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TALKING POINT

It is almost impossible to argue against registration of geotechnical engineers, says Richard Short.

As a guest speaker at the BGA's annual conference, I became aware that registering geotechnical engineers is being considered in the UK and the EU.

Listening to the arguments, I was taken back to the time we were debating the issue in California.

Around 1980, the Soil and Foundation Engineers Association (SAFEA) decided soil engineers, as we were called then, should be registered by the state.

SAFEA members unanimously agreed that registering soil engineers would be a good idea.Every member had a story about an unqualified engineer or technician practising in the field of soil and foundation engineering.

Complaints against these individuals included underpricing consulting services just to get work;

providing poorly founded expert opinions criticising the work of other professionals in court cases; causing landslides and foundation distress as a result of substandard work; and generally giving the profession a bad name.

After several years of lobbying, the state finally introduced a bill to establish the requirements for using the title 'soil engineer'Initially, all those who could establish they were qualified to practise would be grandfathered with the title.

Requirements included civil engineering registration, nine years'experience, three recommendations from other professional engineers and no history of lawbreaking.Those who could not qualify for grandfather rights would have to sit a comprehensive eight-hour examination, verify two years'experience and provide three references from registered civil engineers.

Public hearings were held to obtain feedback from the profession.The nay-sayers included three groups.

The first was the civil engineers mostly located in remote areas where their practice included a minor amount of foundation engineering, follow-up foundation inspection and earthwork testing.The second group was those registered civil engineers who fell short of nine years'experience and would have to take the exam.The third was college professors who maintained a consulting practice, but had never bothered to become registered civil engineers.

Lively debates took place at the public hearings with accusations of collusion and restraint of trade thrown at the supporters.In the end, the benefit to the public outweighed the possible harm done to a few engineers with a grievance.

The bill was signed into law at the end of the governor's term in 1985.Initially, about 1,000 soil engineers were grandfathered.After the legislation was passed, the term soil engineer was changed to geotechnical engineer.The eight-hour exam proved to be an effective qualifier with typically only 20% passing, a percentage that remains constant.

Eighteen years later, many of the grandfathered engineers have retired and the below-standard engineers have mostly disappeared.Some 1,600 geotechnical engineers are now registered to use the title in California.

The term geotechnical engineer now gets respect in the profession from architects, structural engineers and contractors.Consulting firms use geotechnical registration as a qualifier for higher pay and responsibility and young engineers aspire to become professional geotechnical engineers.

Registered geotechnical engineers are used to quality control other non-registered engineers'work and co-sign their reports.Professors still consult and do research without a licence.Some civil engineers still do soil engineering on a limited basis and many working in construction firms design temporary shoring and other earthworks.

It would be difficult to find a case where a consulting firm or any individual has lost work or been unfairly treated because of this legislation.A case could also be made that liability insurance has have been favourably affected.It's hard, almost impossible, to come up with an argument against geotechnical registration after seeing the benefits it has had in the state of California.

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