Discriminatory engineers?

One of my undergraduate classmates linked to an article on a recent Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal finding that Alberta’s professional association for engineers (APEGA, formerly APEGGA – which it’s referred to in the decision) discriminated against an international applicant. APEGA is already planning to appeal the decision.

The 67 page decision is available on the APEGA website.

So what happened?

Ladislav Mihaly was trained in (then) Czechoslovakia  and earned two Masters degrees in engineering. He applied to APEGGA to register as a professional engineer in 1999. APEGGA required Mihaly to pass a standardized engineering ethics exam (NPPE) complete three confirmatory exams and take or pass an engineering economics equivalent exam. Mihaly failed his first attempt at the NPPE and missed the makeup exam do to a car accident.

He requested a reactivation of his application in 2002, and only then claims to have been made aware that his degrees were not considered equivalent to even a bachelors in Alberta. Mihaly argued with APEGGA that his experience should allow him to waive the make-up courses and exams, as any graduate ten years out of college likely has little time, energy, or even ability to pull the random skills out they learned in college (does anyone remember how to integrate by parts). He subsequently failed his NPPE again and APEGGA withdrew his application for not writing the exams within an allotted period.

In 2006, Mihaly tried again (not being certified by APEGGA would mean that he could not work as an engineer, many in that situation end up in minimum wage and entry level jobs – think of the foreign doctor or professional driving taxis). With an updated CV, APEGGA still requested he complete the three confirmatory exams and economics course. They also rejected his one year of experience at a Calgary gas company as insufficient. He refused to write the required exams and in 2008 filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

In evaluating the credentials of foreign applicants, APEGA uses a few different criteria:

  1. If they’re familiar with the university and consider it equivalent to an Albertan school, you simply take the ethics exam.
  2. If they’re familiar with the university but think it’s missing some aspects, you are required to take make-up exams/courses and the ethics exam.
  3. If they’ve never heard of your school, you take all the make up exams/courses and the ethics exam.

APEGA judges schools based on global “foreign degree” lists, which it shares with similar professional bodies across North America (who all have roughly similar accreditation procedures).

In coming to their decision, the Tribunal wrote:

[180] In any event, I do find that certain requirements for licensure made of Mr. Mihaly perpetuated disadvantage thus constituting substantive discrimination… The imposition of additional exams or requirements without appropriate individualized assessment or the necessary flexibility, restricts the ability of immigrants to work in their respective professions and continues to perpetuate disadvantage in these groups. … While I understand that the imposition of policies to ensure competency and safety in professional fields may be necessary, the nature of certain policies imposed by APEGGA on immigrants such as Mr. Mihaly with foreign credentials, appear too restrictive and categorizes immigrants, not based on individual assessment, but rather on the country from which qualifications were received.

[201] In my view, this process [of using foreign degree lists], which relies mostly upon secondary sources of information and global criteria, is a poor substitute for directly assessing the education of IEGs who come from different countries. Such an assessment has the potential for significant inaccuracies and has very significant effects on foreign trained engineers.

[211] The problem with requiring the FE exam for all candidates is that it is a one size fits all approach without taking into consideration an individual’s background, specific training and experience.

The exam is compared to a case where a competent female firefighter lost her job after a “run 2.5 km in 11 minutes” test was introduced.

The decision notes that APEGA’s “individualized assessment” is mainly a review of documents to decide what exams to give the applicant. It only looks at transcripts, resume, references, and lacks a full view of the applicant’s history, leaving it ill-suited to judge their competency. The law governing APEGA requires it to “correct a perceived academic deficiency,” yet it does this solely by assigning exams. No specific interventions or efforts to help an applicant are provided, despite the “integrative approach” specified in law.

In paragraph [222], the decision notes that despite taking the National Professional Practice Exam (NPPE) three times and failing, APEGA provided little more than a study kit. No effort was made to train Mihaly nor were alternatives suggested.

[223] The approach here is again a one size fits all approach like that taken with the FE exam. This approach is particularly unhelpful to foreign trained engineers who need assistance in understanding APEGGA process and its requirements.

APEGA argued that with 68,000 members and 1500 international applications per year, additional efforts would be too onerous on APEGA (similar arguments form the basis for their appeal). But the tribunal argues that given APEGA’s own numbers, only 375 applicants per year would require individual consideration – a not prohibitively large number for a group as wealthy as APEGA.

