To some observers, PEO is playing catch-up when it comes to developing a continuing professional development program for licence holders. Ultimately, it will be the licence holders who determine whether PEO’s program becomes mandatory or remains a voluntary reporting system.
Retired Ontario Justice Paul Bélanger might take credit for lighting a fire under PEO’s collective feet with his recommendation that Ontario’s engineering regulator “establish a system of mandatory continuing professional education for its members as soon as possible, and in any event, no later than 18 months from the [October 2014] release of this report” (recommendation 1.24 of the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry).
In looking to weave a stronger regulatory safety net to prevent disasters similar to the June 2012 partial collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Bélanger was clearly of the opinion that PEO should require the practitioners it licenses to demonstrate to their regulator their ongoing professional development.
Yet continuing professional development (CPD) for its members is a thorny question that has beset PEO policy-makers for several decades.
This latest round began in late September 2013 when PEO council received the report Continuing Professional Development: Maintaining and Enhancing our Engineering Capability, produced by the continuing education working group of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), and supported in principle the implementation of a PEO continuing professional development program. To get the ball rolling, council referred OSPE’s report to the Professional Standards Committee (PSC) for review and comment, and directed that PSC solicit written and oral comments from the PEO membership during its review. PSC was to report its findings and proposed plan of action to council at its February 2014 meeting.
At that meeting, PSC presented its report, which recommended developing a problem definition as the next step. Ultimately, council directed that PEO’s Executive Committee, with input from PSC, draft terms of reference for a continuing professional development and quality assurance task force, for council approval. Thus, in March 2014, seven months before the release of the Bélanger report, PEO established its Continuing Professional Development, Competence and Quality Assurance (CPDCQA) Task Force, which for some 18 months worked to develop the concepts and framework for a CPD program tailored for PEO members. The task force presented its final report to council in November 2015.
VOLUNTARY OR MANDATORY?
An overriding question in any proposed CPD program is whether to make professional development activity reporting voluntary or compulsory.
PEO is one of only two Canadian engineering associations without some form of CPD program for members. The other regulator, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEGBC), had a proposed mandatory program rejected by members in a recent referendum.
A recent Engineers Canada survey of the CPD programs offered by the other provincial and territorial engineering regulators shows almost all require reporting of at least 240 professional development hours over a three-year period. The hours can be earned in various categories, including professional practice, formal education, informal education, participation in events, and offering presentations or contributions to knowledge.
Each of the provincial/territorial regulators allows non-practising members to be exempted from CPD reporting.
PEO had long envisioned a voluntary annual reporting mechanism for members to list professional development activities and, in fact, developed the means for members to do so on their annual licence renewal forms. The practice was never embraced by licence holders, or promoted by PEO, however. At town hall meetings on the CPDCQA Task Force’s work, held last fall, PEO reported that only about 15 practitioners out of a membership of more than 80,000 have voluntarily reported their CPD activity.
Chaired by former president Annette Bergeron, P.Eng., FEC, the CPDCQA Task Force spent about 18 months developing the guiding principles for and basic elements of a PEO program, based on extensive research that included membership surveys, feedback from seven town hall meetings and a review of the CPD programs in place elsewhere. The PEO task force, however, looked to create a unique program for Ontario members−one that stressed risk to the public as the determining factor in how much professional development activity a member might be required to undertake.
The salient point in PEO’s proposed model is an engineering practice risk review−an effort to align any CPD requirements with the risk associated with the type and area of engineering in which a member works.
The task force’s risk-based approach to CPD formed a major discussion point at last fall’s town hall meetings conducted in each of PEO’s five Ontario regions. As Bergeron said at the meetings, it is anticipated that non-practising engineers would have no CPD requirement other than a one-hour, no-cost, ethics refresher. Under the proposal, practising engineers would complete an online risk review that helps to reduce their CPD hours from an anticipated maximum of 30 hours and any associated costs. Current CPD activities would be taken into account in the assessment.
Bergeron came away from the town hall meetings with the sense that, for the most part, PEO members are receptive to CPD objectives. While there was some hostility to CPD expressed at the town halls–essentially that it would be overly bureaucratic and an intrusion on practitioners’ time–Bergeron believes the CPD message was fairly well received.
“After [town hall] attendees heard about our unique proposal for PEO, they relaxed and responded typically with an ‘I can manage this’ attitude,” she said last December. “I estimate from five town halls that 70 per cent of attendees came around to supporting our program while 30 per cent of attendees didn’t really want to listen. I’m encouraged that once licence holders have the opportunity to understand how our proposal is different from their assumptions, they realize that this is a truly innovative approach to managing practitioner risk, and reporting on how practitioners increase their knowledge throughout the year.”
To further allay concerns about PEO forcing through a CPD program without acceptance by members, council in September stipulated that licence holders will have to ratify any mandatory elements of a PEO CPD program through a referendum.
The task force presented its final report at the November 2015 meeting of council and was stood down. Council approved the guiding principles of the task force’s proposed program and its basic elements and directed that a new task force be formed to work further on the details. The terms of reference and members of that task force were approved by council in February.
The council-approved proposed program:
- recognizes the licence of both practising and non-practising engineers;
- focuses on maintaining provision of competent engineering services rather than introducing a bureaucratic hurdle;
- ensures CPD requirements are based on the risk the work of each licence holder presents to the public and the profession;
- encourages licence holders and employers to adopt risk-mitigation measures; and
- improves on programs implemented by regulators elsewhere in Canada.
