Is it knowledge or government approval that defines an engineer?

Certification requirements are sometimes logical constructs. When it comes to the medical field, one would like to know that a surgeon who is operating on their bodies knows what they’re doing. Of course, certification does not necessarily mean one will not make mistakes or make bad decisions.

Then there are more absurd licensing requirements for professions that shouldn’t even require government certification. For example, in Washington state to become a certified manicurist, one must perform 600 training hours and pay $150 to take a test, costs that could amount to several thousand dollars.

Why is this necessary if someone knows how to perform the job and shows an obvious understanding for the job?

This is the case a self-described engineer made by Mats Järlström in Portland, Oregon. He was fined by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for practicing engineering without a license. The offense was pitching a new mathematical formula for intersection traffic cameras.

Järlström’s proposal has been pitched to everyone from local media to “60 Minutes”, as well as the sheriff and traffic-light technology professionals. His ideas have obviously gained interest, as he was invited to speak at the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

But that wasn’t enough for the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. Despite someone showing an understanding of mathematics and the subject matter, his use of a title wasn’t appropriate because he didn’t have a government certification.

At this point, it isn’t a battle over whether one is an engineer. It is a battle over the size of government. Specifically, this is a battle over the level of government interference in our lives and the regulation over an industry. Is it necessary for engineering standards to be set by the government? There are likely arguments in favor and arguments against, but consider the case of Mats Järlström.

Järlström, who claims to have a Swedish degree in electrical engineering, has shown a depth of understanding on the issue. His ideas have attracted the attention of the media and even other professionals within the field. Instead of being denounced by other engineers as not being a certified professional with unorthodox ideas, he was invited to speak at the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

What makes one an engineer? Is it the depth of knowledge and ability to effectively apply that understanding that makes one an engineer, or is it the government certification?

It doesn’t take government approval to display an understanding of physics and mathematics.

For his part, Mats Järlström isn’t seeking damages or otherwise looking to turn an unfortunate encounter into a big payday. Instead, he’s suing for his rights and the ability of others to speak freely without government suppression. The question here is whether one can accurately describe themselves as an engineer without government approval, even if they show a depth of understanding of the issue. Furthermore, it also presents a more philosophical question about government control:

To what degree are we going to allow the government to obstruct technological progress and personal growth?

Chris Dixon is a liberty activist and writer from Maine. In addition to being Managing Editor for the Liberty Conservative, he also writes the Bangor Daily News blog "Undercover Porcupine" and for sports website Cleatgeeks.

1 Comment

  1. Many years ago I earned my Novell Network Engineer’s certificate. I recall Novell being challenged by IEEE for using the word engineer in the certification title. I thought it was funny at the time. But in all seriousness, occupational licensing and certification is really nothing more than an attempt to limit competition under the guise of quality control. Though government is the enforcer, businesses and unions are equally guilty.

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