Scope of Practice: Legislative Review and The Rights and Recognition of Technologists as a Profession

08, Nov, 2017

Since its inception as a Society in 1963, ASET has continually developed its role as a certifier of applied science, engineering and geoscience technicians and technologists – consciously and deliberately emulating the processes and approaches of a self-regulating profession to learn how to properly assess and regulate professionals and to establish a high bar of academic and experience qualifications, as well as a high standard of ethical and professional conduct for its members.  In achieving the designations awarded by ASET, its members voluntarily undertook many or most of the same obligations as others in self-regulated professions.  The goals of this noteworthy undertaking were straightforward: protection of the public through the most rigorous qualification and ethical standards, and recognition of the emergence of this new profession.  

ASET sought to honestly and demonstrably take its place in the world of the engineering team.  After all, the advent of the technology programs at NAIT and SAIT in the 1970s were meant by Government and those institutions to recognize the emergence of a new group of professions capable of doing unique work, both under supervision and independently, working with professional engineers, architects, geoscientists, and the like.  The work of NAIT, SAIT, the Colleges, and ASET has resulted in tens of thousands of highly capable, highly qualified members working in a wide range of disciplines and proving daily their worth and their caliber.  Engineering firms, construction companies, oil and gas enterprises, municipal and provincial government… many of the most important industries in the province, including small business, have come to rely on the knowledge and skill of the Certified Engineering Technologist and the Certified Technician.

In the early 1990s, ASET undertook discussions with APEGA toward recognition of the scope of practice of an engineering or geoscience technologist, with the hope of legislative amendment to reflect that definition of what a technologist is and does, and the extension of regulation, in the public interest, to the profession.  Facilitated discussions between the committees delegated by both ASET and APEGA, under the auspices of the Government of Alberta, actually reached an agreement about the fitting description of a definition of practice. It recommended to the executives, councils, and members of both ASET and APEGA, 08 August 1994, that:

“Practice of applied science technology and engineering technology means:

Accepting responsibility for 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:

  1. Aimed at the discovery, development or utilization of matter or energy or in any other way designed for the use and convenience of society;
  2. Concerned with safeguarding of life, health, property, environment, public welfare or economic welfare; and
  3. In accordance with legislation and industry recognized codes, standards, procedures and practices,

Through the application of established engineering or applied science principles and methods of problem solving.”

Before that agreed scope of practice could be enacted, or even proposed to Government, in fact within days, APEGA Council rescinded its agreement

Through the years since, the issue of scope of practice for technologists has been a problem for relations between ASET and APEGA.  When the issue came up again more than a decade ago now, and ASET was seeking from Government a clarification of the role of the profession, Government again sent ASET and APEGA to the table with a mediator.  The result of that Discussion Team process was, in 2007, legislation which included ASET in the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act, and provided for the Professional Technologist (Engineering or Geoscience) designation…a role in which a Certified Engineering Technologist could attain the right to practice engineering within codes and standards and applying established engineering or applied science principles and methods of problem solving.  

Some progress, but even then, only for practitioners who could offer a precise description of their limited scope of practice within that broader scope and demonstrate at least six years of engineering work under supervision of a P. Eng.  That limited “practice right”, if indeed it was that, was in fact the imposition of a limitation on the practice rights earlier promulgated for all certified engineering technologists.  Progress? Not likely. But at least we were now recognized in the Act, although an important piece was still missing – the scope or definition of practice.  

Where are we now?

At the time the Act was proclaimed, in 2009, Government advised ASET and APEGA that the Act would be revisited in a legislative review in some five years.  These things take time, unfortunately, and it was only in late 2016 that the process began - at the institution of ASET and APEGA, a process to which Government agreed.  The process was – by Government’s request – subject to ASET and APEGA collaborating to produce a recommendation for revision on which both agreed, and which might then be put forward for consideration as a whole and, ideally, result in revisions to the statute and regulations.  

In the process settled on, both ASET and APEGA established legislative review committees, which worked first independently (to develop their own associations’ perspectives on required changes to the legislation), and then engaged with one another to discuss various matters which each thought needed resolution. The process was intended to lead, eventually, to the presentation of a joint document to go forward to Government.  

Without a great deal of elaboration, near the end of that process, an impasse occurred - regarding the proposal by ASET that the Act should include the scope of practice for engineering or geoscience technologists.  The proposal was essentially the same as it has always been in the history of these discussions. As a result of the impasse between the legislative review committees, the resolution process in the Act led to a meeting of the Joint Councils Committee – both Executive Committees, essentially – where the issue was discussed, negotiated, and argued at length.  At the conclusion of the first such meeting, ASET’s executive officers were of the clear understanding that APEGA had agreed to the scope of practice, provided that a technologist working only under direct supervision by a P.Eng. could be exempted. In the event, it appears that there was not agreement.  Shortly after the apparent agreement, APEGA indicated that it had not agreed to the scope of practice.  Sharp exchanges followed, and correspondence.  It was finally agreed that the Joint Councils Committee would meet again.  The same topic was once again the subject of much energetic discussion.  Again, it seemed that finally there was explicit agreement about the scope of practice, and some aspects of that were put to writing and signed by those attending.  Again, shortly after, APEGA denied that there was agreement about a scope of practice for technologists.  

The next step was that APEGA independently filed its position with Government, misleadingly in the view of ASET in that it suggested that ASET was in support of APEGA’s recommendations and did not even mention ASET’s position on scope of practice.  ASET then determined it had no choice but to file its position – even though those documents would make it clear to Government that there was no agreement on any of the topics under discussion.  Government then called the parties to a meeting, to advise that unless the parties came with an agreed proposal in all its respects, it could not proceed.  

