By Stephanie Harp
When Oumalkaire Said Barkad arrived in Maine in 2014 with a master’s degree from the Engineering School of Reims, France, she didn’t know about the many additional steps required to become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the U.S.. She soon waded into the complicated process for Maine residents with non-U.S. degrees – in many fields beyond just engineering – to receive professional certification. After receiving her PE in 2020, she’s now licensed in 11 states and is pursuing a 12th.
I haven’t seen a lot of women who have a PE. I haven’t seen any Black Muslim women who have a PE,” said Barkad, who watched movies, documentaries, and the news to improve her English. She also attended networking events.
“Even though I came to the U.S. with limited English, I was able to get an FE [Fundamentals of Engineering] and PE, which only 20% of engineers have, and among those, only 12% are women. I haven’t seen a lot of women who have a PE. I haven’t seen any Black Muslim women who have a PE,” said Barkad, who watched movies, documentaries, and the news to improve her English. She also attended networking events. She strategically took jobs below her skill level, in order to learn about the U.S. culture, work environment, and language, but she knows that’s not an option for everyone.
She knows many skilled people haven’t been able to pursue credential evaluations or sit for exams. She wants them to see what’s possible and how to do it. “I know someone who has 20 years’ experience, four kids, working at night and his wife working in the morning. He was an engineer so he wanted to pass his FE. But how is he going to study? … There are a lot of people who are in the same situation as him, that really want to work with their credentials, but they have no idea where to go and how to start.”
Engineers must have sufficient education, pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), have four years’ relevant experience then also pass the NCEES Professional Engineering exam. “But I wasn’t aware of that because it didn’t exist in France,” Barkad said.
As she began looking for a job in Maine, she found that many engineers had only bachelor’s degrees; she wanted to demonstrate that she had a master’s degree and therefore was quite well-qualified. To verify her education, she obtained a credential evaluation. “When you’re getting your credential evaluated, it’s like saying, ‘My master’s degree in France is equivalent.’ They evaluate your courses one by one.”
This involves gathering a college or graduate school transcript, diploma, and details of each course, all of which must be submitted in English. The process is costly: an evaluation report is about $250-350 and, at about $50 per page, translation quickly adds up, too, according to the New Mainers Resource Center, which lists several resources that may help with fees. See “Credential Evaluations and Professional Licensing for New Mainers” at www.nmrcmaine.org.
The evaluators examine the transcript and courses, and identify any missing academic content. “Credential evaluation is very, very important because it is going to help you get to university or is going to help you get a job,” Barkad said. “Instead of starting from the beginning like you have a high school diploma – but you did two or three years [of college] – they’re going to take that into account. Now I can go to [University of Southern Maine] or another school, and tell them I have the equivalent of a master’s degree and I want a Ph.D., and I would be able to enroll.”
According to the New Mainers Resource Center website, evaluation requirements vary among professions, licensing bodies, schools, and employers, each of which can tell candidates what they require. Some companies that provide evaluations are part of a group called the National Association of Evaluator Services.
Barkad is grateful for help she received from Stefanie Trice Gill, founder of IntWork, who described her company as a “Maine-based diversity recruiting firm specializing in matching employers with diverse talent.” IntWorks helped place Barkad in her first internship to begin her required years of work experience before sitting for her PE exam.
Currently, Barkad works as a Senior Mechanical Engineer for BaselineES. She reviews, approves, and stamps mechanical projects that are under her direct supervision. Tom Mathews is the small company’s founder and president. “The PE was an important point to her. It’s like citizenship. It’s a significant marker.” He even gave Barkad a week off, with pay, to study for her exam. “It was very worthwhile for us. We need to have at least one PE within the organization.”
His 15 employees have different degrees and certifications, which vary in importance, depending on the particular type of design they’re doing. Barkad has extensive experience designing, commissioning, and monitoring mechanical systems for supermarkets and office buildings. She specializes in designing HVAC, refrigeration and building automation systems. In addition to Maine, Baseline’s projects in other states has prompted her to attain licensure in Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, with a Texas license in progress.
“Oumal is a terrific young woman,” Mathews said. “She’s been learning at 100 miles per hour… . We consider ourselves lucky that Goodwill brought her to us.” The former program of Goodwill Northern New England helped internationally trained professionals find work in Maine companies. “Her real accomplishment is not getting PE but getting her career off to a great start, getting her family established, and becoming a citizen of the U.S. … She’s repeating the immigrant dream that’s alway been part of the U.S.”
He started his company in Shanghai, China, before eventually moving its operations to Maine. “People who make it to the U.S., whether they swim across the Rio Grande, ride in a container from China, or go through the immigration process, we get the people who have the energy and ambition to get here. And that’s no trifle. We get the best of the best. I have a lot of respect for new entries to the U.S. and we really don’t want to be fearing them; we want to embrace them and help them,” Mathews said.
Accountants, attorneys, electricians, engineers, land surveyors, plumbers, physicians, tech workers, and others who have training and degrees from elsewhere can follow procedures to receive professional licenses in Maine. (See “New Year’s Resolutions” at www.amjamboafrica.com.) Of recent changes, Gill said, “Particularly noteworthy is that foreign-trained lawyers be considered to sit for the bar in Maine like they can in New York and California.” This changed several years ago, she said, but many foreign-trained lawyers might not know about it yet.
Now people call Barkad to ask what they should do and what sort of jobs they should accept, and she is eager to help others find paths to licensure and employment that matches their training. “My phone is always open if they want to call me and ask me for advice,” she said.