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Tech community pleased with Alberta move to change rules around 'engineer' title

Canada's tech community is applauding a proposal by the Alberta government that would allow more workers to use the "software engineer" title.
Canada's tech community is applauding a proposal by the Alberta government that would allow more workers to use the "software engineer" title. Sam Pillar, chief executive of Edmonton-based home services platform Jobber, is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jobber *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Canada's tech community is applauding a proposal by the Alberta government that would allow more workers to use the "software engineer" title.

Premier Danielle Smith's government introduced a bill on Monday that would allow for broader use of the descriptor, which is common in the tech industry but not recognized by the province's professional engineers.

If passed, Bill 7 would carve out an exception in the province's Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act, granting software engineers and those with similar roles permission to use the title.

"This is an important development for the innovation sector in the province and will give companies and their employees the freedom to use titles that have long been universally accepted in the tech industry," said Sam Pillar, chief executive of Edmonton-based tech company Jobber, which has used the software engineer title.

It has become a point of contention in the tech sector, where people working in program development and other technical roles are often called "software engineers."

However, use of the title raised the ire of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, which filed lawsuits against tech companies that use variations of the engineer title.

The association has argued the term "engineer" comes with a licensed and ethical set of responsibilities and accountabilities akin to other regulated professions, such as health and legal roles.

In a statement to its website Monday, APEGA's registrar and CEO Jay Nagendran said the association believes "title protection is vital to preserving public safety and maintaining high standards of practice and ethics." He blamed the government's decision on lobbying from the technology industry.

More than 30 tech companies signed a bill last October, seeking a change that would allow them to more freely use the engineer title. They said the current law hampers their ability to compete for global tech talent, which has long been lured to the U.S. instead with promises of big job titles and even bigger salaries.

Jobber was sued by the engineering association over its use of the engineer title, making Pillar one of the most vocal figures in the fight to change how the term could be used.

He called Alberta's proposal "an important development."

"It is critical that companies like Jobber are able to compete on a level playing field for top talent," he said, in a statement.

"This much-needed clarification will go a long way to ensuring we can do that."

Benjamin Bergen, president of the Council of Canadian Innovators, was equally happy with the proposed change because he thinks it will help Canadian tech companies compete more freely for talent.

He cited data showing postings for "software developers" received far fewer applicants than "software engineers," and the quality of applicants wasn't as high.

"If you hinder a company's ability to be able to access the best and brightest from around the world by being stuck on nomenclature, you're actually impeding them," Bergen said.

He feels it's important that Alberta is acting now because job titles are constantly evolving in tech. With the dawn of artificial intelligence technology like Chat-GPT, for example, he said "prompt engineer" is cropping up and could face similar opposition.

But it's not just Alberta, which Bergen says has the country's largest contingent of engineers because of its proximity to the oilsands, where the engineering title could come under fire.

B.C. and Ontario have similar legislation but not enforced it in the software engineering context, Bergen said.

He hopes Alberta's new approach sets a precedent.

"I think our concern as an organization is that this type of enforcement was going to begin sweeping to other provinces as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2023.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press