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  • 1.  Illinois SE and PE

    Posted 02-01-2024 08:05 AM


    I am currently a masters student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I am studying civil/structural engineering with the goal of becoming a structural bridge engineer, and looking into my career options.

    The state of Illinois requires the Structural Engineering License to work on projects within the state, so I found it beneficial to stay after graduation and get my SE and PE here. Then, I would be able to transfer the license to other states if I would like to move elsewhere.

     However, I recently found the Civil: Structural Disipline Exam for PE will not be accepted after April 2024 by the state of Illinois for PE licensure. Structural Engineers would go directly to the SE exam and licensure process. 

    My questions really regard how to navigate whether to get my SE in Illinois or PE with a discipline of Civil: Structural in another state:

    • Would the SE suffice in other states for structural projects, even though most currently require the PE? Aka, would I be able to only get my SE Licensure and completely forgo the PE?
    • Under another discipline, would I be able to transfer an Illinois PE license to another state and still practice structural engineering?
    • Would it be more beneficial to get a valid PE-Structural License in another state, but know I would not be able to complete work in Illinois?
    • Is there another way to get the PE-Structural while working in Illinois? Could I take the PE exam and pass it before the April change?

    Thank you,


    Aniston Cumbie A.M.ASCE
    Shawnee KS

  • 2.  RE: Illinois SE and PE

    Posted 02-04-2024 10:22 AM

    Hi Aniston,

    I should start with the disclaimer that I work on buildings, not bridges, and I've only lived in Illinois for a month.  I have been digging into this topic a lot the last few weeks since I just moved to Chicago from DC.

    The Structural Engineering Licensure Committee of NCSEA tracks PE/SE requirements by state here.  Right off the bat, you'll notice the map with bright red Illinois in a sea of gray, reflecting the most stringent tier of SE licensure requirements.  That page also has handy definitions for title acts and practice acts.

    Basically, the SE is considerably longer and harder, and as a result, works most everywhere IF you intend to practice structural engineering forever, which you should!  Unfortunately, the PE structural and, especially, the SE privilege building engineers, with much lower pass rates for bridge engineers.  Come on, NCEES, work this out!  On the East Coast where I'm coming from, most people take the PE, but there's no disadvantage to going SE, besides the extra studying.  I think the State of New York is mulling over requiring the SE.  Out West, California and Washington have stringent state-specific requirements in addition to the SE.  There are probably a handful of others, but in the overwhelming majority of states, you can practice with either SE or PE.  Illinois is in the minority.  I also found this one-pager super helpful for IL specifically.  But to answer your questions as best I can:

    1. Definitely for the East Coast, West Coast, and Midwest.  I don't know too much about the Deep South or Southwest, but I've never heard of an SE being ineligible to practice structural engineering.  I suppose there's always a chance that like Montana or somewhere is doing its own thing, but basically yes, if you get your SE you don't need the PE.
    2. You can transfer a PE or SE between states as long as you meet and document any state-specific requirements through a process called comity (similar to reciprocity).  Can you practice with a non-structural PE?  Yes in the sense that they will send you a pretty stamp you can put on permit drawings, but no in the sense that if you signed drawings with that stamp you would be illegally practicing outside your area of expertise.  You may already be aware of this, but the license is mostly symbolic for the first like 20 years of your career.  It's important to firms that their staff pursue licensure in a timely manner, but you won't be stamping drawings until you reach a high level of seniority.  The big no no would be signing drawings with a non-structural PE, but I've also heard of firms and individuals facing legal scrutiny for listing that PE as a qualification, or referring to themselves as "Professional Engineers" when they had a non-structural PE.  Spooky, best not to go there.
    3. You'd also be giving up the West Coast and Hawaii, but for East Coast lifers like many of my friends in DC, that could be fine.  If you're staying in the Midwest though, I'm not sure how you would avoid Illinois.  Just look at any highway, rail, or air traffic map: Chicago is the center of the universe.
    4. Even assuming that you already have your EIT, you should give yourself more time than that to study, regardless of whether you take the PE or SE.  For practicing structural engineers, the upcoming change actually doesn't make any difference: the Structural PE was already worthless in Illinois, so I think they're just cleaning house and encouraging other disciplines to take a test better suited to their field of practice.  I freaked out when I heard about that a couple weeks ago, then I realized that I didn't have any rights to lose in the first place as a structural PE.

    Hopefully some of that is helpful.  Good luck!