This last point–improving on programs implemented by other regulators–was especially important to the task force. In putting all the components together, task force members were adamant that the finished product be relevant to Ontario’s engineering practitioners, and not simply an effort to impose an existing CPD template on PEO. As expressed by task force member Chris Roney, P.Eng., BDS, FEC, any PEO-originated program should focus on areas of practice with greater risk to the public and where there is a clear need for practitioners engaged in such work to obtain a level of knowledge and currency beyond what is needed for initial licensure.
THE END GAME?
PEO Councillor David Brown, P.Eng., BDS, a member of both the CPDCQA Task Force and the new detail-focused task force, says this of the regulator’s experience developing a proposed program over the last two years: “Personally, having been a member of the task force and as a councillor, there is a divergence between the two in terms of what I see as the end game. As a task force member, we had a specific job to do under our terms of reference and, for the most part, I believe we successfully completed that task. The report and the subsequent work to be undertaken by the new task force will provide what I believe will be an excellent program for our licensees and bring us into the 21st century as a regulator.”
He says external groups, including government, other constituent associations, and sister organizations like the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists, which in January 2016 enacted mandatory CPD for its members without a referendum, are putting additional pressure on PEO.
“With respect to the end game, my thoughts are now focused not so much on the detail work to be completed, but rather the referendum,” Brown told Engineering Dimensions. “Right now, council has agreed to go to referendum to determine if our program is to be mandatory or voluntary. The reality is that a voluntary program is all but useless in much the same manner as our current voluntary reporting program is useless. Apparently, only about 10 members report each year and, in truth, I’m not one of them. Therefore, the mountain before us is that the program must be mandatory if it is to be considered seriously by our licensees or, more importantly, the public at large.”
Brown is hopeful these outside forces will encourage members opposed to mandatory CPD to see the light. “I’m hoping that the external forces on us play a significant role in getting our licensees to pull their collective heads out of the sand before we forgo our ability to self-regulate…or at least start down that slippery slope.”
Engineers Canada, the federation of the provincial and territorial associations, is also onside with mandatory, practice-focused CPD. In its recent “Framework for Regulation” statement, it argues that mandatory CPD requirements “…protect the public by ensuring that licence holders meet ethical obligations to maintain the currency of their professional competencies and undertake continuous learning throughout their careers. Harmonization of requirements facilitates mobility and provides clarity to registrants regarding their obligations.”
Kim Allen, P.Eng., FEC, CEO of Engineers Canada and former PEO CEO/registrar, suggests meaningful CPD programs serve to maintain public and government confidence in the ability of engineers to regulate themselves with professionalism and high ethical standards.
“Should a component of CPD related to ethics and professionalism be a requirement for every licence holder, whether they are practising or not?” he asks. “My view is: absolutely. Our model is fueled by engineers being held accountable for their professional conduct and competence.”
Allen adds that society rests secure in the knowledge its interests are overseen by engineers who act with competence and integrity: “Through self-regulation, government has delegated this authority and responsibility to the profession. The public has trust in the profession to understand the social need and the special aspects of the profession, and derive an appropriate set of rules to govern its use. Ethical behaviour and professional conduct are necessary conditions of this set of circumstances.
“The Code of Ethics has always required engineers [to be] accountable to offer services, advise on or undertake engineering assignments only in areas of their competence and practice in a careful and diligent manner. CPD means that engineers have knowledge of developments in the area of engineering relevant to any services that are undertaken. This offers important safety protections to consumers of engineering service. The issue is that the public is better served if the engineer reports to the regulator that they have undertaken CPD.”
Allen believes regulators must carefully weigh the additional costs of mandatory reporting, to both the regulator and the engineer, and the benefits of CPD to the consumers of engineering services to strike the right balance.
With the CPDCQA Task Force’s work now complete, council has created a new task force to finalize the risk review algorithm, and establish the criteria and details of the other elements of the proposed program. It will also identify any regulatory or act changes necessary to make the program fully operational.
Currently called the Continuing Professional Competence Program (CP)2 Task Force, the new task force is chaired by Bergeron and comprises past CPDCQA Task Force members Rick Hohendorf, P.Eng., and Tyler Ing, P.Eng., plus sitting councillors Changiz Sadr, P.Eng., FEC, Warren Turnbull, P.Eng., Brown, Roger Jones, P.Eng., FEC, and Marilyn Spink, P.Eng.
The task force will oversee the activities of the registrar and PEO staff in producing a working implementation of the program.
It’s anticipated that by late 2016 members will be able to use basic, online forms to do a voluntary self-assessment of their practice risk. The forms will also enable users to determine their CPD requirements and report any work already achieved. The number of hours of CPD a licence holder might be required to undertake would relate directly to the risk of their own practice and what they are already doing to maintain their currency. Each licence holder’s CPD would be self-directed, based on their self-assessment.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Of course, ensuring that those who might be affected by the proposed program are fully aware of it and have a chance to try it out prior to the referendum is key.
Toward that end, a communications plan has been developed that will use all of PEO’s communications channels to provide updates on details of the program as they are developed. Information will be provided via articles in Engineering Dimensions and other relevant media, a dedicated page on PEO’s website, eblasts, social media (PEO’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn accounts and YouTube channel), and media releases. A guideline to assist members in using the program’s tools will be developed, as well as a Frequently Asked Questions document.
When the initial online assessment and reporting forms are available, licence holders will be invited to “test drive” the program, so they’ll know how it would affect them personally, prior to a referendum on the program becoming mandatory. Timing of the referendum has yet to be determined.
Please stay tuned!