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Chandler engineer fights rigged Arizona system

Greg Mills

Greg Mills

If Greg Mills is not an engineer, that would be a surprise to General Dynamics. The aerospace and defense contractor hired him from Rayovac in 1996 and put him to work designing electronics for satellites and other sophisticated systems.

As a “responsible design engineer,” he even supervised teams of other engineers at the Fortune 100 company. But now that Mills has gone solo as co-founder of his own electrical design shop in Chandler, industry insiders on a government board have decided to shut him down.

They assert that any independent agent in Arizona who uses the “engineer” label or does any kind of engineering work must first obtain permission from the state – even when someone like Mills has more than 30 years of relevant experience.

Adam Griffin

Adam Griffin

The Arizona Board of Technical Registration does not care about such accomplishments. It will not let entrepreneurs break free from existing firms and spin off potential rival firms without first accumulating eight years as an apprentice to a state-licensed engineer.

Mills never did that before starting his company, Southwest Engineering Concepts. Neither did the founders of Amazon, Apple, Google and HP. They just opened shop and went to work. Apparently, Arizona cannot tolerate that kind of entrepreneurial spirit.

Fortunately, Mills is fighting back. Partnering with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, he filed a civil rights lawsuit in December to defend his free speech rights and freedom to earn a living. He also found an ally at the state Capitol.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, filed two bills in response to the case. SB1298, awaiting a vote from the full Senate, would define what it means to be a “professional engineer.” And SB1507, which has cleared the Senate and moved to the House, would give people like Mills additional protections when state licensing boards rule against them.

Currently, judges who hear appeals must defer to the fact-finding conclusions that licensing boards make on their own behalf, which all but guarantees bias in favor of the government. The reform would level the playing field, allowing proceedings to begin “without deference to any previous determination.”

The lawsuit, meanwhile, is moving forward without assistance from Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. The engineering board has private counsel instead, which filed a motion to dismiss on Tuesday.

Mills’ response will be strong and clear. Arizona must end the double standard that allows people to work as engineers for someone else but not themselves.

The protectionist rule, set up for big companies like General Dynamics, allows the vast majority of Arizona engineers to operate without a license as long as their employers manufacture products. Mills does not do that at his small business because he is an engineer, not a manufacturer.

Even if he had stayed in the corporate world, he never would have met the apprenticeship requirement because Arizona manufacturers do not keep licensed engineers on their payrolls. The rule conveniently carves out an exemption for them.

Mills, who worked as an employee under the exemption for 20 years, rejects this unequal protection under the law. Significantly, he does not even engage in the kind of engineering that requires a license. He does not sign or stamp plans for bridges, buildings and public works, nor does he design anything that goes into such projects.

Instead, he helps small businesses, startups and other entrepreneurs turn their ideas for new electronic gadgets into prototypes for manufacturing. That was his dream when he took off his employee badge and hired himself in 2008.

Since then, his essential job functions have not changed. But now, after more than 10 years, the state board wants to shut him down and fine him thousands of dollars.

This interference is not right. Mills’ ability to earn an honest living should not depend on whether he receives a W-2 or 1099 tax form. Rules based on such arbitrary distinctions cannot stand.

If he is qualified to work for a manufacturer, he is qualified to work for himself.

Adam Griffin is a constitutional law fellow at the Institute for Justice, a national public-interest law firm.

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