and improve the low morale of engineers, helping to attract the brightest recruits to the industry.

There are many other reasons to back licensing. However, many senior members of the profession believe we would be wasting our time, as government prefers to regulate through the threat of corporate manslaughter charges should things go wrong. But the new General Teaching Council has obliged all teachers to register: surely the cost of human life exceeds the education of children.

Something has to change: anything significant must surely include licensing.

No

There is little doubt that a more regulated approach to continuing professional development would boost standards in the whole industry. Any proposal that promotes proper training can only be good news.

And while it is certainly true that licensing engineering professionals would reap huge benefits for employers, employees and clients, it is not necessarily the only - or best - mechanism to achieve these improvements.

The problem with any licensing scheme is that to be effective it would have to introduce a great deal of rigidity to each professional discipline. In construction we know that this simply is not always realistic. To be an effective project manager, for example, there is no single skill that you need but an ever changing collection of many.

Licensing could perpetuate the exclusivity of the professions rather than allowing the best services to be offered to every client. And it would not necessarily guarantee that clients always got the best service as a result.

We already have a very effective means to achieve this goal - the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS). This has the full backing of the industry and has been extended beyond the original operative and craft levels to include site supervisors and project managers.

Backed by professional qualifications and the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system, it is effectively an inclusive form of license. It provides a single, universally recognised standard.

But it also allows flexibility in career development. Let us not forget that one of the main reasons for encouraging engineers to carry out regular CPD is to improve learning. The CSCS actively encourages professionals to better themselves. As NVQ awarding body, the ICE is well placed to manage this process.

The need to reapply for the card every five years is a strong incentive to keep up CPD. I have no doubt they will become better engineers as a result of that.

The facts The construction industry employs over 60,000 professional engineers.

Architecture is the only licensed profession in the built environment. Without a license from the Architects' Registration Board it is illegal to operate as an architect.

Engineers can qualify as professional engineers and register as chartered engineers with the Engineering Council.

Neither has status in law.

The Construction Skills Certification Scheme card shows that you are up to date with health and safety legislation, competent and skilled, qualified and committed to quality.

To be awarded a CSCS card, professional engineers have to submit accreditation of their experience and take a safety test.

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