Alberta’s engineering regulator is in a fight with the province’s technology sector, insisting anyone with the title “software engineer” must hold a permit – and pay fees for that right.
The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), has asked a court to order one of the province’s leading software companies, Octopusapp Inc., known as Jobber, to stop using the term “engineer” in job titles and postings unless it gets a permit from the regulator.
That has caused an uproar in Alberta’s tech sector. On Friday, the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI) published an open letter signed by chief executive officers of 32 Alberta tech companies, including Jobber’s Sam Pillar, calling on Premier Danielle Smith to stop “regulator overreach” by APEGA.
The letter says APEGA’s “aggressive position” would result in “onerous, restrictive and unnecessary certification requirements” for developers, and harm companies’ ability to compete for talent. “If we cannot effectively compete for the best employees while headquartered in Alberta, we must seriously consider whether this is a place where our companies can succeed,” states the letter signed by CEOs of Benevity Inc., Symend Inc., Neo Financial Technologies Inc. and others.
CCI president Benjamin Bergen said he hoped Ms. Smith, who pledged to cut red tape while campaigning to lead the United Conservative Party, would take action “because this is really a red tape issue. It is the only jurisdiction globally that is pushing this. It’s making Alberta uncompetitive in the tech sector.”
A spokesperson for Alberta Labour Minister Kaycee Madu said in an e-mail the government would work with the parties to resolve the issue, adding: “We are concerned by any regulations that impede our competitiveness in the world skilled-labour market.”
Erum Afsar, director of enforcement with APEGA, said in an interview: “What we are doing is regulating what the government has legislated us to do. If you’re using that title, you should be registered with APEGA.”
APEGA and Canada’s 11 other provincial and territorial engineering regulators have complained for years about companies or individuals who use the titles “software engineer” and “computer engineer,” arguing they are prohibited from doing so. In July, Engineers Canada, which represents the regulators, issued a joint statement calling for individuals to be prohibited from using the offending titles unless they are licensed as engineers.
“Professional engineers are held to high professional and ethical standards and work in the public interest,” it said. “The public places a high degree of trust in the profession and these layers of accountability and transparency help keep Canadians safe.”
The regulators are mandated to enforce their relative statutes and have sporadically taken legal action to protect their turf. Ordre des Ingénieurs du Québec successfully sued Microsoft in the early 2000s to stop it from calling graduates of a training course “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.” Quebec’s Superior Court in 2005 upheld a lower-court ruling against Microsoft that came with a $1,000 fine. In 2019, an Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench justice ordered an injunction sought by APEGA against an individual for using the title “software engineer,” awarding costs to the association.
“We’ve always had a concern with people calling themselves ‘software engineers,’” said Engineers Canada CEO Gerard McDonald. “When regulators are aware of it, that is something they will take enforcement action against.” He said governing bodies for doctors and lawyers wouldn’t stand for uncertified practitioners calling themselves by those titles either.
Ms. Afsar said APEGA closes about 500 cases annually stemming from complaints of misusing the term “engineer”; just two involving the information technology sector are before the courts, including the Jobber case.
Engineers come in various forms, including aerospace, chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical. Some build bridges, rockets, cars or dams. They are typically licensed.
But coding “engineers” don’t typically seek or require industry accreditation. U.S. developer Margaret Hamilton is widely credited with coining the term “software engineer” after working on the on-board flight software for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Apollo program in the 1960s. She said her team’s work should be taken as seriously as other engineering and scientific disciplines. Many agreed. “The term ‘engineer’ has been used in software for decades,” said Dax Dasilva, executive chairman of Montreal’s Lightspeed Commerce Inc. “I don’t believe more regulation around terminology is suddenly necessary.”
Further complicating matters: “software engineer” is officially recognized by the federal National Occupational Classification system as a job title.
Provincial and territorial laws regulating engineers vary. Alberta’s Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act states no individual, corporation or partnership can use the word “engineer” in a job title unless they are “a professional engineer, licensee or permit holder entitled to engage in the practice of engineering.”
APEGA went after Edmonton-based Jobber in late 2021. In an application filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, the regulator argued that Jobber – which sells software to home service entrepreneurs to run their businesses and employs software engineers – is not permitted to call them that or “to hold out or represent itself as being entitled to practice engineering in Alberta” because it isn’t an association member.
APEGA dues per company are $500 multiplied by the square root of the number of engineers on staff; a company with 100 engineers would pay $5,000 for example. “This is not about a money grab,” Mr. McDonald said. “It’s about calling yourself something you’re not.”
APEGA stated in court documents it tried to persuade Jobber “to bring itself into compliance” by applying for a permit; Jobber said it didn’t have to. “There are no circumstances that would justify refusal of this application due to the risk to the public of the respondent holding out or representing itself as being entitled to engage in the practice of engineering without authorization to do so,” the complaint says.
Mr. Pillar said the principle behind the complaint “is short-sighted” as “software engineer” is a standard job title globally, and if Jobber couldn’t advertise for jobs with that description, it would lose out against U.S. tech giants who do use those terms in job postings. Indeed.com currently hosts software job ads for Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce in Western Canada with “engineer” in their titles.
Mr. Pillar said there is little risk “anybody would be confused” and think his engineers are qualified to build bridges. “We’re not calling our employees certified professional engineers or P. Engs. That would be absurd. We’re just using common terminology that everyone uses” in software.
With a report from Alanna Smith