Licensing Engineers in Pennsylvania

Licensing Engineers – Right to Take Exam Denied

Pennsylvania law includes numerous restrictions on people who work in “professional” occupations. The jobs included in the regulatory laws include barbers, realtors, funeral directors, engineers, architects, psychologists and almost every health care provider from nurses to veterinarians. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (the Bureau) has broad authority to license, supervise and suspend individuals working in the regulated occupations.

Engineering Graduate Denied Opportunity to Take Exam

A Pennsylvania college graduate recently succeeded in challenging the Bureau’s order barring him from sitting for the state examination for licensing as an engineer. See Whymeyer v. Commonwealth, Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, et al., 997 A.2d 1254 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010). The graduate attended the University of Scranton, a well-respected private university in Pennsylvania. He completed the university’s four year engineering program, earning a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and graduating with the highest honors, magna cum laude.

But when he applied to take the Pennsylvania state test for his engineering license, he was denied the opportunity even to take the test. The Bureau rejected the graduate’s application because the university’s engineering program was not approved by the state. The Bureau noted that state regulations require that candidates for the state engineering license test must first attend an approved four year engineering curriculum. The University of Scranton did not appear on the approved list.

Several deans from the university testified at the hearing on the graduate’s appeal to force the Bureau to permit him to sit for the test. They described the university’s rigorous engineering curriculum and noted that the university’s students performed well in intercollegiate engineering competitions. They also described the obstacles to securing state approval. The Bureau did not conduct its own approval process, instead it deferred the approval authority to the Accreditation Board in Engineering and Technology (ABET), a national, private entity. The university deans described an onerous process it had twice followed, over a period of 10 years, to secure the ABET approval. Despite their successful engineering program and course content, the ABET had denied the university approval on the ground that it did not have sufficient full-time faculty in the program. Noting that another application to the ABET would require the full time attention of one of the program’s eight professors for an entire year, the deans advised that they could not afford to apply again.

After the hearing, the Bureau’s hearing board denied the graduate the right to take the test, finding that its regulations must be met by all candidates. But the graduate promptly appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and the graduate prevailed. The Commonwealth Court found that the Bureau was not entitled solely to rely on the ABET for the approval of engineering programs. Emphasizing the fact that Pennsylvania and other state high school graduates chose engineering programs from accredited universities without thinking to review the Bureau’s approved programs, the Court found that the Bureau has both broad authority and a broad obligation to approve schools whose quality of education is satisfactory. Concluding that the Bureau is obliged to exercise its independent judgment and to evaluate responsible engineering programs itself, the Court ordered that the Bureau permit the graduate to sit for the exam.

Before embarking on a course of study for any occupation or profession, it is wise to fully examine the licensure process as well as the educational requirements. Had the graduate failed in his effort to gain access to the test, he may have had an actionable claim against the university for its failure to advise him clearly of its status with the Bureau. But succeeding in such a lawsuit would only result in a damages award; it would not result in his winning an engineering license. To learn more about the Bureaus’ authority over licensed businesses and professions, go to www.licensepa.state.pa.us.