California Professional Engineer (PE) Professional Licensing Guide
The California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (PELS) regulates the practice of engineering in the state of California.
Professional Engineer (PE):
The PE licensing process is the main focus of this topic. The PE name represents a high level of training, testing and experience. Being a PE offers you the full range of professional practice in California, including being able to bid for contracts and sell engineering and design services in the state.
California licenses Professional Engineers in the following engineering disciplines: Agricultural, Chemical, Civil, Control System, Electrical, Fire Protection, Industrial, Mechanical, Metallurgical, Nuclear, Petroleum, and Traffic. Structural, Geotechnical and Soils engineers are considered subspecialties of Civil Engineer and have extra requirements for practice.
There are some specific work environments where you do not have to be licensed to work legally as an engineer. There are exemptions under certain conditions for manufacturing, for government, or for military work.
In fact, a minority of graduates of US engineering programs become PEs; most use their training in positions that do not require licensing.
One warning: you must be careful, if you leave exempt work, not to continue calling yourself an engineer or offering design services; PELS can fine people heavily in these cases.
Considering licensing or its alternatives
The PE licensing process is complex and takes years - even for graduates of accredited US engineering schools. It combines education, work experience, and performance on exams. Your education and experience before immigrating may be counted at least partially towards California licensing requirements if you can provide documentation of qualifying experience.
Many people choose not to re-license. There are many challenging and well-paid careers in engineering that do not require it. Most graduates of US engineering schools go on to work in their fields of study, but never become PEs. Whatever you decide about future licensing for your career, non-licensed positions are a way to first re-enter the field in the US.
If you want to become licensed in the future, a non-licensed position can support you and your career goals during this long-term process. Some employers even support qualifying candidates with training or pay their licensing fees.
Employment in engineering
Licensed opportunities: PE's are often employed in design firms that work in both public and private engineering projects. A design firm is a company that also must be licensed under California law in order to practice engineering. Full engineering work for local and state governments also usually requires a PE license.
- There is expected to be an increase in regulation and, therefore, in demand for licensed Professional Engineers. Since there is a limited supply of licensed engineers, it is relatively easy to find a job
Unlicensed opportunities: in any workplace involved in engineering there is a demand for skilled workers who are not licensed as PE's in California. In California, electrical and mechanical engineering in particular can be done without a PE licensing in manufacturing, research and development, mining and some other areas, including Federal employment. If you find work in these areas you may have "Engineer" in your job title without having to have the PE license. However, when changing jobs you must be sure that you are still practicing engineering legally, and are not moving into a job that requires licensing.
In many cases, unlicensed roles exist working with Professional Engineers to facilitate their work. These technical, advisory and management positions can also provide good opportunities for meaningful and well-paid work. Job titles can include:
- CADD Technician (Computer Aided Design and Drafting)
- Expert Craftsman
- Project Management Professional (PMP)
Some of these positions are described in more detail in the section Careers Related to Engineering.
The job search
Finding work in your field is probably a high priority for you. The job search can be especially competitive for immigrant professionals in a difficult economy.
- Consider your qualifications for non-licensed jobs and specify target job titles to broaden your search
- If you expect to become licensed, it is very important that you look for a workplace which has a professional engineer available to supervise you. This will allow you to meet the qualification for licensing that requires supervised work under a legally practicing engineer
- Also consider expanding your job search beyond direct hiring positions. You may want to consider temporary placement through employment agencies that specialize in engineering-related hiring. They can provide you with contract opportunities in different workplaces, benefiting both you and the employer who has a chance to see your work without making a permanent commitment
- Research small and medium-sized firms who often don't advertise openings
- Join networking and professional development groups in your areas of interest to make professional contacts and update your skills
- Wait until you are advanced in the licensing process to apply to professional associations for professional engineers
Overview of Licensing Criteria
The Professional Engineer licensing process has the following steps:
1. Register for and pass the the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE)
2. Apply for and receive Engineer-in-Training Certification
3. Accumulate 6 years of qualifying experience
4. PE licensing application
5. Pass PE exams (plus California Civil exams if civil engineer), receive license
i. Register for and pass the Fundamentals of Engineering EXam (FE)
The first step to becoming a licensed Professional Engineer in California is to pass the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying's (NCEES) Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE).
