The times are a-changin’

As I read Scott Kelly’s autobiography Endurance, I was intrigued to learn that his motivation to become an astronaut stemmed from his desire—perhaps need—to accept risk and the challenges that go along with it. I was impressed by his ability to see his shortcomings at an early age and refocus them into an exciting and fulfilling career. Although there are few parallels between my life and Kelly’s, I can’t help but recognize that I have gravitated towards challenging myself by accepting that I am wired, like most engineers, to ask myself: What’s next and how can I do my part to make it happen?

So what motivated me to stand for election as PEO president-elect, and why would any rational person consider taking on a volunteer role that is essentially a thankless job involving a significant investment of our personal time and energy for zero financial gain? As a business owner who started an engineering construction company from the ground up almost 25 years ago, taking on this role might seem irrational to most.

I believe each of my predecessors would agree we all felt our leadership skills could influence, perhaps in some small way, the future of the organization—for the better. The noble cause is what drives us; however, the reality is as president we don’t have any additional power and, in fact, we don’t even have a vote on Council (if the president also serves as chair of Council).

AT THE CUSP OF DISRUPTION

One might view these comments as cause for concern and perhaps negative in nature but this is not what I wish to convey at all. In fact, I consider myself a very positive person who sees the untapped potential PEO has to be a self-regulatory leader. To explore this, one must consider both the internal and external elements that form what we currently are and what factors might influence our relevance going forward. PEO is on the cusp of being disrupted. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Do we want to disrupt ourselves from within, under our control, or face being disrupted by the external forces at play around us?

It’s 2018 and the world is being engulfed by what has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology is at the forefront of this revolution and it has already influenced the fabric of engineering regulation in Canada. With a bureaucratic regime that is slow to react, some would argue the train has already left the station in terms of our ability to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape we are attempting to regulate. As an example, consider the disruptive forces found in the medical field and how advancements in technology have overshadowed the ability of our legal system to keep up. Consider how a company like Blockbuster was once cutting-edge only to be put to rest by Netflix.

Couple this with an organization tasked by the government to regulate a profession in which its known universe is expanding at an exponential rate whereby engineering, as defined under the Professional Engineers Act, is arguably uncontrollably expanding at an equal rate. We simply don’t have the ability or resources to define it, let alone enforce our act, and we are losing ground at an alarming rate. So, the question I would like to pose is: What will the future hold in terms of the relevancy of our licence in light of the foregoing? This is really the answer to why I continue to find myself motivated to volunteer at PEO. It allows us to consider and formulate a big-picture problem statement that I believe needs to be addressed so we can disrupt ourselves from within and, hopefully, while we still have the opportunity to catch the train. I encourage each of you to consider our future as a regulator and recognize that complacency in an ever-changing technological landscape will, in my opinion, be our death knell and clear path to irrelevancy unless we embrace change.

THE COST OF REGULATION

Change is a scary subject for most and this is evident in our Council elections as I watch common themes unfold year after year, such as overspending and under-servicing our membership. Of late, platform issues have also focused on our Practice Evaluation and Knowledge (PEAK) program and the view by some that continuing professional development of licence holders is an unwarranted and unjustified burden. Five years ago, when I first threw my name in the hat for election, I too was concerned by the theme of the day, which focused on Council being dysfunctional. This year, some election candidates included this issue in their platforms as well. This confirms to me that nothing has changed as far as our elections are concerned.

When considering our future and our ability to remain relevant, we must address whether we are a regulator or a members’ club. Being a self-regulated profession is a privilege, not a right, and something I would argue is slipping away from our control quicker than we had imagined (and more so as we continue to succumb to the unrealistic and, in many cases, self-serving pressures of our membership). As a business owner, I find it beyond perplexing how we can freeze our P.Eng. licence fee for a decade and still suggest it’s too high and that we are both under-servicing our members and wasting money with the core mandate of protecting the public interest. How can anyone with even a basic understanding of economics rationalize this position, which is touted by many each year during our elections? Freezing our fees over the past decade has essentially reduced them each year given the cost of living increases and, although owning our PEO headquarters building has enhanced our revenue stream over recent years, we are now facing our first deficit budget in years. This trend will continue unless we are willing to significantly reduce the current contingent of committees, task forces and programs or face a referendum to increase our fees to compensate.

WHAT IS OUR VALUE?

To tie these two themes together, we must consider what value you, as a licence holder, put on your licence and whether you would like to see that value increase or have it become more and more irrelevant and thus worthless over time. For those of us at the latter stages of our careers, this is perhaps of little concern; however, my focus over the next few years will be on our future and the future of our young licence holders as they try to navigate the ever-changing technology-based world we live in. What will the future bring to self-regulation and how can we ensure an engineering licence will be both relevant and necessary to the next generation?

We must come to understand that our future is at a crossroads and is about to be disrupted. My strong preference would be to engage our membership in the realization that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us and we must choose our path forward carefully, but without haste. Regulation—and I’m talking about real regulation—has a heavy price and I would argue we are lacking in what I see as our two core duties: Our agreement with the government with respect to protecting the public interest is centred around licensing individuals who practise engineering and, in turn, ensuring they act in an ethical and competent manner throughout their careers. 

Recently, Council reacted to a significant backlog in our licensing regime, which had applicants tied up in the process—in some cases, for over a year. This presented Council with some financial challenges to resolve the matter. Many would argue that our enforcement regime is marginal as well, yet in each case it boils down to a department running on a shoestring budget that is facing increasing costs as each year passes while trying to stay afloat on a fixed budget that is reduced each year by the cost of living.

In summary, if we really want to be a leader in self-regulation in this country, we simply cannot accept the status quo any longer. Real regulation does not see costs reduced each year; and with the disruptive forces around us at play, we must decide how we want to move forward, ensuring that we protect the public interest first and foremost. Taking this obligation seriously does not involve kowtowing to the self-serving interests of our members but, rather, showing strong leadership from the top down to effect change for the better. As I’ve noted above, I’m one man without a vote but I believe PEO can rise to the challenge and I am looking forward to working closely with Council, staff, chapters and our licence holders to consider what the future will bring and help in whatever way I can to steer it in that direction.

UA-72171128-1