The Engineering Profession in Canada

Chartered Engineer versus Canadian Professional Engineer

By Stephen C. Armstrong P.Eng. CEng FIMechE


Canada’s engineering profession is uniquely regulated.  Each of the thirteen provinces and territories has legislated that engineering work may only be performed by individuals who meet specific experiential and educational requirements and hold a valid Professional Engineer (“P.Eng.”) license.  Unlicensed individuals may work within the engineering profession, but are prohibited from using the title “Engineer” and must work under the supervision of a responsible license-holder.

Responsibility for enforcing the various engineering acts has been assigned to provincial and territorial engineering associations such as Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), Ordre des ingénieurs du Quebec (OIQ) and Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC).  These organizations operate under strict legislative mandates and are responsible for granting licenses, upholding professional standards, and prosecuting unlicensed practitioners.

While an important side-effect of Canada’s regulations is to protect and enhance the status of Engineers, the rules were originally motivated and implemented to protect the public from substandard engineering practices.  This ethos is paramount in the licensing process, which assesses applicants against very particular standards prescribed by legislation.  The specificity of these requirements frequently frustrates international engineering professionals who come to Canada with vast experience and eminent qualifications, only to find their credentials are not recognized by local licensing bodies.

About the Author:

Stephen Armstrong is recognized internationally as an expert in change management.  He started his career with an aeronautical engineering apprenticeship at Short Brothers in Belfast and later moved into management consultancy at KPMG.  In 1993 he founded AMGI and built it into a boutique management consultancy that has improved the business operations of many blue chip companies around the world.

In 2009 Stephen was appointed adjunct Lecturer and later Professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Technology.  He has developed and taught numerous Masters Courses including “History and Philosophy of Engineering” and “Management of Innovation” and has published several books including Engineering and Product Development Management – The Holistic Approach.  Stephen won the Medal for Engineering Excellence at the 2010 Ontario Professional Engineering Awards.

A series of influential roles for the IMechE (Chair of Central Canada Branch, International Trustee, Vice-Chair of International Strategy Board and Member of Council) and PEO (Mentor for Engineering Intern Program and Member of Election Governance Committee) has given Stephen unparalleled insight into the philosophical and practical differences between the ways that Chartered Engineers and Professional Engineers are established.

About this Article:

This article is an edited compilation of answers and remarks that Stephen has occasionally provided to Chartered Engineers who ask about licensing as a Professional Engineer in Canada.  His observations have previously been published in on-line media and are personal, revealing, and occasionally provocative.   They are not, in any way, intended to represent the official position of the IMechE or any other organization.

The Subject of the Chartered Engineer qualification Versus the Canadian Professional Engineer license

An issue that continuously raises its head over and over for UK, Commonwealth or Irish Chartered Engineers who come to Canada is “Can I get the Professional Engineer license?”  This has been a contentious subject since long before I immigrated to Ontario in the early 1980s and over the years a number of internationally trained engineers have sought my advice.  Here are some of the scenarios and my responses – I think this will be most helpful to CEngs seeking licensing in Ontario.

  1.  University Professor seeking P.Eng. license

A UK-trained engineer had been offered a tenured academic position in the Faculty of Engineering at an Ontario University.  One of the requirements for the job was to be licensed as a P.Eng. – I believe this was necessary in order for the course to be accredited.  The candidate was a UK qualified CEng, a Chartered Physicist and had a PhD in physics.  He wanted to know how to obtain the P.Eng. license and I had to tell him to expect difficulties; his academic background was short on number of engineering science and practice courses and he lacked real engineering experience.

I made my own journey through the P.Eng. licensing process in 1984.  From the very start I observed discontent, often bordering on anger, amongst UK CEngs who were unable to obtain a license in Canada.  It has to be recognized that P.Eng. is not a qualification like CEng, instead it is a license to practice administered at the provincial level.  Law underwrites the P.Eng. license - it is a serious affair and there are consequences to its issuance and use.

The licensing process is not about “status” although this is certainly a by-product – many P.Eng. holders do not practice engineering in the public domain and rarely use their stamp to approve drawings, but they maintain their license as it bestows social status in the workplace and even among the general public.

