Licensure and Certification: Two Different Forms of Professional Credentials

Licensure and Certification: Two Different Forms of Professional Credentials

BY MITCHELL A. THORNTON, PH.D., P.E. Reprinted with permission from Today's Engineer (May 2014) Copyright 2014 IEEE.


Professional credentials can come in many forms including experience, education, licensure, and certification. While experience and education are self-explanatory, the differences between licensure and certification are not as clear. The American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) recently released a new position paper entitled “What is the Difference Between Licensing and Certification for Engineering?” This informative position paper is freely available to all interested persons and is accessible from theAAES website.

The position paper was produced by the Professional Licensure Working Group (PLWG) within AAES. AAES is a multidisciplinary organization comprised of professional engineering societies including IEEE. The mission of AAES is "To serve as one voice for the U.S. engineering profession." This relatively young organization was founded in 1979 with the idea that effectiveness in public awareness and public policy could be maximized through all the various engineering societies that represent specific disciplines joining together and leveraging member resources. Within the AAES, there are several working groups composed of members from the various societies including the PLWG.

The PLWG recognized that a wide array of certifications exist among the various disciplines and that these certifications along with PE and other licenses can lead to confusion among those who are evaluating credentials. With this viewpoint in mind, the PLWG embarked on a survey and study that ultimately resulted in the production of the position paper.

Licensure is generally the process by which an authoritative body, such as the government, grants permission to an individual to engage in a particular activity. Certification is generally in the form of recognition granted by a non-governmental agency signifying that an individual possess specialized knowledge or skills. While it is not the intent of this article to summarize the position paper, some of the typical differentiating factors between a license and a certification are listed here.

Typical Characteristics of Licensure:

  • Licensure requires some form of demonstration of minimal competence in engaging in an activity in a safe manner.
  • The licensed activity is usually one that could result in damage to public health, safety, or welfare if practiced by an incompetent individual.
  • Licenses in the US are usually granted at the state rather than the federal level based on interpretations of constitutional law.
  • Licenses are often time-limited and require some form of continuing educational requirement on the part of the licensee.
  • Licensure requires demonstration of some degree of competence as determined through testing or verifiable and applicable experience.
  • Licensure may require prerequisite levels of education in specific bodies of knowledge.

Typical Characteristics of Certification:

  • In contrast to the concept of minimal competence, certifications vary widely in scope with some granted for the demonstration of basic knowledge and others requiring sophisticated mastery of an advanced topic.
  • Certification is often a voluntary credential that is not required by an authoritative body.
  • Certifying bodies are often professional organizations or even commercial entities.
  • Some certifications are designed to produce a revenue stream as well as designation in the form of a credential.

Perhaps another term should be mentioned within this discussion of credentialing instruments; that of "registration." Registration is in some sense a more general term since it simply means that one is listed on a roster or registry. From this point of view, being registered can apply to a maintained list of licensees or of those holding certifications. It is common to see reference to a registered professional engineer and while this may be technically correct, it is more common today to find the terms "licensed professional engineer" in regard to those holding the PE credential.

In summary, both licensure and registration are valid forms of credentials and each has its own unique purpose in the engineering profession. One of the most important purposes of a credential is to allow those who are unskilled in an area to evaluate or to obtain some degree of confidence in those who are skilled. From this point of view the AAES position paper is a valuable source of information for those who are seeking a qualified individual to perform professional services. The position paper is also useful for working engineers in that it clarifies the differences and similarities of the licensure and certification.


Mitchell A. Thornton, Ph.D., P.E., is a professor of computer science and engineering and a professor of electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is a member of IEEE-USA's Licensure and Registration Committee.

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