The FE Exam is a national test that most US engineering students from accredited programs take in their senior year or shortly after graduation. The FE is offered in April and in October each year in 5 locations throughout California. Each applicant must register for the FE Exam on the NCEES website, pay the NCEES examination fee, and take the FE. The FE will be explained in more detail in the Tests section.
Examinees who pass the FE Exam can then move to step two and apply to the California Board to be issued a certificate as an Engineer-in-Training.
ii. Apply for and receive engineer-in-training (eit) certification
After passing the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE), the next step is to apply for Engineer-in-Training Certification (EIT). In order to apply for EIT Certification, California requires that applicants:
- Have three years or more of engineering-related work experience anywhere in the world
- Have never been convicted of a crime related to engineering practice
- Previously passed the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE)
Note: in many other states, foreign-educated professionals cannot qualify for the exam until their credentials are evaluated (most often by CPEES, the Center for Professional Engineering Education Services). This is not the case for California. No education documentation is required with your application for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, but the Board has the right to ask for it. One drawback to this process for highly educated engineers is that you receive limited credit for your foreign education when it is time to show qualifying experience for your Professional Engineer license.
Your application package should include:
- Application form (see Important Links section)
- $50 fee, payable to the Department of Consumer Affairs
- A self addressed, stamped postcard (it will be mailed to you to confirm receipt of your application)
If approved, you will then be designated as an Engineer in Training (EIT) by the state of California. More information can be found in the Important Links section.
iii. Accumulate 6 years of qualifying experience
Engineer-in-Training (EIT) is your first legal professional title in engineering in the state of California. All EITs need to accumulate 6 years of qualifying experience before moving to the next step in licensing.
Using pre-immigration experience
Foreign education: These 6 years can include a maximum of just 2 years of your foreign education, even if you have an advanced degree in engineering. You must follow specific instructions on how to document your education - the Board requests sealed transcripts or notarized copies, and any documents not in English need notarized translations.
Foreign work experience: Your foreign work experience may qualify for the remaining 4 years of experience, but only if you can document that you worked under the supervision of an engineer who was legally practicing in the country where you worked (that person was either licensed nationally or worked in a field that did not require a license).
Earning qualifying experience through US work
If you do not have four full years of qualifying experience you can document, then you will need to earn the rest of your experience in a US workplace (there are some options for activities like studying or teaching as well). You will need to work under a legally practicing engineer (either a licensed or exempt engineer) and your work will have to include supervised engineering activities.
- Look for employment in a firm or other workplace with a professional engineer on staff and get permission for the engineer's participation in your program
- You will have to document your work for the PE and receive his or her recommendation to meet the California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BPELS) qualifying experience standards
- Your exact job title is not relevant; you just need to work under a legally practicing engineer with increasing responsibility
- If you change employers and/or supervising PEs over this four-year period, you must have all PEs submit documentation to account for the full amount of qualifying experience
Documenting your work experience
California requires you to use the Engagement Record and Reference Form (see Important Links) to document all of your qualifying employment. It does not matter if this experience was in a foreign country or if you have been working in the US to earn it. It is important to read the instructions carefully for information about the total number of references you need, which specific professionals are qualified to fill them out, and what parts of your experience qualify.
It will be helpful if you remind the people who will be your references of your exact duties and other information about your work to be certain that the reference reflects your full experience. Also note that reference forms ask the supervisor opinions about your performance. These records are then sealed. Since a negative review can hurt your case it is a good idea to discuss the form first with the reference to be certain that this reference will be positive.
Once you have gathered all documentation, submit it together with the application in Step 4 to BPELS for approval.
iv. Professional Engineer Licensing application
Your licensing application will determine if you are eligible to take your PE examination. It can include:
- 2-page application (this form must be typed and signed and also include your Social Security number or Taxpayer I.D.)
- All documentation of work experience (Engagement Record and Reference Forms which must be sealed and marked by the people giving you the references)
- All documentation of educational experience (transcripts, translations, etc.) if you will use your foreign education for 2 years of experience credit
- 2 stamped postcards addressed to you (the Board will mail the first postcard to confirm your application was received and the second to inform you when your application review is complete)
- Your answers to the Take-Home Examination on State Laws and Board Rules (see Tests section)
- $125 fee (check or money order to "Department of Consumer Affairs")
Note on deadlines: the Board must receive a complete application with all of the items below almost 4 months before the Professional Engineer exam date you wish to take. Give yourself plenty of time to meet your deadlines, because PE exams are only given once or twice a year, depending on the specialty.
