Professionalism/Who Is an Engineer? Burton Siegal and the State of Illinois
Who is an Engineer?Edit
Engineering is the profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences, gained by study, experience, and practice, is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of humankind.
Engineers exist in almost every field, from designing computer software to the production of wind turbines. This makes it hard to discern what exactly makes someone an engineer. To some, an engineer is someone who has completed their degree requirements and received a degree in engineering from a reputable school. To others, an engineer is merely someone who has sufficient skills in an engineering-related capacity. In most cases, people that call themselves engineers have a combination of these skills and experiences that give them expertise in an area of their interest.
The Professional Engineering (PE) certification serves as the highest level of guaranteed competence for an engineer. It is an assurance of quality with the purpose of "protecting public health, safety, and welfare," proving that an individual has the education, experience, and expertise to work in a given capacity. PE licensure is governed primarily by state in the US, resulting in different licensing requirements across states. In order to practice in other states, one must obtain a new license in that state or pay a fee to transfer their license when allowed.
While the stated objective of the Professional Engineering certification is to protect the public and guarantee a level of quality assurance, there are reasons to question the integrity of the licensure. On the NSPE website under Why Get Licensed, the first point made is the "prestige" of holding a license. Some regard the engineering licensure process as a way for states and other organizations to discredit individual's work and financially benefit from creating an exclusive group of individuals. Although there is a clear definition for what it means to be a "professional engineer," attempted regulation of the term "engineer" has caused confusion.
Burton Siegal, born September 27, 1931, is an Illinois design engineer. Since graduating from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Siegal has worked a successful career. In 1959, he founded his own firm Budd Engineering. His achievements and accolades include 123 awarded patents, a National Medal of Technology nomination, winning the 1975 International Extrusion Design competition, and a Distinguished Alumnus Award from his alma mater. In his work, he was briefly a torpedo designer for the US Naval Ordinance, helped design the NASA Surveyor cameras, and provided services to such companies as IBM, Ford, and Chrysler.
Initial Dispute and InvestigationEdit
In 2003, Amyriad Manufacturing and Distributing Industries' CEO Harry Barnett hired Budd Engineering to design an aluminum shelving bracket extrusion. After receiving the drawings a month later, Barnett was dissatisfied, refused to pay, and fired the company. Barnett contracted another firm to complete the design, allegedly building on Budd Engineering's work.
Barnett proceeded to sue Budd Engineering, claiming that he would not have hired the company if he knew that Burton Siegal was not a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). An Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) investigation was opened following Barnett's reports, and Siegal was ordered to stop using "engineering" in his company's name. They claimed his use of the word violated the Professional Engineering Practice Act of 1989, which states that "A person shall be construed to practice or offer to practice professional engineering... who practices, or who, by verbal claim, sign, advertisement, letterhead, card, or any other way, is represented to be a professional engineer, or through the use of the initials "P.E." or the title "engineer" or any of its derivations or some other title implies licensure as a professional engineer."  While state resources do not allow for the investigation of every violation under normal circumstances, they may investigate when called to their attention.
While the name Budd Engineering contains the word "engineer", Siegal intentionally never claimed PE status and ensured that his advertising did not suggest it. He responded to the IDFPR's investigation by creating the website I Am An Engineer in which he defended his credibility and warned of the precedent it could set for other professionals in his position. "Its outcome could set a precedent that could result in hundreds of thousands of otherwise qualified engineers being unable to earn a living from their chosen career."
Credibility and Public SafetyEdit
Budd Engineering was 30 years old by the passage of the Professional Engineering Practice Act of 1989. By this point, Siegal had already reached the majority of his life achievements, including over 100 patents. Siegal pointed out the absurdity of a law which, intended to use a metric of credibility to protect public safety, seemed to willfully ignore the backgrounds of existing engineers, including college graduates. In addition, the shelving unit part that was the origin of the initial dispute had questionable relation to public safety.
Protecting Free SpeechEdit
Siegal also questioned how a private trade association like the NSPE could overturn what he believed to be 1st Amendment rights. The Professional Engineering Practice Act of 1989 allowed certification, and use of the title 'engineer', only through the NSPE's Professional Engineering Exam, which he argued gave the organization outrageous power over the free speech of professionals like himself.
