Flat White

Towards a national register of engineers who are registered

15 June 2018

1:57 PM

15 June 2018

1:57 PM

Growth is good. Growth is essential. When company executives say that, however, they are talking about growth of productivity, or market share, or revenue. They are not talking about growth of overheads. Unions, industry associations, and regulations are society’s overheads. They are not inherently productive, and so we should be very worried when they set growth targets.

I tend to get a bit too philosophical about some things. Nevertheless, before I tell you what specifically is bugging me…

The first time I read 1984, the big question on my mind was, “What portion of society is occupied with monitoring the rest?” In the book, seemingly everyone had cameras in their room watching their every move. If this was full-time, real-time monitoring, it would require 50 per cent of people to be monitoring the other 50 per cent, who must be monitoring them back. That’s not logically possible. Perhaps if each monitor watches three other people, then at least two thirds of society will not be employed as monitors, and can actually do useful things, like feeding everyone and building houses. Still, that’s one hell of an overhead!

Long ago, most people were occupied with the essential tasks of providing food and warmth and minding children. For example, six centuries ago the share of the British labour force involved in agriculture was 50 times greater than it is today. Consequently, there were only a select few that society could afford to support as overheads, who would provide minimal, essential oversight—organisation, strategy, protection, justice.

Today, the burden of providing life-needs like food, water, shelter, energy and healthcare is taken by a relatively small fraction of society: the essentia. And in order to have something to offer in return for food, everyone else, the non-essentia, do some amazing, and sometimes quite useless, things. Consider modern technology—a swathe of non-essentia have not only created personal-life-management-devices (iPhones), but actually convinced everyone that they need upgrading about once a year! Consider app developers, actors, advocates, activists, astronauts, marketing gurus, motivational speakers, telephone sanitisers…

Unfortunately, some non-essentia lack sufficient imagination or entrepreneurial spirit for the above. These are the sorts that become monitors. In the age of subsistence living, big government was not possible. As technology improves, it is increasingly feasible. Today, a scary number of people might otherwise be twiddling their thumbs if they weren’t monitoring. Things.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anyone doing nothing. A case can be made that the technological revolution’s eventual conclusion is inactivity. When everything is finally automated, the welfare non-essentia can reach saturation and we’ll all spend our days browsing face-book and being looked after by robots—like the human population in Disney’s Wall‑E. But if we were approaching the age of leisure, then surely the retirement age would be decreasing, not increasing! Besides, lack of occupation isn’t good for mental health.

So now I tell you what put me onto this rant. Engineers Australia (an industry body that does, um… things), are again advocating for a national register of engineers. The problem is, you see, that when some people, who claim to be engineers but actually aren’t, design bridges—the bridges might fall down. This doesn’t happen often, of course, but once would be bad enough, so we need to mandate that only people on the list of people we trust to do such things, will do such things.

“What,” you ask, “would qualify someone to be on the list?” Well, they will need to be a chartered engineer. “And who certifies chartered engineers?” Unsurprisingly — drum roll –it’s Engineers Australia. (There’s a couple of alternatives but it’s near-enough a monopoly). “And why do we need a register? Why don’t we just legislate that engineering be done by chartered engineers?” Good question! Answer: because registration is not about controlling the risk of incompetence, it is about controlling the risk of lying. Registration is so that you can trace who was to blame when something does go wrong – Was it the engineer, or the person so irresponsible as to employ an unregistered engineer?

In essence, that’s the stated answer, which is appalling enough, but I don’t believe it’s the real reason. You see, without registration, Engineers Australia has to sell the value of chartering to a market that is free to reject it. And generally, “reject it”, is just what the market has done—chartering is very low on engineering customers’ priority lists. Rather than see this as evidence that chartering doesn’t have much value, EA see it as evidence that the market is irresponsible and needs to be coerced. Having generally failed to market their service, they are trying to transition to legislated non-essentia.

The market is right, though; chartering doesn’t have much value.

Firstly, because it is insensitive to real competence. Unlike accounting, where chartering is used by the market, engineering is a very broad field, characterised by open-ended problems. The industry confronts a microcosm of the intersectionality problem: you may be a chartered mechanical engineer, but can you do marine engineering? Can you design submarines? Can you design submarine propellers? If chartering is to be effective at measuring competence, you’d need to be chartered for your specific and near-infinitely-divisible area of practice. Besides this failure, many of the most capable professionals have decades of experience, but no degree, so they can’t charter. In these cases the system actually rejects real competence.

Secondly, chartering is insensitive to the actual, likely causes of failure. Chartered engineers can and do make errors, so bridge-failure is not even prevented by having the “right” engineer. That’s the ad hominem fallacy. There are better known solutions to the problem. Most engineering quality systems are certified under ISO: 9000 and include peer checking, multidisciplinary review, structured risk assessment processes, individual competence portfolios and similar. These are quality philosophies that see people as individuals, not numbers. Chartering doesn’t centralise this, it only dilutes it.

(Some better solutions are already in legislation. Designs of hazardous pressure vessels, for instance, are required by law to be independently validated, meaning engineers check one another’s designs. That is much more valuable than just trusting an engineer because he’s on a register, and the engineer’s work, not qualifications, is reviewed, so no ad-hominem fallacy!)

Registration will not increase the value of chartering, but will actually decrease it. It will disincentivise improvement, because chartering will be compulsory whether it’s meaningful or not. The moment there is a national register, everyone will need to be chartered. There will be a flood of applications, and strong pressure for accepting them. Rather than deny or delay, certifiers will lower the standard until ‘Chartered Professional Engineer’ becomes a certificate you buy, rather than earn, and is henceforth worthless. Worth less, but costing Australia more.

How do I know? This is what happened when the Register of Professional Engineers for Queensland (RPEQ) was introduced, which was such a blazing success according to no known metric that they want to nationalise it.

First require university degrees, then require chartering, then require registration… the whole philosophy of monitoring is a pox. It is ultimately infeasible to prevent all possible bad things.

There are two families of solutions for risk-control. The first, oldest method for bad-thing-management is compensation after the event, which is fair, and provides a disincentive for doing bad things in the first place. This gives the market a measuring stick for the actual cost of risk—which they can balance against the actual cost of reducing it. Even under this philosophy, as our risk appetite decreases, compensation costs can increase, which increases the market-value of risk-prevention and the market demand for monitors and pushes us ever onward toward the horrendous, litigious, nanny-state horizon.

If that wasn’t bad enough, though, some say that to achieve a risk of zero, we need the second method: Stronger than mere disincentive, we need to shift the responsibility of risk-prevention to the government, and legislate monitoring! This is a dangerous game, because who knows if it is actually paying for itself? Worse still, monitors whose role is protected by legislation have no incentive for doing an efficient job. If we reach saturation of monitors, we will all just be watching one another rather than working!

Like many large businesses, society as a whole can become bloated with unproductive, even counter-productive non-essentia. In the good times, we’re swaggering around with our crotch around our knees like one of the cool kids, but when we need to run we’ll fall flat on our face. If we really want to be competitively productive and safe… we need to tighten our belts, not sink our resources into ineffective solutions. Even then, we need to face this fact: there is such a thing as ineradicable risk.

Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative, who grew up and lives in Adelaide. He graduated from the University of Adelaide in 2011, with a bachelor of Mechanical Engineering with first class honours. He now works for an engineering consultancy, primarily on oil and gas industry design projects.

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