All links for application information are available in the Important Links section.
If all of your documents are in order, you will be given a notice of permission to register for the PE exam. If you are a civil engineer you will also qualify for the two extra California examinations required for civil engineers.
v. Pass PE exam (plus California Civil exams if civil engineer); receive licensure as a professional engineer (PE)
The PE exam will be discussed in detail in the next section, as will the additional exams specific to California civil engineering.
Once you have passed these exams, you will be granted licensure as a Professional Engineer in the state of California. Please refer to the section Beyond Licensing for basic information on requirements to maintain licensure.
Fundamentals of Engineering Exam
The Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE) tests the knowledge that is expected of recent university graduates for general engineering concepts and other specific engineering disciplines. It is sometimes still referred to by its former name, the Engineer in Training Exam (EIT). The examination is administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).
The FE Exam costs $125 and is payable to the NCEES when you register for the exam. You must pay an additional application fee of $50 to the California Department of Consumer Affairs when you apply for your Engineer-In-Training Certification (EIT).
- The FE exam is offered two times a year, in April and October - but to qualify in time, your application to the Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors must be received over 2 months in advance
- The FE exam consists of a full day of testing in one morning and one afternoon session of 4 hours each
The morning session is standard for all test-takers. It has 120 questions in 12 topic areas. These are: math; engineering probability and statistics; chemistry; computers; ethics and business practices; engineering economics; engineering mechanics - statics and dynamics; strength of materials; material properties; fluid mechanics; electricity and magnetism; and thermodynamics.
The afternoon session consists of one 60-question Module. You choose one of seven Modules available. They are:
- Civil engineering: this module has 9 topics: surveying; hydraulics and hydrologic systems; soil mechanics and foundations; environmental engineering; transportation; structural analysis; structural design; construction management; and materials
- Other/general engineering: this module has 9 topics: advanced engineering mathematics; engineering probability and statistics; biology; engineering economics; application of engineering mechanics; engineering of materials; fluids; electricity and magnetism; thermodynamics and heat transfer
- Chemical engineering: this module has 11 topics: chemistry; material/energy balances; chemical engineering thermodynamics; fluid dynamics; heat transfer; mass transfer; chemical reaction engineering; process design and economic optimization; computer usage in chemical engineering; process control; safety, health and environmental
- Electrical engineering: this module has 9 topics: circuits; power; electromagnetics; control systems; communications; signal processing; electronics; digital systems; computer systems
- Environmental engineering: this module has 5 topic areas: water resources; water and wastewater engineering; air quality engineering; solid and hazardous waste engineering; environmental science and management
- Industrial engineering: this module has 8 topics: engineering economics; probability and statistics; modeling and computation; industrial management; manufacturing and production systems; facilities and logistics; human factors, productivity, ergonomics, and work design; quality
- Mechanical engineering: this module has 8 topics: mechanical design and analysis; kinematics, dynamics, and vibrations; materials and processing; measurements, instrumentation, and controls; thermodynamics and energy conversion processes; fluid mechanics and fluid machinery; heat transfer; refrigeration and HVAC
Your background in a specific field of engineering practice such as mechanical or civil engineering may make choosing its module for the afternoon session appear to be an easy decision. However, you may also wish to consider general engineering, especially if your test preparation time is limited. Its topics are an extension of the topics covered in the morning session.
All reference materials for both morning and afternoon sessions, such as formula sheets, are provided by NCEES. However, test takers must provide their own calculators, chosen from an NCEES- approved list (See the Important Links section for more information.)
Examination on State Laws and Board Rules
This 25-question multiple choice exam is available on the Board website and should be included in your PE license application (Step 4). It covers California-specific laws and processes for the practice of engineering. You can learn this information by studying the California Professional Engineers Act and the Board Rules in detail.
The Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (PE)
The Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (PE) is an exam for Engineers-in-Training. The PE exam tests the theoretical and practical engineering knowledge you have gained through a minimum of six years of qualifying education as well as employment experience under the guidance of a legally practicing engineer. NCEES, which administers the exam, offers many distinct PE exams for various specialties.
Your PE Licensing application and its $125 fee does not include the cost of your PE Exam. The PE Exam costs $265 and is payable to the NCEES when you register for the exam.
