When Kent MacDonald placed an ad in the local newspaper for a “systems engineer” to join Ram Computer Group Inc.’s Calgary office a few years ago, he thought he was following standard hiring practices. But a letter he received soon after from the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA) suggested otherwise.

MacDonald recalled that the letter asked Ram to “cease and desist” using the title “engineer” in its ad. APEGGA said the company had no right to the term, since it was not registered with APEGGA as a firm employing engineers, nor did it seek applicants with engineering degrees.

“I guess I was a little surprised,” MacDonald said during a recent interview. “I hadn’t anticipated the conflict that might cause. In this industry, I started as a ‘customer engineer’ when I was a field tech. There was also a ‘field engineer.’ In the IT industry, the term ‘engineer’ has been used pretty liberally across many job titles.”

And that’s the problem, said Dave Todd, APEGGA’s director of compliance. “It’s very prevalent in the information technology industry and the advanced technology industry as well. It seems to be more of an accepted term in those industries. It’s an ongoing process with us.”

Although MacDonald’s case is long past, Todd said the problem remains. In the high-tech industry, the title of “engineer” is too often taken for granted and used improperly, and APEGGA is concerned that such loose terminology – coupled with one high-profile debate on the subject – will cause confusion.

“The compliance area, which is my responsibility, deals with ‘non-members’ – non-members being individuals or corporations using the name in such manner as to imply that they are a member of APEGGA – or it deals with practising, if they’re practising and not registered,” Todd said.

“If you are a graduate engineer and you want to practice in Alberta, you have to register with APEGGA… And also if you want to call yourself a professional engineer – use the title ‘P.Eng’ – you have to be registered. The word ‘engineer’ is another area we challenge, if it’s used in a manner which expressly or by implication would mean that the individual is an engineer or permit-holder.”

Although each engineering body like APEGGA in other provinces uses slightly different wording, the message remains the same, Todd said: only those entitled to put “engineer” on their business cards should do so.

There are nuances to this order, however. “A lot of electrical engineers, for example, if they’re working in the [IT] industry, could call themselves ‘software engineers’ legitimately,” Todd said. “We have a code of ethics that says we’re only supposed to practice in areas where we’re competent. If the electrical engineer has become competent in that area, they could use the title. They’re not misrepresenting themselves as long as they’re registered.”

It costs individual engineers $195 to register with APEGGA. Companies must pay $205.

Todd said this strict compliance speaks to the public’s protection. “We have a discipline process if somebody practices contrary to the (engineer’s) code of ethics.… Somebody who’s not registered doesn’t have the same accountability.”

Discipline can be fierce. Todd said most of the companies and individuals on APEGGA’s mailing list comply with the organization’s cease-and-desist request. But for those that don’t, APEGGA could pull out the big guns: civil prosecution leading to a court-ordered injunction or criminal prosecution with fines as high as $6,000 and potentially a six-month jail stay on third offence.

But not everyone is as convinced of the term’s rightful place as APEGGA is.

“I guess I’m of two minds,” said Bill Dziadyk, P.Eng. and vice-president, secure e-business with Cinnabar Networks Inc. in Ottawa. “I do recognize that the term ‘engineering’ is widely used in the software industry and in networking, to describe a sort of journey-person role. If you set up a project, some people will say, ‘The project manager is so-and-so, the engineer is so-and so…’ They’ll use it in a generic sense to say who is providing that delivery.”

Still, Dziadyk is a professional engineer himself, so “whenever I see it happening in my organization, I’ll put a stop to it… It has meaning and the more you use the term outside of that definition, the more diluted it becomes.”

Farhad Engineer said he understands APEGGA’s opinion. Despite his last name and title – systems engineer with Sequenom Inc., a biotech company in San Diego – Engineer does not have an engineering degree. “But I am Cisco-certified and Microsoft-certified,” he said.

Asked if APEGGA’s stance is fair when applied to the IT industry, where the title is common, Engineer said, “I guess in the strict sense of ‘engineering,’ yes. An engineering degree really takes you into a much [deeper] level of competence, as opposed to just getting certified with one of these programs.…But this is something I would suggest the people complaining about these titles should probably take up with Microsoft and Cisco.”

Todd said that last year APEGGA joined forces with the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) to take on Microsoft Corp. The software giant licences “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers” when students complete a course. APEGGA asked the company to change “engineer” to “expert” in its accreditation. The end result amounted to a compromise.

“We thought some education was required here, so we held a corporate reception with all of the people offering these courses and told them what APEGGA was all about, because most of them didn’t know,” Todd said. “As a result of this, we got Microsoft’s attention. We had a meeting with them in Redmond last year and they agreed to delete the word ‘engineer’ from their title, for the program in Canada at least.”

That is, in Canada the title of MCSE is never spelled out, so the dilemma over what to call the last word – “engineer” or “expert” – is moot, albeit only for the moment, said Microsoft Canada Training and Certification Manager Pat Meta. She remembers when the CCPE went to Redmond for those MCSE discussions. But she also remembers Microsoft’s failed attempt to change the designation globally. Not everyone, it seems, agrees with the CCPE’s opinion on the matter.

“We went forward with a lot of studies with our MCSE community worldwide,” Meta said. “We did surveys and we questioned them on what they thought of the term, whether they would be happy with such a brand change, etc.…The answer came back as ‘no,’ they would not be happy with the term ‘expert’ in replace of ‘engineer.'”

Why not?

“They didn’t feel that [‘expert’] would be the same bar as ‘engineer.’ They didn’t feel that ‘expert’ carried the same regard.”

So while in the rest of the world the “E” stands for “engineer,” in Canada MCSE means…”MCSE.” But that might change, Meta said.

“In Canada, we have to go back now and look at our rights or requirements to use the term in Canada. We’re currently working with the CCPE in those discussions.”

Ram’s MacDonald said he has no quarrel with APEGGA or any other engineers’ associations. “I guess if I put myself in their shoes and appreciate that ‘engineering’ is a distinction that people spent four years getting their accreditation for, I guess I would be protective of it too.…I didn’t have an appreciation for it until I received their letter. I don’t have an issue with it, but it is in contrast with the liberalism that the IT industry has used in the past.”

MacDonald added that he still sees “a few manufacturers and others using the term, but we make a concerted effort when we document and address our people on cards. It’s now ‘network consultant’ or ‘systems consultant.'”

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