Press for The Sutton Group Geotechnical Engineers

Press for The Sutton Group Geotechnical Engineers

John SuttonArticle in GeoStrata Magazine, May/June, 2014

By John Sutton, PE/GE, D.GE, M.ASCE, Published by ASCE/The Geo-Institute


Why Aren’t Practicing Geotechnical Engineers Rushing to Become D.GEs?

In 2008, ASCE introduced specialty certification as a continued step towards raising the status of our profession. At the time, ASCE was offering a national certification program on a par with, but not intended to supplant, state specialty licensing, such as California’s Geotechnical Engineer and Structural Engineer (which are statutory requirements for the design of certain buildings and structures). The Geo-Institute (G-I) was one of the first of ASCE’s institutes to offer specialty certifications.

The program was thoroughly researched by senior-level committees at ASCE and the G-I before being launched. But after an initial flurry of attention, specialty certification membership seems to have now “flatlined.” There are only 260 Diplomates in geotechnical engineering, out of some 11,000 G-I members. Perhaps one-third of G-I members (4,000 of the 11,000) have the necessary qualifications for the certification, so why have less than ten percent applied?

My interest in this apparent apathy began last August, when I responded to ASCE’s Civil Engineering Certification, Inc. (CEC) questionnaire on specialty certification. I looked through the current issue of Geo-Strata to check just how many of the authors had the D.GE certification — and was dismayed. I then looked to Geo-Strata’s Editorial Board listing to find only three of the eleven members were certified. And, of the Organizational Members, whose photographs we see across the banner headline in each issue of the magazine, only two of the seven representatives of the biggest employers of geotechnical engineers had admitted certification. Further, one of the eight G-I Governors did not have a D.GE, and of the three candidates for Governor this fall, two did and one did not. As Porky Pine in the comic strip Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

So, I asked, why do so many of our leaders dismiss the opportunity to certify? Here’s what I think:

The qualifications for D.GE include a master’s degree or equivalent post graduate geotechnical education and 12 years of experience with increasing responsibility. Two-thirds of the G-I members probably meet this requirement, since geotechnical engineering seems to have a greater percentage of practitioners holding advanced degrees than other branches of civil engineering.

So, the question remains: why haven’t more eligible people become specialty certified? California has about 2,000 licensed geotechnical engineers, many of whom are G-I members. They are certainly qualified, but perhaps do not see the advantage of a certification separate from licensing. Even so, that’s still 2,000 of the 8,000. What of the other 6,000 qualified members?

The D.GE application is no more difficult than a resume for a statement of qualifications. I’m sure that’s something 95 percent of us keep up-to-date. We all document our Continuing Education for our PE renewal too. So, is the application fee the hurdle to certification? Is it perhaps because it’s an out-of-pocket expense not reimbursed by the company?

But put these issues aside for a moment and ask why aren’t we proud to be specialists? My late father was a physician, an ear, nose, and throat specialist. He was certified by the American Academy of Otorhinolaryngology (about as difficult to roll off the tongue as geotechnology). He was also a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and of course had a state license to practice. (See the parallels here?) To a medical practitioner, being certified by a board of his peers was far more gratifying than any other membership or state registration.

The medical profession has set the standard for specialty certification. Would your primary care physician refer you to a non-Board-certified specialist? Not only is the answer no, but one cannot even call themselves a medical specialist unless they are Board-certified. We must grasp this model to raise the stature of geotechnical engineers. It cannot fail to improve the stature of our profession and of those certified professionals. Perhaps there will be a financial reward, too.

So, why has interest in our certification program flatlined? Is it apathy? We have known for many years that engineers don’t hold the level of respect in society that our profession deserves, and it’s our own doing. We must attain the level of respect that the medical and legal professions hold; specialty certification, following the medical model, should be one of our primary tools in this march for equality. No, the program won’t gain enough momentum for this to happen for our generation. But if we are proud of our profession and our specialty, we must pursue specialty certification for the future health of the geotechnical community.