Progressive Professions in a Progressive Province

A message from C.E.O. Barry Cavanaugh

21, Mar, 2018

Great things are often achieved through dialogue, in honesty, and in a spirit of seeking a consensus which works, in a way which takes nothing away from anyone and which adds to the common good. To that end, ASET proposes a path through which both ASET and our colleagues at APEGA may find the common ground where both can stand comfortably, in the knowledge that we serve the public interest above all.

Alberta is a place of innovation and forward motion, and through the years, it has been eminently clear to ASET that APEGA has led the nation in its approach to the profession of engineering technology, and has taken a progressive and supportive stance respecting the role of the technologist. To that end, ASET offers a modest proposal…

In the ongoing discussions between ASET and APEGA over whether ASET members certified and regulated under the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act should be described in law as to their role, function and capability, there has been a good deal of back and forth about whether the profession of “engineering technologist” should be permitted to practice “independently”. To this discourse, the realist must add that not only are there a great many such technologists who are presently doing just that–there are many others acting in that capacity who are completely unlicensed and unregulated… something that all parties agree should be remedied. Engineering work should be regulated, and performed by people who are qualified and regulated.

To be clear, and to restate the matter yet again, ASET seeks to define what the practice of engineering technology is and to both permit those who are ASET-certified to do it and regulate how they conduct that work. Our position is: 

Readers should note that it distinctly does not establish an exclusive scope of practice, but simply describes the field in which certified technologists can and may work, and then provides an exemption from the exclusive scope of the professional engineer, in the same manner as current exemptions in the scope description of engineering: (1) for members of the armed forces while employed and on duty; (2) for someone engaged in teaching engineering; (3) and for a person engaged in work with mines, minerals, pipelines, boilers, pressure vessels, building codes or safety codes for buildings as authorized by an Act or Regulation pertaining to those (often referred to as the “qualified person”). In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, is it at all contrary to the public interest to enact such a technologist-related exemption? Especially given the exhaustive, nationally accredited engineering technology programs at Alberta polytechnic institutions and colleges which graduate those professionals, and the rigorous certification program instituted by ASET to ensure that only the fully competent, and those who submit to mandatory continuing professional development and a fulsome code of ethics are admitted to the profession?

Given that the competencies-based assessment program developed by ASET, with the certification examinations developed in parallel, have been recognized by the Government of Alberta and by international certification and accreditation bodies as “state of the art” and “industryleading”, and given the Government of Alberta approved syllabi in effect at the nationally accredited polytechnics and colleges in Alberta – evidence which has gone completely unchallenged (and for good reason) – one is given to wonder how our proposal has not been embraced, much less adopted, by all concerned.

Does the resistance to our proposal involve a wider motivation, based on the assumption that only a licensed professional engineer is actually capable of any of the work described in their broad scope of practice? If so, then one must wonder at the recognition, in the Act’s exemptions from that exclusive scope, of an apparently fairly wide range of exceptions, presumably based on the explicit recognition that some others with a lesser “scope” than the professional engineer, can actually do some of the engineering or other work that a professional engineer does… even teaching engineering at a university. That is clearly the case in the Act. So the assumption that only a professional engineer can do any of the work in their scope of practice is refuted in the Act itself. Res ipsa loquitor… the thing speaks for itself.

In competition law, policymakers and legislators have long sought to ensure that no profession exerts sole control over its own regulatory process and the scope of its’ members’ work. Even the operation of provincial legislation is subject to the oversight of federal competition law. Ironically, licensing to protect quality in the practice of a profession has often had the unwanted but corollary effect of diminishing the ability for competition. Licensing one class or category of professionals should never be taken to mean that no other will ever be qualified to do any part of that same role. Experience, and history, demonstrate that it is usually the practitioners of a profession themselves who, once they have the ability to selfregulate, then define, and expand, the boundaries of what is controlled by their profession, often inappropriately and to the exclusion of other professions or later developing professions.

A look at the definition of the “practice of engineering” may be helpful here. It means (paraphrasing the Act only slightly) “the reporting on, advising on, evaluating, designing, preparing plans and specifications for or directing the construction, technical inspection, maintenance or operation of any structure, work or process that is aimed at the discovery, development or utilization of matter, materials or energy or in any other way designed for the use and convenience of humans, and that requires in that reporting, advising, evaluating, designing, preparation or direction the professional application of the principles of mathematics, chemistry, physics or any other related applied subject…”

One might be justified in the thought that not only are the existing exemptions in the Act appropriate and necessary, but that there may well be others who are qualified to do some part of this work, without supervision but within limitations based on their education and credentials, as established and regulated by their own professional body, which best understands their capabilities, limits and role. That, put simply, is the underlying rationale for ASET’s proposition. The public interest in this matter would surely include a broadly based review of both who’s doing what and who is generally trained and qualified to do what. It is not sufficient, arguably, for any organization other than government to define what is in the public interest and what boundaries limit professions or are controlled by professions. There is a danger in the sort of exclusive control of an entire field of human endeavour which excludes others by virtue of a simple established, proprietorial interest in certain types of work, even if only founded in an inability or an unwillingness to understand those others’ capacities, and even if wellintentioned. The evidence, we suggest, makes clear that engineering technologists are capable of some of the work described in the “practice of engineering” scope; and we have seen no evidence to the contrary.

In all, it is reasonable to suggest that the issue which has arisen from the legislative review discussions of ASET and APEGA is broader than either had anticipated and the matter has become more complex due to that; however, rational discourse toward the solution is imperative… and that is in the public interest for a certainty.

The legitimate public interest in the definition of engineering technology and the range within which technologists may both work and be regulated is apparent, and calls for something beyond its outright dismissal by anyone, no matter how close their connection and no matter how direct their interest. This development was predictable from the outset, when far-thinking professional engineers acted with engineering technologists to create and recognize the then emerging profession… in the public interest… and when, in 2007, the Government of Alberta saw fit to include the engineering technologist profession in the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act, as a first step forward. This development was inevitable, and the matter calls for a positive and timely resolution, so that the professions and the public may see clearly that what governs is the public good, the public interest.

Let us move forward.

Barry Cavanaugh,