A man in Beaverton Oregon who has been fined and is under investigation by the state’s board of engineers for using the word “engineer” during a debate about traffic lights, is being allowed by a federal judge to refer to himself as an engineer and to discuss traffic lights pending the board’s investigation. It seems that in the opinion of the federal district court of Oregon, engineering is not a protected class of employment like being a police officer is. That is to say; one cannot be punished for impersonating an engineer.

According to the Oregonian, Oregon resident Mats Järlström was fined $500 by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying last April for using the word “engineer” and claiming to be an engineer in a submitted opinion to the board. The board also barred him from using the word to describe himself. At first glance, it seems the state had justifiable cause. After all, you cannot have people running around doing engineering work who are not qualified; that would be a risk to public safety. However, putting it into the proper context does require a bit of background regarding the man.

"Järlström wishes to communicate about the mathematics behind traffic light timing. If he does so in Oregon, however, he will be exposed to government investigation and punishment for engaging in the unlicensed 'practice of engineering.'"

Mats moved to Oregon in 1992 after immigrating from Sweden where he had worked as an engineer in the Swedish Air Force and also for Luxor Electronics. Currently, he is self-employed doing work testing and repairing audio components and testing equipment. He has never been employed as an engineer in Oregon, but the board is presumably looking into that to reinforce its case against him.

The 56-year-old trained and experienced engineer was fined during a debate with public officials regarding the timing of traffic lights. Even though Järlström was not practicing engineering as employment in any capacity, he was fined for merely suggesting that he knew what he was talking about.

The whole thing started after a traffic camera had caught his wife running a red light and issued her a ticket. Mats began doing research and field study on the duration of traffic lights in Oregon, specifically yellow lights in Beaverton. After compiling his data, he did all the math and formulated an ideal timing for yellow lights based on his research. He presented his findings as a citizen to the Board of Engineers. It was an appeal to look into updating the traffic lights in Oregon, which are not consistent and have not been adjusted in decades despite changes in traffic and road conditions.

When presenting such a study to a governing body, it only seems logical that one would include his or her qualifications for making the assessment. It just does not make sense to pose a suggestion to solve a complex problem without indicating what qualifies one to make it in the first place, and that is what Järlström did.

In his proposal, he stated that he was an engineer. Had he not, the pile of papers and research would have been glanced at and then thrown in the trash as something done by an unqualified citizen disgruntled about getting a traffic ticket. For the act of notifying the board that he was a trained and experienced engineer, Mats was fined $500 for practicing engineering without being registered in Oregon.

Perhaps Mats should have said, “I used to be an engineer,” but ask or propose that to any engineer and see how many weird looks you get. Once an engineer, always an engineer. It is not something that just goes away because you do not have a “government permission slip,” as Järlström’s lawyers have said.

The opinion of whether or not anyone should be allowed to call themselves an engineer is contentious, even within the engineering community. Mats Järlström's fight for the right to use the word to describe himself is not over. For now, the court is on his side. The issue has received countless headlines and even a piece done on 60 Minutes, but the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying are still insisting that he has violated some law or regulation, which is keeping the debate hot.

Are you an engineer? Do you have a license to practice your trade? Do you feel that people should not call themselves engineers unless they are legally sanctioned in the state in which they live?