Despite being in my mid-thirties, I still dread visiting the dentist where, on a recent visit, I noticed that the other teeth and gum conscious citizens, together with the receptionist, liberally referred to the dentist as ‘doctor,’ sometimes in the presence of the dentist herself.
Is a dentist a doctor – in the traditional sense? And was it alright to ask this question to the dentist without being insensitive and offensive? I did ask the question – and her instruments squealed and spun a bit more than usually that day.
So in engineering, who does what, at what level and in what context?
Without being insensitive or offensive can and may an engineering technician (Pr Techni Eng) do the work of a technologist (Pr Tech Eng), or the technologist the work of a certified engineer (Pr Cert Eng) or engineer (Pr Eng)? There are several technicians and technologists that run consulting engineering businesses or head government departments where engineering services are procured. I have also noticed that very often all categories of engineering practitioners often refer to themselves as engineers. In my experience the one cannot function without the other, and we all have our parts to play in the various phases of the project cycle, but apart from academic training, there appears to be limited definite and deliberate criteria that define our titles, roles and how we relate to one another in engineering practice.
On another related matter, and for the ease of writing, I will refer to the Pr Eng registration, but the principle refers to the other categories of registration as well. ECSA registers engineers. Upon registration, one becomes a professional engineer with a suffixed title. Without further clarification on the title and abilities, and by implication, the engineer is therefore positioned to take on responsibility over any engineering work or project. In my case, I am allowed to practise engineering across all disciplines despite my personal expertise being limited to experience in mining and municipal waste disposal, i.e. as a civil engineer, I am able to practise as an electrical engineer.
Some may argue that the code of ethics, the code of conduct and even SAICE’s similar documents, which include the recently published Credo of the African Engineer (where engineers solemnly accept to not practise outside of their field of qualification, training or expertise) would prevent this. But I dare say, even in light of these documents being made available on websites and in hard copy, their contents are not well known or adequately practised. I myself am not readily aware of its contents if questioned. Feel free to accuse me of setting a bad example, but let him who is fully aware of the holy contents of these documents cast the first stone. Furthermore, these documents are equivalent to guidelines or codes that are not enforceable. For adherence they rely on the goodwill and good intentions of engineers and the system in which we function. In addition to the common saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we are quite aware of how good the nature of mankind really is, let alone the engineering business entrepreneur.
It is clear that ECSA protects the interest of the public by ensuring that engineering practitioners register in their specific categories, and in doing so ensures that the fly-by-night practitioners are kept out of the system. It follows then, that if an individual is not a registered engineer, then that individual may not practise as an engineer in South Africa, irrespective of the client. Take the government, as client, as an example – not all tender documents insist on registered professionals tendering for engineering work. Arguably, while ECSA, which is a government organisation, may be doing good work in terms of registration of professionals, the system does not come full circle by enforcing that registered professionals carry out professional engineering work.
Expanding the issue further, if a person registers as a civil engineer, it remains unclear in what category that civil engineer may practise. In SAICE we have eight unique civil engineering divisions or disciplines, including structural, water, geotechnical, environmental and transportation engineering. Is it acceptable for an environmental engineer to practise as a structural engineer because he is a registered engineer? What prevents an unqualified but competent person from doing the work and requesting a qualified and registered person from signing the work, where that registered person is incompetent in that area of expertise? It appears that we again rely on the codes of conduct, practice and ethics to keep the baddies at bay.
Some of the outcomes of the issues discussed may include multiple registrations with the same organisations or institutions, further examination processes in addition to the traditional Pr Eng process, extended CPD requirements, and so on. It is therefore vital that, as engineers, we engage in a process to map out the way to clarify these issues, and to hold ourselves in readiness for what may be a turning point in our industry.
If these concerns are insufficiently addressed, I would infer that as a professional industry, we have not taken sufficient steps to protect ourselves, our clients and the general public. We can choose to be reactive or proactive.