Chris Stone, President, National Society of Professional Engineers
Chris Stone, President of the NSPE offers an insight into the ways in which the Society is advocating for professional engineers in the US and how it is working to tackle the growing challenges of manpower and funding
To begin, can you outline the role of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)?
The NSPE represents all professional licensed engineers in the US; we advocate for them on both a state and a national level. The Society also provides training to ensure that engineers are kept up to date in terms of their technical skills as well as their professional leadership and management skills. There is also a focus on ethics training, which is extremely important these days. We think that ethics is really what separates us, as professional engineers, from other non-licensed engineers.
We are the only organisation in the US that really promotes and advocates for professional engineers. There are a lot of other technical engineering groups but they really work on the technical side of engineering. They do not advocate for the ethical, leadership, or management side, for professional engineers.
How has the industry changed since the formation of the Society?
Before the Society was formed back in 1934, there were a lot of states that had quasi-engineering organisations. It was not until those organisations started getting together and forming a national organisation that it was possible to really advocate for engineers on a national level, because it could not be done on a state-by-state level. Local laws could be advocated for, but you could not do anything nationally. We are currently trying to advocate for a national ‘Good Samaritan’ law, which would mean that, in the event of a natural disaster, engineers would be able to respond across state lines without violating a law and potentially facing repercussions – this could not be implemented at a state level.
In your opinion, what have been the most significant challenges facing professional engineers at a national and international level?
There are several challenges, but I think that one of the biggest is the budget deficits that are being seen within the US and throughout the world. I think that countries are really struggling to maintain their infrastructure; this includes not only roads and bridges, but drinking water, waste water and anything that goes into improving the health, safety and welfare of the public. As a result, a real pent-up demand for the repair and replacement for this infrastructure is building because it affects everybody’s quality of life.
Another concern in the next two decades is that, not only are there going to be funding issues in order to maintain that infrastructure, but there is also going to be manpower issues in order to actually design the work that needs to be done. There are fewer and fewer young people going into engineering these days and it is a real crisis, not only just in terms of the numbers, but also in terms of the diversity within the profession. Although women make up more than 50 per cent of the population, the amount of women working as engineers is far from representative of this. This is a real challenge for us and something that we are working on.
Further to this, to what extent does the Society hope to support young engineers? Is this a particularly important part of your remit, and what are the most common obstacles for young people entering the field?
At the moment, we are working with Congress to pass legislation that will help to provide funding to states that provide science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) programmes in middle and high school. We are hoping that this legislation will encourage young people, especially young girls, to pursue careers in one of those fields.
I do not know if it is an obstacle, but I think that most people do not see engineering as a very glamorous or a highly lucrative profession. Those two things really could not be further from the truth. I have been practising for 35 years and have travelled around the world and found that it has been financially rewarding, but I think that most young people today do not see that. Quite honestly, I think it is because we have a public relations problem. There are a lot of countries that are working on this; Canada has a really good programme to try to attract young people into the profession.
I think that young people think you have to be a maths genius in order to be an engineer, but that is another fallacy. Going back to the diversity question, studies have shown that young girls are actually better at maths than boys are, but at some point in time at high school a competition occurs, which discourages girls from continuing with mathematics. Engineering is widely not seen as a female profession, so that is something that we are very much trying to change.
The Society upholds ethical considerations as paramount. Can you comment of the ethical challenges you face and explain the process taken to ensure that this high standard is maintained?
NSPE, as well as a lot of the other technical engineering organisations, have a written code of ethics and it is that ethical standard that we judge one another against. Practising engineers can lose their professional license if they violate the code of ethics. Ethics are very much promoted in our magazine and in all of our literature. Another way of training people in ethics is through our Board of Ethical Review, who takes case studies and makes rulings on them. This information is then sent out to all of our members.
Most states in the US require engineers to undertake continuing professional development hours in order to maintain their professional license within that state. All states require professional engineers to go through an ethics course for a certain number of hours each year; as well as ethics being taught alongside engineering degrees at college, it is compulsory even for experienced practising engineers to take ethics training courses in order to retain their license.
How does the bipartisan Political Action Committee hope to influence policy at a national level? Is there a need for a more uniformed policy procedure?
At NSPE we have a legislative and government affairs committee and, as a member orientated organisation, we support both political parties so as not to have a bias. This can be difficult sometimes, as it feels as though you are walking a fine line between the two, but there are a lot of issues I think that both political parties support. For example, the whole STEM education initiative is important for both political parties because it is focused, not only on the development of our youth, but also on safeguarding the security of the US in ensuring that we stay competitive within the national market for engineering.
What is the Legislative Action Centre and how does it aim to improve engineer advocacy?
We have a grassroots effort at a state level; every state has an organisation that is affiliated to the national organisation. Each of these organisations has a legislative and government affairs committee that is made up of engineers from that state that advocates for issues affecting local engineers. Some of those engineers will come to Washington periodically and visit congressmen to talk about issues facing engineers nationally as, if you wish to affect any change here, you will need to visit your congressman.
What innovative ideas are being developed to help aid green building design? What is your vision for sustainable building design and construction?
The US Green Building Council (USGBC) has been a world leader in terms of developing green technologies and sustainability. Such green and sustainable concepts have been coordinated through the certification of buildings and the accreditation of engineers. The firm that I manage has 550 architects and engineers, of which about 170 of those are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified professionals. This is an accreditation programme by the USGBC offered to individuals that understand green concepts and incorporate them into building design. They also run a certification programme for buildings; you can earn bronze, silver, gold or platinum certification depending on how green your particular project is. My firm is currently working on a net zero project, which means that the carbon footprint of the building has been reduced down to zero, as much energy is produced as the building uses. That is becoming more and more commonplace amongst our clients; they are looking to go green, to be sustainable and to develop a facility that is net zero. The American Institute of Architects has an organisation that is also promoting this and they are encouraging engineers, architects and the firms that they work for to sign onto a programme that means that, by 2030, most of the products being worked on will be net zero projects – that is the future that we are looking towards.
Finally, could you outline the role nuclear energy will play in the Society’s future endeavours?
It is interesting, because there are people that believe that we can get all of our energy from renewable resources. Quite honestly, this is not possible due to the demand and the way that sustainable or alternative energy sources work; for example, you can only get solar energy during certain times of the day and storage is a big issue. What we promote is that you have to sustainably incorporate all forms of energy – which means natural gas, coal, fossil fuels and oil, but also includes wind energy, biomass, solar energy, as well as nuclear energy. I think that, as engineers, we recognise that you have to use all forms of energy, but that you have to use them in an ethical and responsible way.