British engineers lead the way in worldwide working

Philip Schofield considers the thorny issue of cross-border recognition of professional status
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GENERATIONS of British engineers have left their mark around the world, and continue to do so. Probably the most global of all our professions, they have taken the lead in supporting and seeking what was probably the world's first international professional title - that of "European Engineer".

The qualification is now recognised in 27 European states - including all EU and Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Austria and several in east Europe. More applications are in the pipeline. The accolade has gone a long way to removing the barriers which hamper the job mobility of engineers in Europe. It is proving useful in other countries, such as the US, where the qualifications of European countries are not well understood.

The freedom of every citizen of the EU to work, set up business or provide services in any member state was guaranteed by the Treaty of Rome. However, this did not mean that everyone was free to practise their profession anywhere in the EU. Many problems regarding the mutual recognition of qualifications still hamper professional mobility.

The European Commission tried to guarantee the free movement of professionals through "sectorial directives". These cover individual professions and are arrived at by comparing the relevant education and training in each member state, and then "harmonising" these across the whole community. States are required to limit entry to these professions to people with a qualification which meets the harmonised standard.

Only seven sectoral directives based on harmonisation have been agreed - for doctors (GPs), dentists, nurses (general care), midwives, pharmacists, lawyers and veterinary surgeons. Agreeing sectoral directives has been painfully slow.

To speed things up, the European Commission introduced a general directive based on the mutual recognition of qualifications for those "regulated professions" which require a minimum of three years, university level education, or equivalent. This directive covers such professionals as chartered engineers, accountants, teachers, and lawyers.

Unfortunately the "mutual recognition" available under this directive can be limited. If there are differences in the content of degree courses, incoming profess- ionals may have to take more examinations or undertake up to three years' professional experience. In 1951 the Federation Europeenne d'Associations Nationales d'Ingenieurs (FEANI) was formed to "secure the recognition of European engineering titles to facilitate the freedom of engineers to practise within and outside Europe; to safeguard and promote the professional interests of engineers; and to foster high standards of education and professional practice and regularly review them".

The fact that FEANI has not yet wholly achieved its first objective in over 45 years shows the difficulty of securing the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. However, it made progress with the introduction of the European Engineer (Eur Ing) title in 1987 when the first 60 qualifiers received the title in Paris.

The minimum standard set for entry to the FEANI register of European Engineers is a seven-year programme of education, training and professional experience. This is similar to the requirements for chartered engineers in Britain - who are eligible to apply for the Eur Ing through their own institutions.

There are 22,000 engineers entitled to put the Eur Ing prefix before their names, of whom 12,000 are British. The 1977 survey of more than 9,000 UK professional engineers and technicians carried out by the Engineering Council found that 59 per cent believe that becoming a European Engineer is useful. It also found that over two-thirds of engineers believe the EU will affect their work, one in eight saying that the effect will be significant.

Britons have been particularly keen to qualify for FEANI's register. The scheme has been well promoted in the UK and British engineers have a long tradition of working abroad. Moreover, the title of engineer does not have the status it carries in other countries. Here it has been hijacked to describe many skilled and semi-skilled workers. To be called a European Engineer with the Eur Ing prefix differentiates you from the plumber, repairman and mechanic.