In the second of a two-part series, we consider what 2021 may hold in store for engineering regulators, from foreign credential recognition, to EDI considerations, to big data.

Observations about the rapid pace of change and disruptive forces in the world today are not new, but if there is anything to learn from 2020, it is how pervasive and enduring those changes and disruptions can be. Self-regulating professions have not been immune to the big developments of 2020, including the global pandemic effects, a growing movement of protests to end discrimination, and continuous technological advances.

With these factors in mind, below we consider what changes 2021 may hold in store for engineering regulators. In this second of a two-part series, we discuss ongoing pressures and changing expectations when it comes to foreign credential recognition, regulators’ roles in equity, diversity, and inclusion, and the opportunities and challenges of big data. In part 1, we considered changes to regulatory frameworks and legislation, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on regulators.

Foreign Credential Recognition: Ongoing pressures and changing expectations

Registration practices and barriers to licensure are not new topics. The attention paid to the issue has grown consistently over the past 15 years with the introduction of fairness legislation across many provinces to ensure the registration practices of regulated professions are transparent, objective, impartial, and fair for all applicants. Momentum from recent changes in the past couple of years will continue into 2021.

In 2019, Alberta followed the jurisdictions of Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba by introducing The Fair Registration Practices Act and establishing a Fairness Commissioner. The legislation requires regulators to assess applications and communicate decisions within specific timeframes. The Ordre des Ingénieurs du Québec has taken steps to reduce processing times for international applicants from an average of 18 to six months, and in fall 2020 they revised their mutual recognition agreement with France to increase the number of accepted programs and introduced a new competency-based requirement. In November 2020, the Manitoba government proposed amendments to its Fair Registration Practices in Regulated Professions Act to set standards for registration timelines. Engineers Nova Scotia revised its registration practices to remove the Canadian work experience requirement, which was a significant barrier for many internationally educated engineers to becoming licensed in the province. Various alternatives to demonstrate engineering experience and Canadian environment experience are now acceptable, including completion of specific study programs or seminars, such as Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia’s Orientation and Communication Skills for Engineers or Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia’s Working in Canada Seminar.

These changes in registration take on more significance with the Government of Canada’s fall 2020 announcement to raise immigration targets slightly for the next three years to account for lower numbers during the 2020 pandemic year. Immigration is a vital component of economic growth, yet longitudinal statistics continue to show that foreign-trained professionals are less likely to be working in a regulated occupation that matches their field of study compared to their Canadian-born counterparts.

Regulators balance acceptance of foreign credentials for licensure with the core responsibility of licensing only those who are qualified and competent to practise. For many regulators, the process of verifying foreign credentials and assessing an applicant from another country can be a difficult process that significantly lengthens the licensure process.

Some government immigration programs have tried to address this by providing better pre-arrival supports and allowing applicants to start the process while still in their home country rather than having to wait for arrival in Canada to file their paperwork. In addition, the pandemic has already necessitated change to regulators’ registration systems in some circumstances. Aspects such as requiring original documents and lengthy in-person examinations have been adjusted in response to pandemic challenges. Digitizing communications can reduce waiting times between regulators and international applicants, and some regulators have been able to reduce the number of consecutive steps by allowing them to be performed concurrently.

Regulators will need to continue to focus on identifying opportunities to further improve and evolve registration practices. Growing shortages of skilled and experienced workers may continue to pressure regulators to expedite licensure processes and accept alternate forms of professional competency. While regulators are being legislated and pressured to improve recognition of international credentials, it’s also important to be prepared for a future of professional regulation that could reduce the importance of credentials (either domestic or foreign) and emphasize competency and continued learning instead.

More information: Government of Canada announces plan to support economic recovery through immigration; Engineers Nova Scotia – Fair Registration Practices Act Progress Report April 2020

Social responsibility: Regulators’ roles in building equity, diversity, and inclusion

Social disruption and movements like Black Lives Matter are focusing attention on organizations’ broader social responsibilities. Regulators are expected to reflect the communities they regulate and to respond to social pressures for greater equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Research has shown that practitioners who are Indigenous, black, people of colour, identify as LGBTQ+, are internationally trained, or have language or cultural differences, will experience more barriers to registration, more employer interventions and complaints made against them, and harsher discipline outcomes than their non-minority peers. Assessing and understanding individuals’ and institutions’ implicit biases and developing mitigations will be key to addressing discriminatory behaviours in regulation and working towards more equitable, diverse, and inclusive professions. Conducting assumption tests, analyzing past decisions, tracking diversity demographics of registrants and their retention in the profession, offering training, and receiving feedback from affected parties can help identify and address implicit biases within the system.

Engineering regulators can respond to discrimination by encouraging equity, diversity, and inclusion within the profession and in their regulatory practices. For example, some regulators are addressing the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to support reconciliation and attract Indigenous practitioners into the profession. Regulators can also ensure their staff and volunteers are representative of the public they serve. Asking interested candidates about why they apply, what their challenges have been, and what contributes to their success can provide insight about how the public and the profession perceives the regulator. Active recruitment of diverse representatives and training selection panels on implicit bias can ensure the recruitment processes are fair.

Effective regulation will prove difficult if the systems and processes of regulation do not embrace the diversity of the profession’s practitioners or the public they are mandated to protect.

Big data: Does it help or hinder regulators?

Faster computing, cheaper storage, and the ability to connect and exchange extremely high quantities of data has led to a proliferation of big data across many sectors. While engineering regulators frequently discuss if and how the emergence of such technology needs to be regulated as part of the practice of engineering, their regulatory capacity is not immune from the effects or the potential benefits of its increased presence.

Regulators have access to huge amounts of data which, when analyzed appropriately, have the potential to improve their knowledge and understanding, identify patterns of behaviour, and generate insights that promote better regulation. While some regulators are taking advantage of existing data sources, like social media platforms, complaint themes, and registrant feedback, others are developing internal capacity to conduct their own data analytics on very specific questions. Data from internal and external sources can help regulators address many types of questions, such as what their practitioners are doing and where, what professional pressures they face, what economic circumstances are driving the industry, and how to improve customer service and operations.

As engineering regulators come to rely more on big data, it is important to understand the capabilities and limitations of this technology. The many opportunities it offers can only be advantageous when the accompanying risks are acknowledged and managed carefully. This includes having policies and defined practices for how to collect, use, store, and protect big data, and be flexible enough to respond rapidly to emerging challenges. Without detailed plans, there is a risk that regulators could lose the trust of their stakeholders.

Once data is collected, plans, principles, and structures will needed for responsible data management. Concepts of human-centred values, fairness, transparency, robustness, security, and safety should be guiding regulators’ big data projects. Investing in proper resources and governance rules contributes to better data organization, more informed decisions, and an improved ability to act on findings. Bias in big data has also been a trending topic including the identification of algorithmic bias.

It can be easy to overlook the extent of the consequences from poor data management and easy to underestimate the full extent of damage it can cause. Regulators have substantial personal and professional information about their registrants. Protecting that data is paramount and using it for legitimate purposes, such as understanding demographics, educational pathways, and disciplines of practice, is essential for maintaining trust. Regulators’ responsible use of big data can support their regulatory functions while also becoming a standard for other engineering entities to follow.

The events of 2020 have reminded all regulators that they are not immune to the forces of social change. Regulators who are resilient and prepared will be able to adapt and remain relevant in 2021 and the years beyond.