Continuing Ed: Defining Professional Development

Regardless of whether they're dubbed continuing education units (CEUs), learning units (LUs), professional development hours (PDHs) or mandatory continuing education units (MCEs), they're all ultimately the same thing—a measure for documenting continuing education among design professionals. But what's more important than the nomenclature is figuring what continuing education should mean ...

By Thom Lowther, Director, AIA/CES and William F. Dexter, Risk Management Consultant, Construction Risk Management, San Luis Opisbo, Calif. July 1, 2002

Regardless of whether they’re dubbed continuing education units (CEUs), learning units (LUs), professional development hours (PDHs) or mandatory continuing education units (MCEs), they’re all ultimately the same thing—a measure for documenting continuing education among design professionals. But what’s more important than the nomenclature is figuring what continuing education should mean for your people and your firm.

What it is and what it’s not

The reasons for engaging in professional development vary. For some, continuing education means a program that enables the engineer to keep current, master new knowledge and skills, plan for the future—and ultimately—meet the responsibilities that society entrusts the profession with.

But in reality, the training departments of many A/E firms consist of a product presentation from a manufacturer’s representative who happens to occasionally knock on the door and offer a free lunch.

It is true that many states, in an effort to develop some form of accountability for the professionals practicing within their jurisdictions, are now implementing MCEs as part of their licensing requirements. But in the eyes of many principals, the aforementioned lunch session constitutes such requirements. Furthermore, the said lunch session might be that firm’s training event for the month—and in some cases—the year. In other words, the training model for many still looks like this:

Lunch > LUs/MCE > immediate need (maybe)

In all seriousness, MCE demands by state licensing boards, as well as attention to the subject from groups like the American Institute of Architects, with its Continuing Education System (CES) requirements, have led to substantial changes.

Seven years ago, just three states required MCE. Today, 25 states and seven Canadian provinces have enacted MCE requirements for engineers and architects—21 others are at various levels of legislative activity. This is of importance, of course, because many engineers and architects hold between three and four state licenses.

Most states have similar requirements, but they do vary. New York, for example, requires 36 hours every three years; Florida, 20 hours every two years. In Canada, Ontario requires 35 hours per year. Of the states with MCE requirements, all mandate—with the exception of Kansas—that the majority of these continuing education hours be in the area described as health, safety and welfare.

OK, but what does it mean?

While such mandates will certainly get the attention of multi-state engineers, the problem that remains is that many design professionals are still perplexed over the difference between training and professional development.

Training , by definition, is a short-term solution to a short-term need or problem. Professional development is a long-term solution addressing the needs of the firm and its design professionals as part of a strategic plan. To achieve such a goal, a series of planned training sessions should be applied. This way, the firm, hopefully via a professional development specialist, selects a training provider based upon identified needs vs. a product rep or continuing education provider randomly knocking on the door. That being said, provider programs can still satisfy some professional association requirements as well as some state MCE requirements—and many will still provide a free lunch. In other words, the model for more firms is beginning to look like this:

Identified need(s) > LUs/MCE > Lunch (maybe)

For many, this is a new way of thinking, but one that can only help the construction design profession grow. A systematic approach also makes the best use of a designer’s time and resources.

Training can be practical

That’s all well and said, but how does a firm go about implementing a professional development program?

First, many professional organizations have educational plans available that provide guidelines for establishing quality programs. The following, for example, is AIA’s five-point approach:

  1. Involve leadership. Begin by involving leadership and create a strategic development plan that includes action implementation.

  2. Emphasize the importance of planning and analysis. This should include a need-assessment and planning process to implement the results of the assessment. Additionally, a built-in “ask an engineer/architect” is suggested. A performance projection should also be incorporated.

  3. Address how learning activities are designed and implemented based upon the needs of the firm and employee goals. Establishing clear objectives will direct the design format of the various programs and how best to deliver them.

  4. Identify resources and develop accurate record keeping. Considerations of appropriate resources, both technical and human, are important. For those architects and engineers with state licensing MCE requirements, a structured system must be established to address how activities will be consistently and accurately recorded and reported.

  5. Develop a systematic evaluation and improvement system to measure how meaningful the programs are to the firm’s short- and long-term goals. The evaluation process should address the effectiveness of the programs and performance improvement of the employees. An accessible and effective complaint process should be made available—feedback is necessary because you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broke.

In initiating such a plan, AIA recommends that firms consider compensation and recognition for employee participation. Attention should also be paid to orientation and special target programs. Furthermore, firms should explore partnership programs with professional organizations whose sphere of influence the design firm is within.

Finding support

Such a systematic approach will take time, and frankly, a great deal of effort. Engineers, however, are not on an island. Numerous published guidelines are available to help achieve these goals. Excellent sources include:

  • Universities. Several schools of architecture and engineering are in the process of developing continuing education co-ventures with technology and manufacturing partnerships. This new area of interest has the possibility of combining educational expertise with cutting-edge product development. Additionally, such workshops are often conducted over the weekend and are hosted by many schools with A/E programs.

  • The Web : CES providers post their educational activities on a daily basis at . Anyone can sort through the more than 2,000-plus program listings by date, location, title or subject area. Titles range from all components of building design and engineering application. This is an excellent source for quality technical information that qualifies for continuing education credit for all design professionals.

Additionally, AIA Wisconsin’s Continuing Education Committee recently conducted a study collecting information about the continuing education activities of architects and engineers in its state. The study also offers perspectives from CES providers.*

CEUs can = cash

On a final and more fiscal note, continuing education can mean more to a firm beyond legal and fuzzy benefits. For principals with bottom-line concerns, professional development can be an opportunity to increase a firm’s net income. How? CEUs that focus practioners’ minds on risk management help eliminate losses from professional liability claims. In other words, many liability insurance carriers, experiencing increased costs as the premium for defending design professionals in today’s volatile construction environment, see the benefits—and savings—of having their insureds emphasize smarter business practices. Many carriers have implemented detailed and informative programs, accompanied by premium reductions, upon satisfaction of the course requirements. In their eyes, it all boils down to lower and fewer claims.

But the need for continuing education is perhaps best stated in the words of James Barker, president of Clemson University, in the Boyer Report on Building Community : “Continuing education for all practitioners can be the best bridge between higher education and practice we have yet established.”

Author Information
Thom Lowther ( ) is director of AIA’s Continuing Education System. He is a frequent speaker at industry conventions and an advocate of creating pertinent and accessible continuing education for design professionals.
Bill Dexter is a national risk management consultant and is currently serving as a panelist for the American Arbitration Association. He has participated as an industry spokesman before AIA, CSI and the California Contractors State License Board.