Burton Siegal v. Harry BarnettEdit
Later on, Siegal and Barnett's relationship further deteriorated. In 2016, Siegal claimed that Barnett "relentlessly stalked" his family and business (operated out of his home) starting in 2010. Barnett's actions included holding inflammatory signs, making disparaging references to Siegal's age, publishing internet tirades, and more. This caused the Siegals stress to the point of requiring changes in living habits; these included inviting guests less often, avoiding parking on the street for fear of vandalism, and installing a security system. Siegal successfully obtained a Stalking No Contact Order Act against Barnett.
While not directly related to Siegal's questioned status as an engineer, this case suggests that a personal vendetta motivated Barnett's reporting of Budd Engineering to the IDFPR, not an attempt to defend public health and safety, or another altruistic reason. It is possible to view Siegal's legal battles as not only the impact of an unfair law, but also how such a law can be exploited for personal gain.
Engineering is one among many professions regulated by the government at a state level. The general argument for government regulation is that it increases public safety in a field where identification with a profession by someone incompetent could lead to harm; put more colorfully by a UVA PhD graduate S. David Young: "The argument in favor of licensing always has been that it protects the public from incompetents, charlatans, and quacks." He also stated that "the main effect, however, is simply to restrict entry and reduce competition in the licensed occupation. Yet from the beginnings of the modern professional movement early in America's history until the seventies, the growth of licensing proceeded with little opposition. The possibility that licensing might be used to enhance professional income and power was considered incidental to serving the public interest." This clearly presents the challenge in analyzing professional regulation: when is it purely for the safety of the public, and when is it primarily for the security of professionals?
The title "doctor" is heavily regulated. For example, Oregon state law requires that: "An individual practicing a health care profession may not use the title “doctor” in connection with the profession, unless the individual... is licensed by a health professional regulatory board to practice the particular health care profession in which the individual’s doctoral degree was earned; or is working under a board-approved residency contract and is practicing under the license of a supervisor who is licensed by a health professional regulatory board to practice the particular health care profession in which the individual’s doctoral degree was earned." By limiting use of the term, the name and standards of the profession are maintained. The primary reason for this regulation, however, is most likely to ensure public safety. In almost all situations when the title "doctor" would be used, there is potential for harm to a person or people. Most would agree that this regulation serves the public good while also serving the good of the profession.
Trade professionals, such as electricians and plumbers, often require licensure by the state to advertise and practice their profession. These, like many medical professions, have a direct impact on public safety. Most electrical work has potential to cause harm if performed incorrectly. The same applies to plumbing; if performed incorrectly it can lead to significant loss of property or even physical harm. Another added benefit of trade professionals is the up-to-date practices and coherence amongst the professionals that create fewer chances for accidents.
In the case of Burton Siegal and the State of Illinois, the original lawsuit against Budd Engineering was ruled in favor of Siegal, stating that the use of "engineer" for the provided services did not fall in a regulated service of the PE Act. Because his services were not regulated by the PE Act, Siegal's use of "engineer" is protected under freedom of speech laws in the United States, a common result of lawsuits like this. Furthermore, the court found the PE Act "overly broad and unconstitutional under the First Amendment." 
The lack of clarity surrounding the term "engineer" has caused disagreements among those who can benefit from certain interpretations. The difference between an engineer and a PE is made for good purpose: to ensure quality and safety in matters pertaining to the welfare of the public. However, many applications of the term "engineer" are not in a capacity that impacts public safety. Ultimately, the engineering profession introduces a very different regulatory problem when compared to other professional licensers. The lack of definition, combined with the vast diversity the profession, creates complications when trying to regulate the whole profession at once.
A possible solution to this is discipline-specific engineering regulation, which is used in some states. Disciplines such as Civil Engineering, where public safety is almost always at risk, would be regulated; a Software Engineer, however, might not have this requirement. The NSPE has taken a clear stance against this, arguing that a blanket certification is all that is required to ensure public safety, and that "every professional engineer has an ethical obligation to practice only in their areas of competence." This approach may ensure public safety. However, it does not provide a means for unlicensed engineers or engineers for whom NSPE certifications and examinations do not apply, practicing in their area of expertise, to advertise themselves for what they are: engineers.
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- National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE), (n.d.). What is a PE?
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- Illinois Appellate Court, (2018). Burton Siegal v. Harry Barnett. Illinois Appellate Court
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- Illinois General Asssembly. (1989). Professional Engineering Practice Act of 1989 Illinois Compiled Statutes.
- Young, D. S., (n.d.). Occupational Licensing. Library of Economics and Liberty.
- Oregon Laws, (n.d.). Use of the Title "Doctor."
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- Licensing by Engineering Discipline. NSPE.