    Christian Parker P.E., M.ASCE
    Structural Project Engineer
    Chicago IL

  • 3.  RE: Illinois SE and PE

    Posted 02-05-2024 08:07 AM

    Hi Aniston,

    I am licensed in eight jurisdictions on the East Coast, having taken the civil/structural PE and 16-hour SE exams. Also, since I operate my own practice, I have to make decisions about where I am licensed and the conditions under which I am in responsible charge of projects (generally, sealing a document is the public-facing evidence of being legally in responsible charge for a project). Licensing laws, regulations and guidelines can vary greatly from state to state and change over time. Universally, you cannot be in responsible charge for services outside your area of competence. That transcends discipline; if you are not competent to provide a particular service in your discipline, you must become competent, work with others as permitted by law, or refrain from providing that service. 

    The licensing laws of most jurisdictions do not confer different privileges on licensees of different disciplines. Some states will list your discipline on your license and/or seal, but that typically does not affect what you can seal. Consequently, there are plenty of civil engineers, architectural engineers, etc. (by exam/license) engaged in structural engineering and related fields like construction engineering, geostructural engineering and building envelope consulting. It is competence in one's specialty area that is more relevant than the specific discipline of licensing. That said, there can be weird counterexamples. In Vermont, the practice guidelines (as opposed to the laws and regs) prohibit incidental practice outside one's licensing discipline of licensing without definitions of each discipline. Therefore, as a structural engineer, I might or might not be able to include some incidental civil engineering item on my plans or issue a geotechnical report despite having the experience and being licensed as a civil engineer in neighboring states. I have never heard of this guideline being enforced and I am not convinced it is lawful.

    Things get more complicated in the "title act" states, mostly in the West, where a structural engineering license confers some additional privileges but is not required for every project. I have not looked at California's licensing requirements recently, but it used to allow someone to become a civil engineer with two years of experience after passing the NCEES exam and state-specific seismic and survey exams. A civil engineer is primarily prohibited from being The restriction on PEs performing structural engineering varies by state. Typically structural engineering for buildings is restricted on the basis of size or importance. I think there may be one or two western states that require that licensed structural engineers design long-span bridges. 

    Also, in my experience, it is common on infrastructure projects for one senior engineer to seal all of a firm's drawings and specifications for the project regardless of discipline. Depending on how a jurisdiction defines responsible charge and the procedure within the firm, this practice may violate the spirit, if not the letter, of licensing regulations. It can also look ridiculous, like the guide sign package I once saw for a highway tunnel project in Massachusetts sealed by the structural engineer who likely oversaw the design of the sign structures. The guidance included things like "I-90 West, Worcester, Seatle" and was mocked by traffic engineers in other parts of the project. 

    I presume that you are still a few years away from being licensed. In that case, your early employment may push you into a specialty where a particular strategy for licensing becomes apparent. The structural engineering exam is challenging for someone who is not regularly engaged in building or bridge design early in their career. I started my career as a structural engineer in a geotechnical firm, mostly designing temporary structures. I felt that the civil/geotechnical syllabus seemed ambiguous, so I went with the structural depth section. I understand that similarly situated engineers today often take the construction depth section. 

    When I apply for licensing in a new state, I use my structural engineering credentials. Other than Vermont, I have not found that to be a limitation. Therefore, if you know you want to do structural engineering, and your early experience is relevant to the SE exam, you would probably be OK starting there. If you moved into an adjacent field, you would still have a license that would be relevant enough once you are competent in the new field. That said, I think there is value in becoming a PE, passing the civil/structural exam or otherwise as soon as possible, and using that experience as a step towards preparing for the SE exam. Firms often reward licensing, and it is unquestionably a resume booster.

    If the civil/structural exam will not get you licensed in Illinois, you might be able to take the civil/transportation or civil/construction exams. Your education and early experience will influence how practical that would be. You can check out the civil exam syllabi here: Civil | NCEES. Keep in mind that you can take exams in different states and do not have to take the exam where you live. I was initially licensed in New York, where I lived and worked, but had several coworkers take the PE in other states due to particular provisions of New York licensing law relating to immigration status. You could initially become a PE in another state and become an Illinois SE later. You might even be able to take the civil/structural in Illinois and use it to become licensed in another state.

    In closing, I will note that the NCEES exams are not that well aligned with what you learned in school or real-life practice, especially if you end up in a specialty drawing from multiple (sub)disciplines. The exams set a baseline for entering practice but do not by themselves make you qualified to do anything in particular. You likely will not be asked to be in responsible charge of something until after you have been licensed for at least a few years. While it is good that you are thinking about this now (take the FE ASAP if you haven't already), you will have options when the time comes and the right option may not be apparent until you are closer to applying for your initial license. 

    I hope this helps, and best of luck.

    Richard J. Driscoll P.E., M.ASCE
    Lebanon NH