Vantage Point: What’s in a Name?

A 212Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

During introductions under social circumstances and asked what I do for a living, I say, "I am a surveyor." In four states, that also means licensed professional land surveyor, but in terms of what I do, it is surveying. Based on the turmoil in Oregon recently, though, I am wondering how to rephrase that introduction outside of those four states. It seems that strict adherence to regulatory definitions of practice mean that a mere verbal claim to be a practitioner is sufficient to violate many states’ rules about who can use certain words to describe themselves.

The case raising these thoughts is that of Mats Jarlstrom, an Oregonian who has a degree in engineering from a Swedish university and worked as an electrical engineer for Sweden’s Air Force and later for an electronics company before his arrival in the US in 1992. Currently he is a self-employed consultant who tests audio products, and repairs, upgrades, and calibrates test instruments. When he became interested in traffic signal timing (due to his wife’s receiving a ticket, but not seeking to overturn the citation), he analyzed the current mathematical formula that establishes how long a light stays yellow. The formula was drafted in 1959, and Mr. Jarlstrom found that it failed to account for the fact that drivers slow down to turn right. His error evolved from sharing his thoughts with the formula’s creator, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the media, and the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. His letter to the Board said, "I would like to have your support and help to investigate and present the laws of physics related to transportation engineering in the State of Oregon." His offer to make a presentation of his theories to the Board for review and comment earned him an immediate investigation lasting two years and culminating in a $500 fine for improperly using the title "electronics engineer" and publicly stating "I’m an engineer."

During the investigation Mr. Jarlstrom asserted that he was exempt from registration requirements because he does not make final engineering decisions or offer engineering services directly to the public. On receiving the Board’s final 10-page decision, Mr. Jarlstrom hired the Institute for Justice to represent him in a suit claiming infringement of his First Amendment rights in the Oregon Board’s condemnation of his discussion of the mathematics of traffic signals if he referred to himself using the word "engineer." The Board’s final order in Case 2929 reads:

"By reviewing, critiquing, and altering an engineered ITE formula, and submitting the critique and calculations for his modified version of the ITE formula to members of the public for consideration and modification of Beaverton, Oregon’s and `worldwide’ traffic signals, which signals are public equipment, processes and works, Jarlstrom applied special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences to such creative work as investigation, evaluation, and design in connection with public equipment, processes and works. Jarlstrom thereby engaged in the practice of engineering under ORS 672.005)1_(b)… [By] asserting to the public media in correspondence that he is a (`Swedish’) engineer, Jarlstrom held himself out as, and implied that he is, an engineer…" (There are various other regulations cited as being violated as well.)

During the wait for a court decision, the National Society of Professional Engineers wrote to the Washington Post to clarify that there is a distinction between an engineer and a licensed professional engineer, primarily being the "legal and ethical duty of PEs to hold paramount the public health, safety, and welfare in their designs, construction, and observations. It isn’t a matter of one being superior or smarter than the other, the piece of paper you hold from your college or university, where you earned your degree, or the organizations you’ve joined. It is a matter of meeting the legal prerequisites for carrying out the practice of engineering on projects that have public safety implications as defined by that particular state’s law and rules." NSPE closes its cry for greater public attention and awareness as to what it is to be a professional engineer by saying, "… the term `engineer’ is often misused–and even abused–by individuals and companies to describe a wide assortment of non-engineering activities and services in ways that mislead, deceive, and at times put the public at risk. Engineering titles, like medical and law titles, should be reserved to those who are licensed or have graduated from an accredited engineering program."

After arguing for limited use of the word "engineer," this final statement intrigues me. Mr. Jarlstrom does have an engineering degree. But what kind of accreditation is NSPE calling for? By each state’s registration board? By ABET? Do foreign degrees have any standing?

In the end, Mr. Jarlstrom won his suit, and while not seeking refund of the $500 fine he does ask for legal fees.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

Sidebar:
For those who wish to make their own decisions about whether it was Jarlstrom or the State Board overstepping appropriate bounds, here are a few articles providing background and opinions (there are many more). It was George Will’s editorial that first drew Jarlstrom’s story to my attention, but further reading has made the question a broader one for me.

Institute for Justice, "Illegal Math? A state board in Oregon is punishing people for talking about traffic lights and any other `engineering’ topics’"
http://ij.org/case/oregon-engineering-speech/

Jarlstrom, Mats, "I Am an Engineer"
http://theinstitute.ieee.org/ieee-roundup/blogs/blog/mats-jrlstrm-i-am-an-engineer

National Society of Professional Engineers, Letter to the Washington Post
https://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/Letter-George-Will-060917.pdf

Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering & Land Surveying, "In the Matter of: Mats Jarlstrom, Case No. 2929, Final Order by Default."
http://ij.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/OR-Math-Jarlstrom-Final-Default-OrderIJ084769xA6322.pdf

Pretz, Kathy, "Does having a License Make You an Engineer?" (NOTE: The varying views posted in response to this article are interesting.)
http://theinstitute.ieee.org/ieee-roundup/blogs/blog/does-having-a-license-make-you-an-engineer

Will, George, "Engineering without a License"
http://www.nationalreview.com/article/448392/oregon-engineering-license-case-matsjarlstrom-free-speech

A 212Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

 

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.