Type and frequency of California PE exams
In California PE exams are given two times a year, in April and October, for the engineering specialties of:
Other exams are given only once a year, in October, for:
- Control Systems
- Fire Protection
Each PE test is 8 hours long - a morning and afternoon session of 4 hours each.
Breadth Exam: the morning exam is called the Breadth Exam, and covers major practice areas or subspecialties within an engineering discipline.
For example, the Breadth Exam for the Civil Engineering PE has 40 questions covering five areas: construction; geotechnical; structural; transportation; and water resources/environmental engineering.
Depth Exam: the afternoon session, called the Depth Exam, is an exam that focuses in on just one of the major practice areas that are covered in the morning session.You are free to choose the area you want to be tested in for the Depth Exam.
All reference materials for both morning and afternoon sessions, such as formula sheets, are provided by NCEES. Test takers must provide their own calculators, chosen from an NCEES-approved list.
For Civil Engineers Only: California Civil Exams on Seismic Principles and Engineering Surveying
The State of California requires two additional exams for civil engineers seeking licensing in the state. These are 2½-hours long each and are both offered on the day after the PE Civil exam. The Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors has special resources to prepare these exams.
The Important Links section has links to online documents and test preparation resources for all of the tests used in California Professional Engineer licensing.
Factors that can influence time and cost of process
Evaluating your foreign degree and achieving licensing as a Professional Engineer in California depends on many factors:
- The completeness of your educational and professional records (the more documentation, the better)
- The size of the gap between your engineering degree and US accreditation standards
- Your performance on FE and PE licensing exams and their timing
- Your access to employment that can bring you necessary qualifying experience
- Your free time and what you can afford to spend on licensing
We provide two hypothetical scenarios to show some of the variety of results that immigrant professionals may find when they seek to become Professional Engineers in California. Please consider these scenarios as two examples out of many possibilities. Your experience will vary.
Two Possible Scenarios for PE Licensing:
|Step||More Efficient Scenario|
Approximate Time and Cost
|Less Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
1 Register and Pass the FE Exam
Apply for Engineer-in-Training (EIT) Certification
Accumulate 6 years qualifying experience
PE Licensing application
Pass PE, receive license
|More Efficient Total
Approximately 2 1/2 years + $850
|Less Efficient Total
Approximately 7 1/2 years + $2,300
The diversity of jobs in engineering and the high numbers of positions that do not require licensing make non-licensed careers in engineering very attractive to foreign-educated professionals. Here are just a few notes on in-demand credentials or job titles to start you in your research. The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Important Links can give you a better idea of the responsibilities in these and other careers in engineering.
Preparing for licensing takes a significant amount of time, money, and effort. Some professionals choose to seek lower-level positions in engineering to help them meet longer-term licensing goals. If you take a job with fewer responsibilities but with access to a supervising PE, you may find some distinct advantages. These include the ability to build job security, polish technology skills and adapt to the US workplace culture in a lower-pressure environment, and to have more energy left over to focus on preparing for licensing exams. You should be honest with your employer about your long-term plans and be sure that they understand how you can contribute to their company's objectives.
Detailer/Drafter - Computer-Aided Design and Drafting
Typically, knowledge of CADD software is a prerequisite for this position, which involves the preparation of detailed drawings for engineering projects. 2 years of college typical. 2010 median earnings nationally: $47,880.
Project Management Professional Certification
If you have prior experience of project management and particularly strong communication and organizational skills, you may want to consider qualifying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute. The PMP is a widely-recognized credential that can complement an engineering background, as many large engineering projects require both project skills and mastery of technical specialties. Again, if your soft skills prepare you for this kind of work, it is a way to work actively in the engineering field without having to hold professional licensure.
People trained in civil or structural engineering may find that earning construction management certificates offers a way for you to specialize in the medium term and save resources while still maintaining a critical role in your field. Construction management is a viable option if you have excellent communication and organizational skills and have already worked in this capacity in your career.
LEED Certification Professional
Green building and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification depend, in part, on systems that fall to mechanical engineers, such as heating and cooling. Given trends towards large-scale investment in environmentally-friendly building and rehabilitation, getting certified to assess projects for LEED can be an interesting credential for an engineer with the right transferable skills.
