As we entered a new decade, few could have predicted what the year 2020 would bring. The world was confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic, evolving at a high speed, and causing widespread societal and economic disruption. As public health guidelines advised the closure of varying workplaces, virtual work, and increased physical distancing, organizations faced sudden challenges for the unforeseeable future.

Under these circumstances, engineering regulators were prompted to take agile measures and adopt new practices to provide guidance to engineers, continue delivering core services, and fulfil their public protection mandate.

One year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, regulators reflect on how they responded to COVID-19 over the past year.

The digital transformation

The onset of COVID-19 accelerated the shift towards digital. Increased safety measures triggered the use of digital interactions and we saw a rapid transition from face-to-face to the online space. Despite how quickly COVID-19 evolved, engineering regulators swiftly reshaped their operations.

Gillian Pichler, Director, Registration Engineers and Geoscientists BC, says that, in BC, “critical application assessment methods have moved 100 per cent online. Prior to the pandemic, virtual registration interviews were available for an additional administration fee.  All registration interviews went online in March 2020 with the online interview fee waived.”

During the pandemic, regulators embraced digital solutions and have found new alternatives for conducting business and delivering their services. For example, Deputy Registrar Linda Latham of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) states that they’re “now working to offer technical examinations in May through the secure online platform used by Engineers and Geoscientists BC late last year with proctors monitoring each candidate via a video connection.”

Regulators across the country also swiftly moved to online meetings. The transition has also played a role in reducing barriers to attending meetings and accessing services.

“A good thing that has come out of the virtual meetings is that we have more people joining meetings who live in remote communities and/or work at remote mining sites,” says Linda Golding, Past Executive Director and Registrar, Northwest Territories and Nunavut Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (NAPEG). She adds, “These are P.Eng., P.Geo., and Members-In-Training (MIT) that we might not hear much from except for the annual in-person two-day conference (if they are able to come to Yellowknife).”

Adapting to change

The changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic happened rapidly and abruptly. Adapting to a predominantly online world posed many challenges.

One of these challenges included finding sudden alternatives for document acceptance and moving paperwork along digitally. For Kalina Bacher-René, Directrice à l’accès à la profession, Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ), the most challenging aspect was moving to paperless delivery when many of OIQ’s processes were paper-based.

Similarly, the pandemic prompted PEO to make significant modifications to their licensing processes, which were 100 per cent paper-based. This involved altering the process to allow for receipt of new applications by email as well as configuring an electronic system to facilitate the internal workflow required for further processing. 

“This was a significant IT and process adjustment, requiring substantial effort to configure existing technology to host application files in a manner that would support the necessary licensing process steps,” says Johnny Zuccon, PEO’s CEO and Registrar. He continues, “PEO approves close to 3000 P.Eng. licences in a year, so there is a large number of files involved.”

Re-thinking the future

Despite countless new procedures introduced as a response to COVID-19, engineers and regulators have been nimble and receptive to change.

“We received interesting feedback from a majority of our volunteers. We assumed that many would be looking for a quick return to in-person meetings. The opposite is true,” notes Matthew Oliver, Deputy Registrar and Chief Regulatory Officer (CRO) for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA). “We have heard from many that they want to maintain more meetings entirely virtual, including hearings. This experience has reduced travel time and improved quality-of-life, for all those who would otherwise need to spend hours in transit.”

Most notably, some processes applied by regulators because of the disruption faced in the past year are now being considered for long-term implementation.

“We continue to examine PEO’s old ways of conducting business and implement evidenced-based decision-making processes that will allow us to become a better, more modern, and more effective regulator,” says Zuccon.