Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

Home | Background and Experience | Services | Affiliations | Projects | Newsletter Archives | Newsletter Sources | Contact Us

Last Issue

July 1, 2005

Next Issue

Professionals, Amateurs, and Design Professionals


When we hear of a person who’s really good at a recreational activity like, say, golf, and we  think of him or her as an amateur who is good enough to be a professional, what exactly do we mean?  That is, what’s the difference between Tiger Woods and an Engineer (or an Architect, or a Doctor, or a Lawyer)? 


For that matter, what’s the difference between any of them and, for instance, a Carpenter or a Cop?


What I mean is that, aside from the obvious fact that they all do different things for a living, how exactly is a licensed profession different from other professions, occupations,  and trades, and why should anyone care?


OK, how about we start with the differences and maybe that’ll help us find out why we should care. 


It’s easy to separate “professions” built around otherwise recreational activity from other professions because recreational activity has no regular direct effect on the lives of those who watch. While accidents can happen, they are just that. Similarly, people who engage in such activities on an amateur level, if involving reasonably strenuous exercise, may have a salutary effect on their own health, but they have no direct effect on the health of those around them.


Figuring out the differences between other things we might call professions and licensed professions is a bit more involved.  To expand upon the thought which led off this piece, when we speak of having our carpets “professionally cleaned” rather than doing the work ourselves, or speak of having a party “professionally catered,” what we mean is that we are willing to pay for someone else to do what we might be able to do, but are either unwilling to do, or unable to do as well as we believe it needs to be done.


How about Surgery? 


Those of you who’ve seen the TV commercial where a patient is on the phone with his Doctor, being talked through making an incision on himself are perhaps more immediately aware than others of how absurd the previous question was.


I mean, even those of us who have dug splinters out of ourselves think that attempting to remove one’s own appendix is a bit much.  The saying that an Attorney who has himself for a client is a fool, takes on a whole new meaning in such a light.  This is not to say that some practitioners of some professions have not forced some of us to appear pro se in Court or to become our own Diagnosticians via WebMD and The Merck Manual, but that’s another issue, about which I may say more in a future newsletter.


So, while professional carpet cleaning or catering requires skill in  the activity in excess of that which resides in the average person, professions recognized by the State as such, are something else again, but what?


Well, a clue might be that the skill required for professional carpet cleaning or catering can be learned in substantially less time than is required to learn enough do a heart transplant or design a bridge.  Then there’s also the matter that knowledge gained from cleaning a particular type of carpet or catering a particular type of function can be applied directly to other similar carpets and functions.


While virtually all of us start out with one heart, two eyes, two legs, two arms, etc., and all rivers flow downhill, the practice of Surgery and Engineering require being aware thousands of variables, with such awareness having to be on a subliminal level because it’s the only effective way of dealing with so many variables.  Such awareness comes only after long education and usually longer apprenticeship.


So if we grant that a licensed profession is much more complex than those examples, how about the difference between an Engineer and a Carpenter (or Ironworker) and a Surgeon (or Attorney) and a Cop?


The question reminds me of a discussion I had with my then wife’s uncle who was a Carpenter, when I was a newly married young man, and an Electrical Draughtsman/Designer.


The conversation was made a wee bit more difficult than it otherwise would have been as her uncle Giulio (Julio) had just arrived from Genova (Genoa) for the wedding, and as he spoke no English, the conversation was in Italian, but since I had by then been well into teaching myself Italian (as my Bride’s mother also spoke no English) the conversation was not impossible.


Italy’s politics being emblematic of the Europe of the time, Giulio, as a tradesman, was an out-and out Socialist who believed that Marx’s “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was a workable way to organize a society.  He extrapolated from that, the point of view that there should be no difference in pay between a Carpenter and an Engineer, provided that both had equal experience.  When we got into it a little further, however, he maintained that if he built a wall designed by an Engineer or Architect, and the wall collapsed, the responsibility should be the Design Professional’s rather than his because he only built it under the direction of the Professional. Furthermore, although he believed himself as qualified as any Design Professional to design a wall as well as build it, he was uninterested in doing so if it entailed taking on the responsibility which attaches to the work of a Licensed Professional.


As I have alluded to in earlier issues of this newsletter, I’ve met many in the Construction Trades whom I believe could design various systems as well as I, but they make some money on the equipment they install, which could color their decision to install the equipment of one manufacturer over another. 


Even if they are as dispassionate in selection of equipment as am I, the State is less interested in licensing them than they are me. That’s because, as a Licensed Professional, I’m not infrequently out on the edge of technology, where my care of the lay public who my work serves is what persuades the State it needs to license me.


That is, I’ve proven to the Licensing Authority that I, in acquiring such knowledge and experience as to allow me to subliminally aware of things which may become problems, have   developed my capabilities to the point where I can act as a facilitator and gatekeeper between “the way we’ve always done it” and (flourish of horns) The Future, with rather less drama than sitting on top of the controlled explosion called the Space Shuttle.


This is not, however, the same as being able to guarantee perfection, but that’s another story.


Next Issue