Setting up your business
If you plan to have your own engineering business once you are a Professional Engineer in the state of California, it is important to know that you must file detailed business information with the Board. This is done through an Organization Record form. It is your responsibility to keep all records updated to be certain that public health and safety are protected in engineering business transactions - including filing a Disassociation Form when you leave a firm where you had responsible charge of engineering projects.
Once you are licensed as a Professional Engineer you must maintain your California licensure by renewing it every two years with the Board. The cost in 2012 was $125.
California does not require you to document continuing education or professional development hours to renew your license.
Joining a professional association
State and national associations for professional engineers and structural engineers provide opportunities for professional development and networking. They also help set acceptable working conditions for the industry and give information and opinions on policy in California and across the US. Their websites may offer useful orientation to the licensing and examination process, including test preparation. Their employment networks, however, are typically restricted to licensed professionals. Once you have progressed in the licensing process you may want to join a professional engineer or structural engineer association.
- California Society of Professional Engineers
- National Society of Professional Engineers
Even if you are not seeking licensing, you can find a large variety of professional associations with membership based not on licensed status but on specialty discipline, job type, sector, ethnicity, gender, or religion.
Licensing mobility and reciprocity
Some people with PE licenses from one state want to practice engineering in another state. The autonomy of each state's professional regulation creates differences that complicate licensing mobility.
PEs from other states can qualify to practice as Professional Engineers in California through comity (similar requirements) if they:
- Show that their education and experience meet all California eligibility criteria for licensing as a PE
- Apply for and receive a California license in addition to their existing license
Conversely, when California PEs want to work in other states, they must research and meet the licensing guidelines of their destination state, which can sometimes be less restrictive than California regulations. In either case, some employers see the value in helping their engineers with licensing mobility when their business crosses state boundaries.
Temporary California authorization for civil and structural engineers
Civil Engineers whose business is based in another US state or even in a foreign country, w here they hold a valid license, can apply for a Temporary Authorization to conduct engineering work in the state for up to 180 days per year if it is for just one project. The process includes a take-home test and an appointment with the Board to discuss the project and the applicant's qualifications.
Common Words used in this article
Foreign degree evaluation:
- California does not evaluate credentials on a course-by-course basis, it only looks for granting of an undergraduate degree in engineering
- The California Board for Professional Engineering and Land Surveyors (PELS) is the department that grants and regulates professional engineer licenses. Their Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Engineering Certification/Licensure Requirements publication gives detailed explanations of many issues in the California process, as does the Professional Engineer Act
- An Information and Application Page is available for the Engineer-in-Training Certification process
- The Professional Engineer Application page has several links including the Professional Engineer Engagement Record and Reference Form you need to document your qualifying work experience, and a schedule with deadlines for filing your applications in time for your PE exams
- Information about California's Temporary Authorization for short-term engineering work can be found in the PE Act, Section 6760
- The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) has a wealth of information about exams including test preparation materials
- Exams Section with important site links to both FE and PE exam information
- Official information on the PE specialization exams with details for each section of the test
- California specialty testing information for mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering and its subspecialities
- FE and PE testing dates and registration information from NCEES; schedule information
- FE Supplied-Reference Handbook contains equations and data you will need for the exam
- A State Laws and Board Rules Take-Home Exam is required for licensure. Prepare by studying the Professional Engineers Act and Board Rules
- List of Accepted Calculators
- The Special Civil Engineering Exam Reference List page has resources to prepare for the California exams on Seismic Principles and Engineering Surveying
- The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has articles on Architecture and Engineering Occupations
- Different credentials offered by the Green Building Certification Institute for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
- Study materials for sale online
- Organization Record Forms must be used to maintain current registration of design firms and their licensed employees
Speak upBe your own advocate throughout the licensing process. Seek clarification about questions and concerns directly from official sources. The California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BPELS) can answer specific questions on an individual basis by phone or email.
Don't start from zero
Carefully document any foreign experience that may qualify to meet requirements for PE licensing
Choose topics for best results
Your FE exam includes a general engineering test in the a.m. and your choice of a general or specialized engineering topic for the p.m. Look at NCEE exam descriptions and study materials to decide which choice will be the best for you. Some people prefer to take General Engineering in the afternoon because all of the day's material will require similar preparation. Others with significant experience in a specialization may prefer to take the afternoon test in the discipline they know the best.