Sununu Says He's An Engineer, But Whether That's Technically True Is A Judgment Call

Nov 1, 2018

Governor Sununu shared this photo on Twitter from a visit to BAE systems. Scroll down in the story to see his tweet, in which he references his background in engineering.
Credit Via Twitter

If you catch Gov. Chris Sununu at the State House or on the campaign trail, it generally won’t be long before he drops a certain biographical tidbit:

“I’m an engineer by trade, a civil and environmental engineer....” “My focus as an environmental engineer…” “I was an environmental engineer…. “I love the concept, I’m an environmental engineer...”

But by the governor’s own accounting, it’s been a decade since he's really worked as an engineer. And Sununu’s political opponents have questioned his professional credentials for years.

NHPR’s Josh Rogers has been looking into the governor’s engineering background, and joins All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about what he found.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

So as we’ve heard, the governor talks a great deal about being an engineer. Why does he bring it up so much?

It tends to come up when he’s trying to express authority. It comes up a lot where its potential relevance is obvious, on issues like water quality, energy, or climate change. But the governor also weaves it into less obvious policy areas, like child protection, or the mental health system. Then, it seems a shorthand way to suggest he’s someone who gets what I guess you could call systems architecture.

I do have to say the engineering talk does appear to come quite naturally to him. And he did study environmental engineering at MIT.

So the engineering degree is a fact, and it’s from MIT. So, what’s at issue here? 

Well, engineering is a licensed profession, and licensed at the state level. And Sununu has never held an engineering license. I was able to verify that in June 2002, California granted him “engineer in training” status.

California is where he lived and worked at the time. And to be an engineer in training, he had to pass an exam: Fundamentals of Engineering.

To become a fully licensed engineer he would have had to complete four years of work under the supervision of a licensed engineer and then pass another exam, the Principles and Practice of Engineering. The governor did work under licensed engineers but never took that exam, and so never became a fully licensed engineer.

Now you mentioned that the governor’s background as an engineer is been something his political opponents have poked at through the years.

They have, mostly on social media. And then last week, the liberal political group Granite State Progress sent out what I'd say is the most aggressive critique of Sununu’s work history I’ve ever seen. The group made a lot of claims about Sununu's professional experience, including one detail in his licensing record as an indication he could have committed felonies. That’s certainly not the conclusion I share after looking at the governor’s record.

But for reporters, assessing opposition research, which can often be quite tendentious, is part of the job. And Sununu does talk up being an engineer a great deal, and practicing improperly can certainly be a crime. And what’s important here is that we really don't know a lot about Sununu's private sector work.

When he first ran for governor, his family name and his family’s ownership of Waterville Valley was what really got most of the focus. And you know, we still don’t really know too much about that beyond the facial. So for all those reasons, we figured we’d give this a look.

Gov. Sununu said he "had a blast" meeting with fellow Granite State engineers at the state house in 2017
Credit Via Facebook

So, bottom line is that Sununu is trained as an engineer but was never fully licensed as one.

Yes. But according to engineering credentialing experts I spoke with, only twenty percent of people with engineering degrees become fully licensed. And by dint of passing the Fundamentals Exam (FE), and his work experience, the governor was on the path to getting to a fully-licensed status. But he would have needed to take and pass another eight hour exam.

So why didn’t he try to become fully licensed?

Well, why don’t we let the governor himself explain. I put the question to him this week:

“No, I was only, I mean, I would have pursued it probably about around the time I was leaving the profession. So I decided engineering wasn’t going to be a full-time, long term the career for me, so I made the choice, well, I’m not going to get the PE license 'cause I was going to move on to other things.”

And he did move on. He worked for his family and then at Waterville. But as for calling himself an engineer, is that right?

Well, it’s kind of a judgment call. If Sununu were out there working in an engineering field, the standards boil down to this: To do certain things you need a state-issued license, or need to be working under the supervision of someone who has one.

Sununu’s seems to have always done that, and that was in California, in Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In the course of looking into this issue, I spoke to a man named Arthur Schwartz. He’s general counsel to the National Professional Society of Engineers. And as you might imagine, he’s the sort of fellow who favors precision when it comes to who should or who shouldn’t call themselves engineers.

He told me given Sununu’s resume, it would in his estimation be “not inappropriate” for him to have the title engineer, but Schwartz also said that the governor's repeatedly saying he’s an engineer, and putting it in the present tense, when he never had a license runs the risk of misleading people.

“If he said he was trained as an engineer or had a degree in engineering that would probably be a more accurate description of who he is and what he is.”

So Josh, one final question. Do you think the governor will continue to talk up being an engineer?

Uh, yes. And based on my experience covering him for the last two years, I’d say even if he wanted to stop saying it, it would be a hard rhetorical habit for him to break.