J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 5, 2019

From satellites in space to circuits for flashlights, Greg Mills has spent his entire career working as an engineer designing and building electronics. But earlier this year, a group of industry insiders sitting on a government board abruptly put Greg’s career on ice. Now he’s fighting back.

Greg’s resume reads like a veritable who’s-who of Arizona tech experts. After years of climbing the ranks within Phoenix-area tech and aerospace companies, he decided to set out on his own and started Southwest Engineering Concepts (“SOENCO”), an engineering consulting firm building circuits for small businesses and startups. For more than a decade, SOENCO was a success. But in May, government regulators from the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (ABTR) threatened to shut Greg down and impose thousands of dollars in fines—and maybe even jail time—all because they said Greg didn’t have a professional engineering license.

The ABTR asserts that anyone in Arizona doing any kind of engineering work—or even calling themselves an engineer—must first obtain a costly and burdensome license from the state. No matter what their qualifications are, how much experience they have or how simple their work products are—ABTR claims that “engineers” must obtain a license.

To get a license, Greg’s only option is to shut down SOENCO and get a job as an apprentice to a state-licensed engineer for eight years—just so he could then get back to doing what he has been doing for decades. But that’s not an option.

Depriving someone of their right to earn an honest living violates the Arizona Constitution, which is why Greg has partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm, to file a lawsuit challenging the ABTR’s ability to regulate any and all engineering activity. The lawsuit, filed in state court, seeks to protect Greg’s right to call himself an engineer, as well as his right to continue to design, analyze, test and build circuit prototypes.

“The Board’s definition of engineering is so vague that nearly anyone designing or building anything in Arizona could conceivably require a burdensome and unnecessary license,” said Paul Avelar, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Arizona office. “Practically no one in Arizona who has built something is outside the reach of the Board’s claim of broad regulatory powers.”

Neither Greg nor any of the other thousands of engineers in Arizona must have a license to be an engineer working in the manufacturing industry. Arizona’s engineering licensing law has an exception allowing unlicensed engineers to work full-time for any company that manufactures products. But since SOENCO only makes prototypes, not final products, and Greg only consults with his clients, rather than work for them full time, Greg does not qualify for the exception. At the same time, there is no requirement that a manufacturer have any licensed engineers on staff to provide oversight or mentorship of those exempted, unlicensed engineers. In effect, that means that it is illegal for Greg to do the very same work at SOENCO that he used to do legally as an employee at General Dynamics.

If Greg is qualified to work for a manufacturer, he is qualified to work for himself. In fact, the vast majority of engineers working in the United States—80% by one estimate—are not registered or licensed.“Greg could legally do all this work if his clients hired him full time, but not if he wants to be a part-time consultant,” said Institute for Justice Constitutional Law Fellow Adam Griffin. “The Board’s actions do nothing to protect the health or safety of Arizonans, but make it impossible for small businesses to work in innovative areas. The Board’s actions only serve to protect the financial interests of those who use the Board’s enforcement power to protect their monopoly on ‘engineering’ in Arizona.”

Traditionally, engineering licenses have only encompassed work done on civil engineering, construction or public works projects where an engineer is required to “sign and stamp” plans. In this capacity, a licensed engineer is ensuring that a bridge, dam or building is safe and complies with applicable building codes. But that rationale makes no sense for a company like SOENCO. Everything that Greg designs, from battery chargers to timing sensors, goes through rigorous third-party safety analysis to ensure compliance with standards from the Underwriters Laboratory or the Federal Communications Commission.

“I have 30 years of experience designing and building electronic circuits,” Mills said. “There are satellites in space using circuits that I’ve designed. And yet Arizona says I can’t design something as simple as a flashlight or a battery-powered misting system without getting a useless license. Arizona prides itself on having a business-friendly climate. I shouldn’t have to go back to being someone else’s employee for eight years just so I can keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing for my entire career.”

Greg’s lawsuit alleges that the Arizona Constitution protects his right to call himself an engineer and to do the work he has done for more than 30 years without getting a license from the state. The lawsuit declares that the Arizona Board of Technical Registration—a body controlled by licensees—makes, interprets, enforces and adjudicates its own rules all at the same time, contrary to the express separation of powers rules put into the Arizona Constitution by the framers, who were particularly concerned about concentrating government power in any single institution.

Greg’s suit is not the first challenge to an engineering licensing law. In 2017, an Oregon engineer came under fire for criticizing the timing of traffic lights. He partnered with the IJ to sue the state and won. From hair braiding to taxi driving to engineering, for nearly 30 years the Institute for Justice has stood up for American’s right to earn an honest living.

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