The topic of licensing and certification comes up every now and then in engineering. There are always two camps that emerge in these discussions—those who say “who needs it?” and a support group that thinks it is good and necessary. Of course, licenses and certifications are a personal thing depending upon your interests and needs. Unlike a professional engineering (PE) license, this certification is focused on the wireless technologies but is pretty broad in its coverage. The exam and requirements for a PE license are so broad and general not to mention dated as to be next to worthless to most electronic engineers. What is needed is a credential like this new one that fits the highly focused jobs of most engineers.

I recently spoke with IEEE WCET program director, Celia Desmond and John Pape, the marketing manager for the IEEE Communications Society about the new program.

Certification What And Why
The certification is called the Wireless Communications Engineering Technologies (WCET) program. It is designed to certify the competency, practical knowledge and skills of wireless professionals. With wireless the hottest of the electronic technologies today, there is a growing need for wireless engineers who can demonstrate real problem solving skills in practical situations. Such a credential can help an engineer find employment or advance on the job. And it will provide hiring employers with a valid baseline tool for measuring a candidate’s ability to fill specific positions.

The general requirements to apply for WCET certification are a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, three years of wireless engineering experience, and passing a detailed and comprehensive exam developed by industry experts. While a BSEE degree is probably the most desirable, I assume that the IEEE will look favorably on other degrees such as mechanical and computer engineering, physics and engineering technology. It is unfortunate that a no-degree option is not offered as there are still quite a few wireless engineers out there with no bachelor’s degree or maybe just an associate degree. It has been my experience that you don’t necessarily have to have a degree to be a competent engineer. I have met many over my career. But the IEEE wants this certification to have “weight” thus the degree requirement.

As for the years of experience, that is essential. How much experience is always a question. How much really is enough? Furthermore, it will be interesting to see what the IEEE will accept as valid experience. Will a Cisco wireless certification and related experience be sufficient? Will ham radio experience count for anything?

Finally there is the exam. This exam was created over the past several years by a large group of experienced wireless professionals. The exam consists of 150 multiple choice questions encompassing all manner of the wireless space from RF and antennas to network architecture and management.

The exam consists of seven major knowledge areas. Here is a summary of these areas along with the approximate percentage they represent on the exam.

  1. RF engineering, propagation, and antennas (22%): RF engineering, transmission, and reception; propagation; channel modeling, and antennas.
  2. Wireless access technologies (19%): Wireless access networks, physical layer, MAC and link layers.
  3. Network and service architecture (20%): Network infrastructure, core networks, service frameworks (e.g. IMS), and application architectures such as voice, video streaming and messaging.
  4. Network management and security (13%): Fault configuration, accounts, performance, maintenance, security management, management availability, and operation support systems (service assurance and provisioning).
  5. Facilities infrastructure (8%): Specifications, design, implementation, and operation of facilities and sites.
  6. Agreements, standards, policies and regulations (8%): Externally imposed compliance requirements and conformance testing, including interoperability.
  7. Fundamental knowledge (10%): Wireless communications knowledge in general.

I have reviewed some of the more detailed outlines from each of these segments and some of the sample test questions. This is one tough exam. Not only is it relatively deep in each area, but it is very broad in coverage. I wonder just how many wireless engineers could come close to passing this exam. Most wireless engineers specialize in one or more of the above areas rather than being an expert in all. Anyone interested in this certification will have to have very broad experience, knowledge and skill, either that or do some serious studying in those areas where knowledge is lighter. Those passing this exam will be real super wireless engineers.

You will be on your own in studying for the exam initially, but it is expected that some colleges, universities, and some commercial seminar companies offer prep courses and materials. The IEEE has a Candidate’s Handbook that will give you a good look at the exam content as well as general instructions for applying for the exam. In the near future two separate practice exams consisting of 75 different questions each will be available via the Internet for $75 individually or $125 for both. The WCET application fee is $500. The first exams are scheduled for the September 22 to October 10, 2008 period and for the third and fourth weeks of 2009. For more details, go to www.ieee-wcet.org.

I like the idea of this certification. And there really should be others covering different competency areas in electronics. There are many options for technician certifications and those helped me in my early career as a tech. And there are other wireless certifications. An example is the Cisco Wireless Networking Expert (www.cwnp.com). Another is from the National Association of Radio & Telecommunications Engineers (www.NARTE.org). And don’t forget the FCC General Radio Operator’s License (GROL). It is not an engineering oriented license but it is pretty comprehensive and is still widely used as a hiring credential in some areas of wireless (www.fcc.gov).

My fear is that the IEEE certification is too broad. My own experience has led me to believe that few engineers have such a broad background, not that they cannot acquire it, of course. These certifications do have to have the right balance of rigor and flexibility to fit a wide audience and at the same time have credibility. It will be interesting to see if this one does. If it is too tough and broad no one will apply or pass. What good is that? But if it is too easy, it will be dismissed and perhaps even scorned. And a word to you employers: Take a good look at this and consider it as a potential hiring credential. With both engineers and employers buying into this it can work to the benefit of everyone. It certainly has my support and I may even apply myself.