Professional licensing and certification of meteorologists

Motivated by claims of some non-degreed TV weathercasters that they are “meteorologists,” a Texas state legislator recently introduced a bill to certify meteorologists based on essentially the same educational requirements as the National Weather Service demands of its meteorological hires. [Thanks to Gilbert Sebenste, who provided it, I can e-mail a copy of this bill to anyone who desires.]

I have long been an advocate for full professional licensing and certification of all meteorologists, with unambiguous minimum educational standards. Such is the case with engineers, physicians and other technical/scientific professions where customer safety is on the line. Why not for meteorologists? Education and training standards are absolutely essential. Human lives are at stake!

In fact I would take it a step further: a minimum yearly continuing education and/or work requirement, also mandated for physicians and engineers in many states. It’s not a matter of elitism or exclusion, but of clear and consistent standards for the sake of public safety and confidence.

Sure, there are meteorologists with degrees who can’t forecast or research their way out of a paper bag, just as there are bad doctors and engineers. However, whether as forecasters, consultants or research scientists, our customers deserve to be able to place confidence in us based on a uniform requirement for our profession. Even if that bill vanishes into the catacombs of legislative oblivion, as expected, the buzz of discussion is now underway in the meteorological community.

One valid argument is that state government shouldn’t be involved. For consistency’s sake though, everyone making that point also should advocate that the state get out of licensing dentists, doctors, engineers, beauticians and other professionals.

Look: I don’t want just anyone with a keen interest in anatomy telling me he is a doctor, or a guy who can recite all of F. Lee Bailey’s essays verbatim to claim he is a lawyer. Those things are, indeed, crimes…in every state of the union. And there is good reason for it when you consider what may be at stake in some instances. Why is meteorology — especially public or private forecasting, with its mass-scale public safety and economic repercussions — any different?

I’m a fairly hard core, anti big-government conservative; but even I realize that government is necessary when public safety is on the line. If government has no other role at all, it’s still that.

Most “licensing” is done by each state upon recognition by a professional guild or appointed body consisting of representatives of that profession in the state. My father, for example, had to be certified as a barber in the state of Texas by a state board consisting of representatives culled from the barber colleges and the national professional association. Other professions related to public safety (i.e., engineers and dentists/physicians) are similar. Most states recognize standards set by a guild or association.

A barber should be licensed and certified at some minimum educational/training level, but not a meteorologist? Yikes! That makes no sense at all.

The AMS, of which I am an actively participating member, seems the logical place for such a thing to occur in meteorology. But the problem is twofold:

1. The AMS is an all-engulfing, bottomless black hole for money and wouldn’t give a flip about certification (beyond that required for membership) if it weren’t financially lucrative.
2. Even if the AMS had unambiguous certification standards for meteorologists, they would be absolutely powerless to prevent a non-meteorologist from calling himself one…unless backed up by law.

There’s where the (state) government gets involved. If I want to say I’m an engineer and design tunnels or retaining walls, I would have to get the right education and an engineer’s license. I couldn’t just say, “I’m an engineer and I will draw you up some great plans,” without being backed up by the expertise and credentials inherent to the certification process (if that process has any teeth, at least).

Yes, that there are many, many more important things than whether one can legally call himself a meteorologist (i.e., our kids’ education, I think we all agree). But that doesn’t mean this issue is unimportant all the time.


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