There are strict requirements to be met before a P.Eng. license will be granted and there is no “grandfathering” based on age, experience or achievement.  PEO will never accept CEng as an exemption from the academic requirements, nor will it defer to the Washington Accord when deciding whether an applicant’s engineering academic qualifications are admissible.  Engineering academics in particular may find themselves unable to meet the experience requirements unless they can point to some form of basic engineering practice, such as design of equipment etc.

It is interesting to observe that many recent presidents of the IMechE would be unable to obtain an engineering license in Canada because they hold HNC, HND, City and Guilds or CEI qualifications.  They would be assigned a program of 10-20 technical exams which would take around 10 years to complete, or they could go back to University and sit a 4 year accredited degree instead.  Obviously neither route is practical for individuals who are in the later stages of their professional careers.  The point is that Canada’s licensing bodies are not permitted to apply “judgment” even when indicated by common sense, and many UK engineers have a hard time understanding this.

As far as the PEO is concerned, what matters is the applicant’s first degree and this must be in an engineering discipline – I think they will still accept a UK Bachelor of Engineering degree even though a Masters is now required for CEng registrants.  In all cases, PEO will review the applicant’s detailed university transcript and make an individual assessment.  Applicants with degrees in physics, mathematics or computer science would either be rejected outright or assigned an exhaustive set of engineering science courses and technical exams.  CSci (Chartered Scientist) or CPhys (Chartered Physicist) has no traction with PEO.

Remember that the UK’s engineering profession is centered on professional institutions and learned societies whereas Canada’s profession is governed by provincial legislation, licensing, and the precept that the public must be protected.  Consequently the objectives, strategies and council discussions of – for example – the IMechE are entirely different to those of – another example – PEO.  These organizations are totally different animals - the only thing in common is the front line work that their members perform, i.e.  design, build, operate, maintain, manage etc.

2.  Can a UK CEng get an Australian CPEng to aid in getting a P.Eng. license?  Are there any other angles one can use to get a P.Eng.?

Engineers Canada has signed Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) with Australia and some other countries, but has no specific agreements with UK institutions.  The questioner asked whether it is notionally possible for a CEng to register as an Australian Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng) via the MRA that IMechE and Engineers Australia established in 2010, and subsequently to license as a Canadian P.Eng. under the Canada-Australia MRA.

I would be very surprised if PEO or any other provincial or territorial licensing body will accept CPEng without looking at the applicant’s total formation from the bachelor’s degree plus experience.  Having worked with PEO, Engineering Council UK (ECUK) and IMechE, I know their systems pretty well and have never heard of PEO accepting any non USA/Canada professional engineering qualification outright.

Each provincial or territorial licensing body employs a Registrar – the role is typically combined with that of Chief Executive – who is legally accountable for the licensing process.  Let’s imagine a UK engineer with an HNC/HND/CEng background registers as a CPEng in Australia and then licenses as a P.Eng. through the Canada-Australia MRA.  This engineer designs a bridge and applies his or her official P.Eng. stamp to the drawings, and the structure subsequently collapses causing several deaths.  The ensuing investigation reveals that the engineer lacked the minimum education (accredited BEng or BASc) for licensing, and determines that the Registrar breached the Engineers Act and is therefore liable in part for the disaster.

The Canadian approach to academic assessment has nothing to do with snobbery or one-upmanship.  Licensing bodies are narrowly focused on comparing the candidate’s qualifications to specific definitions enshrined in law – keep in mind that any error could land the Registrar (their Chief Executive) in court.  The process is about “ticking the boxes” and not significantly influenced by the applicant’s experience or achievements, even if these are outstanding.

Consider an applicant with an overseas Mechanical Engineering degree who applies for a P.Eng. license in Ontario.  PEO’s Academic Review Committee will compare the applicant’s degree transcript to accreditation standards set by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB).  The reviewers will ask questions like “Did the applicant pass Fluid Mechanics Level 3?” and write “yes” or “no” on the form.  If the applicant’s whole degree is found to meet CEAB’s accreditation standards there should be no further exams but this is not guaranteed.  Many applicants have to undergo an interview where they are reviewed by peers in their declared field, and if it is decided the candidate is weak in one subject they will assign a specific examination to be passed before the application can proceed further.   Once examinations have been set there is little opportunity to appeal.