Mihaly asked for no specific remedy from the court, except for noting his possible monetary losses due to his inability to practice as an engineer. Nevertheless, the tribunal awarded him $10,000 in damages from APEGA and demands that APEGA fully consider Mihaly’s qualifications and aid him in developing any lacking skills.

My thoughts on the case

Engineers tend to be conservative and resistive to change. APEGA has an important role to play in the safety of Albertans and no one is arguing for a relaxation of standards for engineering certifications. The current system aims to put the onerous on foreign applicants to prove their competency, while engineers trained in Alberta schools benefit from a more straightforward path. Discrepancies will always exist though between jurisdictions with different priorities, so some test must be applied.

In its current state, the tribunal found that APEGA did the least it possibly could in judging foreign applicants. It relied on second-hand standardized rankings of international schools, gave standardized tests to applicants, and offered little to no help in studying for those tests. Those with inadequate training are required to take make-up courses, which ignore potential on-the-job experience that might make up for any gaps.

The tribunal is not calling on APEGA to throw out their standards or even radically change them. Simply to take into account individual circumstances with honesty and integrity. By blanket-assessing all foreign applicants into a minimal number of possible paths, and without providing support to those who require it, APEGA puts barriers in place for applicants from less wealthy countries.

These barriers may not be insurmountable for all but their existence is a form of discrimination and having made no effort to remedy it, I side entirely with the Tribunal.

Broader comments

In almost every court case I read of in the media, the issue tends to get parsed down to sound bites. In this case a racist professional association versus a lazy foreigner who didn’t want to jump through the proper hoops.

The truth is always much more complicated than that though. I just wrote over a thousand words on a case that spans 67 pages. And in that case a lot of detail is fleshed out.  And in almost every case, I find myself in full agreement with the judge’s reasoning. When you go through the arguments, considered logically and based on the principles of fundamental human rights, it should at least be understandable, if not agreeable.

And of course, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that APEGA has acted in this way and intends to appeal the decision, having dealt with similar organisational inertia in my protest of the Iron Ring ceremony (which involves the same people but is not officially a part of APEGA). Hopefully this brings about some discussion amongst the membership and puts some pressure on APEGA to consider how to develop more inclusive procedures.

5 thoughts on “Discriminatory engineers?”

  1. I recently looked into what it would take to get certified as a professional engineer by the PEO, Ontario’s equivalent to APEGA. They basically told me that I would need to submit an application (which would cost several hundred dollars), then their review board would tell me if my foreign electrical engineering degree met their standards, and if it did not, I might be required to take one or more certification exams (again at a cost of several hundred dollars each), and then take the ethics exam (another few hundred dollars).

    In the end, I gave up on the attempt. I had thought it might be nice to have some official certifications as I was about to embark upon a freelance career after 32 years working for a large corporation, but I decided that the effort and expense was not worth it, since my freelance career is not actually providing engineering services.

    (Interestingly, I did manage to get my iron ring, back in 1980 – the people in charge of that were quite happy to accept the validity of my BSEE from that obscure US school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

  2. My problem with the HRC ruling is the “discrimination” is based on where Ladislav attended University which is not a protected ground. The HRC had dig up some obscure legal precedents to equate ‘place of origin’ with ‘place attended University’. The hoops APEGA applies would apply to anyone that attended the same University as Ladislav.

    1. Attention to John McMurray, P. Eng
      I bought a computer in Slovakia before I immigrated to Canada from young Canadian student from Toronto, who studied at some University which one I finished in Bratislava. His education was accepted in Canada, because he got one diploma in Slovakia, and one in Canada at parent’s University . For registration the Canadian students submitting only the Canadian diploma and the Engineering association even has no information where from the education is coming. Over 8000 Canadian students finished European education till now within Erasmus Mundus (Master of Scientist program) and student exchange program.

  3. Canada should adopt a similar system to the USA. These are objective exams that are technical.

    I still find it bard to believe that anyone competent in English could fail the ethics exam. Still, it is subjective.

    I had some issues when I initially worked in the US; I wrote their objective PE exam and became a professional engineer in the USA.

  4. My wife is a recent graduate with her bachelors degree in civil engineering form a German university. She has married me and is applying for her permanent residents. It’s nice that she was aforded a temporary work visa during the process however everything else has been a shining example of redundant, fist clenching bureaucracy. This is including her application to APEGA. I’ll not go into it but I can assure you the actions and rederic from APEGA is giving me an ulcer. You would think in this day and age things like instant worldwide communication would help strengthen common sense in institutions such as APEGA.

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