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The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada > News & Events > Communications Magazine > Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter 2009 > Deprofessionalization in the Public Sector
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Deprofessionalization in the Public Sector

Lionel Dionne

Contributor: Lionel Dionne, Research Officer and Compensation and Policy Analyst

“Deprofessionalization, in its simplest form, is the process by which highly educated and skilled professionals are first displaced then replaced with individuals of inferior training and compensation.”

Professions are occupations characterized by a theoretical knowledge base and skills acquired through extended education and extensive training. The key characteristic of a professional is that he/she applies this knowledge in a nonroutine fashion using independent discretion and judgment, on a case-by-case basis. Professions traditionally claim the right to structure and regulate the education and credentialing systems that entitle members to practice. At its core, then, professionalism entails the right to autonomy at work and the collective right to exert exclusive authority over members’ professional integrity (the right of peer review).

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Society thus grants the professions elevated social status and an implicit right to working conditions that other employees do not enjoy— particularly autonomy, freedom from external authority, the right to work without supervisory constraint, and the right to select work goals and to exercise one’s skills consistent with professional ethics and training. In exchange, the professions promise to undergo extended and painstaking professional education and training in order to master the bodies of knowledge reserved to them, and to dedicate themselves unselfishly to society’s needs. Professionals are expected to prioritize their patients’ and clients’ interests above their own, even at the cost of personal risk to health, freedom, or well-being.

When professional status is challenged at its core, as it has been throughout the 1980s and 1990s by managerial cost cutting strategies and bureaucratization, professionals feel their work becoming commodified and their identity questioned. Perhaps it should not surprise us that such a challenge has led to organizing, even among groups not previously believed to be strongly disposed toward union organizing like nurses, doctors or social workers.

Where their investment in professional training and status is so significant, and especially where the deprofessionalization of an occupation is industry-wide, professionals are likely to prefer voice (unionization) over exit. Professionals have become more receptive to collective strategies that offer the hope of professionalization on an occupation-wide level. Organizing issues for professional employees and white-collar employees revolve primarily around dignity and professional autonomy, ability to work in collaboration with other professionals and resources to do their duty rather than around purely economic issues. These issues can also become central as a powerful symbolic reflection of the esteem in which the professionals’ human capital is held.

Deprofessionalization, in its simplest form, is the process by which highly educated and skilled professionals are first displaced then replaced with individuals of inferior training and compensation. This phenomenon is not characteristic or limited to any particular profession, so it’s quite democratic in this respect. Examples of deprofessionalization and deskilling can be found in many of PIPSC’ occupational groups: engineering, scientists, veterinarians, auditors, computer systems, to name a few.

Professionals are not followers of policies. They innovate new solutions to problems that emerge to enable the creation of new policies. They understand the requirements, issues and technology and react creatively to address these areas using their professional experience.

Among the many reasons for deprofessionalization is cheap labour. You must have seen evidence of this in your department or agency where professionals are being replaced with less qualified people to do the same work for less money. The employer may be able to get away with is in the short term, however when an engineer is being replaced with a technician without the proper qualifications liability can be expensive.

In this time of corporate globalization fuelled by the eternal quest for cheaper labour, it would be wise to be on the lookout for such practices and to report them to your steward if you detect them at your workplace. Examples of these practices are supervising someone on contract who earns more than you do or discovering an unqualified person doing the work of a professional. Tell your supervisor that this is wrong. Play a greater advocacy role and educate the public about your profession’s unique education and skills requirements.