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Becoming a Professional Engineer in the United States: What Every Electrical Engineer Should Know

December 12, 2019 by Sam Holland

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), a professional engineering licence is the highest standard of competence, while also being an assurance of quality—and, of course, an overall symbol of achievement in the engineering profession.

In this article, we look at the benefits and the processes involved in becoming a professional engineer.

The professional engineering status can distinguish electrical/electronic engineers in their field and help enhance their careers.


An electrical engineer troubleshooting a power control unit in a factory.

An electrical engineer troubleshooting a power control unit in a factory. Image credit: BigStock.


Who are Professional Engineers?

A professional engineer (PE) is an individual who is certified under U.S. state licensing laws to practice engineering professionally. These laws aim to safeguard the public by enforcing standards that limit the engineering practice to individuals that meet specific education, examination, and experience qualifications.

In the U.S., PE licences are regulated and administered by state licensing boards. The requirements and qualifications can vary between states.


Distinctions Between Professional Engineers and Unlicensed Engineers 

Professional engineers are individuals that have satisfied all the requirements by a state licensing board and demonstrated competency in their chosen fields.

The following are some privileges and responsibilities that their qualifications grant them:

  • Only PEs are allowed to prepare, sign and seal, and provide engineering plans and drawings to public authorities and private clients for approval

  • PEs are accountable for the lives and safety of people that are directly or indirectly affected by their work

  • Several federal, state and municipal roles for engineers (particularly senior technical and management roles) are strictly filled by licensed engineers

  • In several states, engineering teaching roles are strictly filled by licensed engineers

  • PEs can offer engineering services to the public and private sector in both employee and self-employed capacities


A well-deserved handshake: an engineering licence opens doors all kinds of doors to engineers. Image Credit: Bigstock.


Why Should Electrical Engineers Become Licensed?

Electrical engineers aiming for the peaks of their careers in the U.S. workforce should consider becoming licensed in the states where they work.

Further benefits of having a PE license include:

  • Job opportunities: having a PE licence can set the engineer apart from other candidates, particularly if both parties were to attend the same job interview. The qualification tells employers that you are certified, experienced and have demonstrated a thorough understanding of key engineering principles

  • Career growth: a professional engineering licence provides ample opportunities for career growth for electrical engineers due to its wide acceptance within several industries. Licensed engineers can work in any part of the U.S. and move into management and senior technical roles. PEs can also transfer to other states with relative ease

  • Higher remuneration: PEs generally earn higher wages than their non-licensed counterparts. According to a 2010 Engineering Income & Salary Survey by the NSPE, PEs earn $99,000 yearly on average—compared to the $94,000 a year that engineers without a licence earn. This disparity becomes more pronounced with career progression as many senior roles are reserved for professional engineers

  • Consulting approval: in the U.S., only licensed engineers are permitted to work for themselves as consultants. They are also enabled by law to use the official title of ‘Engineer’ along with their names in business cards, CVs, and other official and/or professional documents


Two electrical engineers working together in a power control room.

Two electrical engineers working together in a power control room. Image credit: BigStock.


How Electrical Engineers Become Licensed in the U.S.

The first and most essential requirement for becoming a professional engineer in the U.S. is to have completed a four-year ABET-accredited engineering program. ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is an organisation that accredits engineering, engineering technology, natural science, and computing programs in the U.S.

Prospective PEs will also need to meet the following requirements: 


Fundamentals of the Engineering Exam

The first step to becoming licensed is passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam. The FE is a computer-based exam that is offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) all year round at designated test centres. Examinees are presented with a 110-question evaluation, which includes a non-disclosure agreement and tutorial.


A professional engineer and conventional engineer in training working together.

A professional engineer and conventional engineer in training working together. Image Credit: BigStock.


Work Experience

The next phase will require you to accumulate four years of verifiable industry experience under the supervision of a professional engineer. At this stage, you’re recognised as an ‘Engineer in Training’ (EIT). Acceptable work experience for electrical engineers includes electrical design and/or practical lab work under the supervision of a licensed engineer, in industries such as energy, manufacturing, automotive, and so on.


Principles and Practice of the Engineering Exam

After acquiring sufficient work experience under the supervision of a PE, EITs will be eligible to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. This exam will be specific to your discipline to ascertain your understanding of core electrical engineering concepts and competency in your industry. If successful, you will receive your PE licence from the professional licensing board of the state in which you took the examination.



Ultimately, becoming a professional electrical engineer in the U.S. takes significant effort and time to meet all the requirements and acquire the licence. However, a PE licence offers significant advantages that could lead to a more secure and successful career. After all, the NCEES and other relevant organisations do a lot to ensure the quality and excellence of the engineering services provided to the public.

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