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Marine ‘engineers’ spark debate

Florida says only those who are licensed in the Sunshine State can use the title

Florida says only those who are licensed in the Sunshine State can use the title

Florida has ordered naval architect Eric Sponberg to stop calling himself a “marine engineer” on his Web site because he’s not licensed as an engineer in Florida — this despite the fact that only a fraction of those who routinely do marine engineering work on pleasure boats nationwide are licensed engineers.

Sponberg, a graduate in naval architecture from the University of Michigan, has been designing boats for 33 years. He works as both a naval architect (designing hulls) and a marine engineer (drawing up the boats’ mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems). On Dec. 13 Sponberg received a cease-and-desist order from the Florida Board of Professional Engineers, which enforces the state’s licensing law for engineers. A competing naval architecture firm had filed a complaint against him and seven other yacht designers who do marine engineering but aren’t licensed as marine engineers.

“They are not telling me I have to stop working,” says Sponberg. What the FBPE is telling him is that he must stop referring to himself as a licensed professional engineer on his Web site — — because he is not Florida-licensed. (He is licensed in Connecticut and by the U.K.’s Royal Institute of Naval Architecture.) Also, the board wants him to delete all references to engineering on the site, except where he notes that he has a license in Connecticut.

The complaints have opened a Pandora’s box for Florida’s marine industry, which already was grappling with the question: Who in the boatbuilding, boat design and boat repair business should be covered by Florida’s 1999 law requiring licensing of professional engineers? For more than a year Sponberg had been chairing an ad hoc industry committee to try to figure that out before it became an issue. The recently filed complaints have turned up the heat to find an answer.

Sponberg says there are more than 500 naval architects and marine engineers working in Florida — 11,000 nationwide, almost all of them without engineering licenses. Most of them couldn’t get a license in Florida even if they wanted to because they need a college engineering degree for starters. Then they must pass two eight-hour exams.

Sponberg says the licensing requirement doesn’t affect just naval architects, marine engineers and boat designers, but also repair yard workers. “If a boatyard, for example, so much as changes a propeller on a boat or installs a new engine or changes a rig on a sailboat, even changing the cut of the sails, it is practicing engineering and, therefore, is under the purview of the PE licensing laws,” he writes in a letter to the industry. “Specifying a laminate schedule, deciding on frame sizes and skin thickness, installing deck hardware, rewiring or replumbing a boat are all examples of practices that involve engineering decisions.”

Must every boatyard now hire a consulting licensed engineer? “This is a huge problem,” Sponberg says, and not just for Florida. Other states also are eyeing licensing for marine engineers. Maine, which like Florida licenses marine engineers, adopted an exemption for workers on boats smaller than 200 feet, which covers most of the state’s recreational-boat designers, builders and repairers.

Sponberg says the FBPE, recognizing that the licensing law poses a big problem for Florida’s marine industry, asked his ad hoc committee to poll the trade for possible solutions. The committee asked the industry to rank its preference for four options: exempt the marine industry altogether, as Florida has exempted its aerospace industry; exempt anyone providing architectural or marine engineering services for boats smaller than 200 feet; exempt those working on recreational boats smaller than 200 feet and commercial vessels smaller than 79 feet; exempt anyone working on either commercial or recreational boats smaller than 79 feet.

The 107 people who responded to the survey preferred an exemption for those who work on boats less than 200 feet, but an exemption for the entire marine industry ran a close second. The respondents represented 12,137 employees.

Sponberg says all the options require legislation. He hopes the Florida solution can serve as a model for other states. “We’re not against the concept of licensing,” Sponberg says. “It has a place in our society.” But, he says, the recreational marine industry doesn’t need licensed engineers to perform small-boat engineering. He says workers in small-craft design and marine mechanical, electrical and plumbing are voluntarily certified through the American Boat and Yacht Council, the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, and the Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design in Maine. Standards for small-boat building and design are set and administered through the Coast Guard, ABYC, classification societies like Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, and other international standards-setting agencies.

“The system works just fine the way it is without licensing,” Sponberg says. “The Florida law borders on guild protectionism.”