The Canadian system is much more black-and-white than the UK system.  One could challenge whether this rigidity is effective – you have to wonder how many extremely eminent engineers are deterred from licensing in Canada because of the way the regulations are framed – but that debate is outside the scope of my comments to you.  In contrast the UK’s system recognizes a broader range of entry paths to the profession, but it is hard to imagine such a degree of flexibility working in the Canadian environment where “engineering” and “engineers” are matters of objective regulation and legal definition.  Many UK CEngs come from non-engineering backgrounds (Computer Science, Physics, Mathematics etc) and there are cases where a CEng may have been rejected for registration by one institution but accepted by another – I know of one individual with an HNC, an MBA, and 28 years of experience who had been rejected by IMechE but accepted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).  Could it be the IET is more liberal and open-minded?  There are currently 36 UK engineering institutions entitled to award the CEng / IEng / EngTech titles and whilst all comply with ECUK standards, they are autonomous bodies and not bound by an overarching legal framework.  The point is the UK system for registering Chartered Engineers is open to interpretation and subjectivity of the individuals administering the process at any given time.

In Canada it is rare to hear discussion about which path to P.Eng. is best, and unlike the UK there is no debate about whether apprenticeships, university or any other training permutations make for more effective engineers.  The Canadian engineering community and generally the wider public have long accepted that “Engineer” is a title like “Doctor” or “Lawyer” that is reserved for those who have studied at university, passed demanding examinations, and been admitted by their professional associations or societies.

It is interesting to compare social and cultural aspects in the development of the profession.  The UK’s engineering culture was forged by its history of strict class structure, hierarchies of every kind, and the complex and disruptive transformations of the industrial revolution.  Canada inherited some social hierarchies from its colonial forbears, but these handed-down conjectures and norms have long been redundant in areas such as engineering where Canada developed its own definitions and laws.  It can be a struggle for UK-centered thinking to grasp or accept these patterns, and many UK engineers have a hard time conceptualizing Canada’s distinct engineering culture and governance.  None of this means Canada lacks a class structure – educational snobbery is big and many Canadian workplaces have a hierarchical divide between engineers and technologists that is rarely seen in the UK.

A last point – I have many UK friends in Canada who are CEng with physics, mathematics or computer science backgrounds, or IMechE CEngs with HNC/HND qualifications, and there is no way they could license as a P.Eng. unless they submit to years of study and exams.  Most work in management or entrepreneurship, and those in specific engineering roles have accepted to work under a licensed P.Eng. and not call themselves “engineer” in public.

3.  Does an engineer who works as a company employee require a P.Eng.?

In Ontario there is an “Industrial Exception” clause in the Engineers Act that allows unlicensed employees to carry out engineering work on manufacturing equipment and machinery in their workplace.  In 2010, following years of campaigning by PEO, the Government of Ontario passed a bill to repeal the clause with effect from 1 September 2013.  However there was uproar amongst manufacturers and employers and in June 2013 the implementation was postponed to an as-yet undefined date.

Here is a link to PEO’s web page.  I warn you there is lots of legal language.!

It is very common for unlicensed individuals to work in engineering roles for Canadian employers, indeed a license cannot be obtained until the applicant has acquired four years of engineering experience.  The main restrictions on unlicensed individuals are that they cannot use the title “Engineer” (or any derivative) and cannot offer engineering services to the public.  Some types of practice – say mechanical and electrical design for buildings – require drawings to be stamped by a P.Eng. so license-holders have a distinct career advantage.  Other industries – say automotive suppliers – have less explicit need to employ license-holders but companies still see the P.Eng. designation as an important “badge of honour”.

4.  What is the difference between UK engineering institutions and Canadian licensing bodies?

If you attend a PEO Council Meeting – a grand affair – you will hear constant discussion about the “Act” (the Ontario Professional Engineers Act) and the deepest meaning of its legalistic wording will be carefully explored and analyzed.  The conversations are centered about interpreting the act, enforcing it, meeting its standards, protecting the public and so on.

At an IMechE Trustee Meeting, the discussion is all about advancing and building the Institution and enhancing the status of engineers through strategic initiatives in energy, transportation, education, etc.  Every effort is made to influence UK government policy (white papers) and get as many media mentions as possible (TV chats, expert opinions).  IMechE’s public exposure is converted to a £ value and tracked as a monthly metric.  There is a big thrust to recruit, particularly in Asian growth regions.  Bottom-line financial performance is analyzed in detail, and monthly revenue performance targets and revenue generation initiatives are examined.  These are the Institution’s current values, and they sit alongside the “Learned Society” dimension that was once paramount but now tends to be secondary.

