Old fashioned commentators say there are just two professions – medicine and the law. The rest is glorified trade.
I prefer to see the world as full of “mysteries”or crafts. The essence of the two professions is a combination of extensive training, examination to ensure mastery of the mystery, professional standards enforced through self regulation of the profession, and a closed shop so that you need the consent of the other practitioners to be able to practise. There are many other trades or crafts with similar tendencies. Indeed, much government regulation encourages this craft or mystery approach. The medieval gilds are alive and well, and live in many an EU regulation.
Nurses in the UK now need higher educational qualifications, adopting many aspects of the professional approach. Finance specialists now have to pass exams and submit themselves to both self regulation and statutory regulation. Plumbers, gas fitters and electricians are required to master the theory of their craft, and have to register and issue suitable paperwork to back up their successful contracts.
There is much good in all of this. It is reassuring to know the gas fitter understands the gas system and has had an extensive safety training before playing around with a potentially explosive mixture. It is good to know the medical practitioner knows much more anatomy and chemistry than most patients. Good professional standards should ensure better work, and greater safety and efficacy. Part of being professional also used to mean you do not go on strike.
There are also dangers. The craft or mystery can commit itself to group think of a damaging kind. It is more dfficult for innovators, as the practitioners may be reluctant to change and hostile to new ways which threaten their remumeration or way of life. The aim of the profession maybe to raise charges as well as to ensure standards. Whilst decent remuneration is to be encouraged, a lack of price competition when fees or charges are high is not helpful to the customer. Professions can make large and damaging mistakes which are enforced as best practice for years. Which doctors would now defend purging, or the use of mercury?
Parliament often debates whether more crafts and mysteries need Statutory as opposed to self regulation. Keen regulators demand statutory, implying that all self regulation is the soft option. As often, these debates muddle the truth. All crafts and professions face a mixture of both Statutory and self regulation come what may. A Finance specialist who wants to cheat may be held back by the thought that the criminal law would put him in prison if he stole client money more than by the impact on his position in his profession. The Doctor planning a dangerous procedure that may kill the patient may be held back by criminal law sanctions as much as by the possible threat of professional discipline. All professions and crafts are under the general law of the land on protecting people and property anyway.
What is true is that if people wish to be treated as professionals they need to demonstrate a professional approach. The old fashioned professsional never complains, works when they have to in the interests of those they serve, and does not go on strike. The true professional behaves well at all times as a matter of pride, not because there are laws and regulations.