And that is where it stands now.  

The Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act, under which ASET regulates the engineering and geoscience technology professions, includes – as referred to earlier – no scope or definition of the practice of those professions.  While we regulate the admission to and the practice of engineering technology, using competencies-based assessment standards which are recognized all over North America as being state of the art and highly effective, while we require continuing professional development of our regulated members, the maintenance of professional liability insurance, adherence to a rigorous code of ethics, and a thorough and effective discipline and practice process, we administer that public responsibility only to those who voluntarily submit to it. ASET is, in every sense but one, a self-regulated profession – the equal of the legal profession, the engineering profession, the accounting profession, and so on. It is that one exceptional aspect that is troubling… this is the only self-regulating profession without a scope of practice which defines who must be regulated and describes what its members are authorized to do.

ASET, and its members, are deserving of recognition and respect – at law, and particularly, one would think, from their colleagues in their work lives – who are most often professional engineers.  In the real-life, every day world, that respect and recognition holds strongly among professional engineers, and among the organizations which employ technologists.  We have consulted with a great many of them, in this process, who actively support our aim of a scope of practice.  What reasons can there be to refuse to agree with the proposal?  

Think about this…

This is the definition we are currently using for the scope of practice we propose:

“Practice of engineering technology means: Collecting, processing and analyzing data, designing and preparing plans and specifications, and evaluating systems, processes, equipment, tools, designs, plans and specifications, aimed at the professional application and maintenance of industry-recognized codes, standards, procedures and practices applicable, and that require the professional application of the principles of mathematics, chemistry, physics or any related applied science subject to the development of technical solutions, or the teaching of engineering technology at a post-secondary educational institution.”

That description includes common elements from each of ASET’s competency profiles and reiterates the limitation to codes and standards and established principles.  

How is it, one might well ask, that it is even necessary to seek agreement on this?  In fact, ASET’s position is clear that this description is all that is requested as our scope of practice.  There are no tricks here, no sleight of hand, no hidden meanings.  Our proposal is both straightforward and reasonable. This work is what engineering technologists do every day, whether under “supervision” or not.  It is distinctly not work which requires any authentication or “sign-off”, or “stamping” by a professional engineer or by anyone.  Work within codes and standards and applying established and accepted principles is, in theory, work which anyone can do… without authentication.  The codes and standards are, themselves, the “authentication”

APEGA had agreed with us, and no doubt still would, that all engineering-related work should be regulated.  That, indeed, we suggest, is a matter of public interest.  The work which technologists do, though within codes and standards and utilizing established engineering principles, is still work which involves – very often – aspects of public safety.  And the public should know that the people doing it are regulated thoroughly and appropriately, by their own self-governing body, a body which knows what technologists do, under a governing statute which guides the profession.  

Any concern with a potential impingement on the scope of practice of the professional engineer (the language of which is sufficiently broad that many things could be) must recognize that anyone can perform work within codes and standards, not only engineers; moreover, the mere fact that a technologist is authorized to perform a certain act or undertake a certain role, within their competency and within their discipline, does not in itself preclude engineers from doing so also.  Consider the example of the Health Professions Act, which gives a scope of practice to professionals other than physicians, such as respiratory technologists, pharmacists, and many others based on their competencies and their role.  They are accountable and regulated.  And none of that takes away anything from the physician’s competence or scope of practice.  

It is more than troubling to have learned that, in its unilateral consultation with its members about our proposal for legislative change, APEGA represented that “This is not in the public interest and threatens public safety” (!).  They went on to say that no other province provides an independent scope of practice to C.E.T.s. (Well, when has that stopped Alberta from taking the lead, and doing something that needs doing?)  AND it is well to remember that ONLY Alberta has established engineering technologists as an independent, self-regulating profession under statute!  As for the inflammatory, opinionated language that “this is not in the public interest and threatens public safety”, that is an opinion simply not grounded in truth or reality, and based on a misrepresentation of ASET’s proposal. It sounds a little like the early days of physician opposition to Medicare in Canada, or like physician opposition (sorry physicians!) to nurses, pharmacists, and health science technologists acquiring scopes of practice for which they also were eminently qualified, and which they have been granted. We know how unfounded such opposition is. 

APEGA reported to Engineers Canada, in May of this year, that our proposal is that “C.E.T.s shall be given independent scopes of practice without any professional oversight”willfully disregarding and misrepresenting the fact that C.E.T.s, by virtue of legislation, are professionals at law and in practice.  Professional oversight, in a self-regulating profession, means responsibility and accountability for work. Self-oversight.  Oversight by one’s professional self-regulating organization (ASET).  In those sessions and materials, APEGA representatives are holding out that the “proposed changes are strictly ASET self-interest”, and that “Government and the public can’t be expected to understand the difference between what an engineer is qualified to do and what a technologist can do”.  While that reflects an unfortunate attitude, a paternalistic view of government, the public, and the technologist profession, one must still submit that what matters is that a professional engineer understands what she or he can do, and a technologist understands what she or he can do.  That is the whole point of engineering or technological education, and self-regulation.

It’s time to examine honestly the simplicity of our proposal.  

We are already entitled to do this work, and we do, without supervision. Many others do too, in fact, though without any regulation, and it is in the public interest to protect the public by ensuring there is quality control and accountability through regulation by ASET of that range of work, or that scope of practice.  

We want the law to reflect modern reality and to recognize this profession and its ability to protect the public and improve life in this province.  What ASET proposes is in the highest interest of the public good and public safety, and recognizes in full the coming of age of this important self-regulated profession.  

Albertans should be entitled to know who is qualified and trusted to do a given thing and to be able to get them to do it.   It is high time.