The concept of “Institution” is primarily about thinking and discussion in a shared community, and the IMechE and other UK engineering institutions were conceived in this vein.  Its governance structure is member-driven, in name if not in effect.  The past is treasured – there are various toasts to “The Institution”, rooms dedicated to institution history, and pictures of former presidents over many walls all the way back to George Stephenson in 1847.  This heritage and legacy, reinforced through an impressive headquarters, has been dominant in the Institution’s culture.

The IMechE, along with its contemporaries in the UK “Big 3” (the IMechE, Institution of Civil Engineers and Institution of Engineering and Technology), was keen to move beyond the perception of an elitist, insular “club” and enthusiastically embraced a more businesslike corporate culture.  This transformation has further advanced with the admission of engineering technicians as full corporate members.  The business logic is undeniable – expand the membership to include the entire engineering team, bring in more membership revenue and secure market share.

My conclusion is that the UK Big 3 are mostly driven by employee executives who have a business management ethos, rather than professional practice ideology, at their core.  The latter is absent because there is no law to underpin it.  The volunteer councils and trustee board are basically steering committees which operate like boards of directors, but it is the employee directors who hold real authority to drive initiatives and they do this by soliciting volunteer buy-in.  The overall strategic thinking in the UK Big 3 is that bigger institutions will have more influence over industry and government.

The Canadian engineering governance model contrasts sharply with the UK’s.  Licensing bodies exist purely and simply to enforce the Engineers Act of each provincial or territorial jurisdiction.  There are no grand global strategies for “revenue growth” or “market penetration”.  Revenues and expenditure are considered to be just one of the pillars on which the organization functions – important, but not prime.  Corporate thinking is absent and business planning is minimal.  These are staid organizations whose organizational focus and strategic thinking are devoted to advancing the role of the engineer in society via the Engineers Act.

Another important difference relates to advocacy.  The UK’s institutions see promotion of their members’ professional and economic interests as part of the mission and a core competence, whereas Canada’s licensing bodies consider this activity to be in conflict with their main purpose.  To quote from PEO’s website:  “A public-interest organization must place the general interests of the largest portion of the population (in this case, all citizens of Ontario) at the forefront of any debate, lobby activity, or service provision”.  The advocacy role in Ontario is taken by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) whose mandate includes promoting the profession, influencing government policy, public outreach and so on.  In contrast to PEO, membership is voluntary, much like the UK’s institutions.  Approximately 16,000 of Ontario’s 73,000 P.Eng.s are members of OSPE.  There also exist various engineering associations organized around functional disciplines that follow the “learned society” model, including the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers and the Canadian Society of Mechanical Engineers.  Unlike their UK counterparts they have no authority to accredit degree programs or award qualifications and titles.

5.  Can an Irish CEng get a P.Eng. license in Ontario through the Canada-Ireland Mutual Recognition Agreement?

Engineers Canada signed an MRA with Engineers Ireland on 27th February 2009 and published a press release saying “The Agreement enhances the international mobility of professional engineers by permitting licensed engineers in one country to be licensed and work in the other country with relative ease”.

It must be understood that any agreement signed by Engineers Canada – an umbrella organization at the federal level – has no legal authority in the provinces and territories.  Some jurisdictions may recognize an Engineers Ireland CEng, but PEO will not, and all applicants with non-CEAB degrees face detailed individual assessment of their educational qualifications as well as experience.

The reality that frustrates many license applicants from overseas is that Canada's international – supposedly reciprocal – agreements are of no consequence to PEO owing to legal issues explained earlier.  Please read paragraph 1.2 of the Ireland-Canada MRA (my italics):  “...[Engineers Canada] is the national organization of the provincial and territorial Associations/Ordre that regulates the profession of engineering in Canada.  The individual Associations/Ordre are autonomous and are responsible for registration/licensure of engineers in their province/territory.  Engineers Canada has no authority, implied or otherwise, over the Associations/Ordre.  Each province/territory legislatively requires that engineers obtain registration/licensure where they intend to perform services”.

© 2023 Institution of Mechanical Engineers. IMechE is a registered charity in England and Wales number 206882