“A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profession). When we think of professions, the general public thinks of medicine, law, accounting, and hopefully engineering and science. All of these have specialized education (including often leading to advanced degrees).
By extension, a professional society is an organization of professionals coming together for a common purpose – to advance their fields, to develop standards and canons of ethics, and to exchange and advance knowledge. At this time of year, membership renewals are do, and it is interesting to look at the organizations I am a member of and to assess which are truly professional organizations.
What is interesting about environmental engineering is that we have many organizations — and depending on the field of the individual, one will be a member of different baskets of these. The true professional organizations that I find myself in membership in include:
All of the above have members, committees, sub-entities, and leadership clearly dominated by those who are true professionals in the sense above, and all publish significant journals and publications that clearly are aimed at transmitting and advancing knowledge at a high level. Attending any of these meetings will be a learning experience for members, students, and those seeking to expand into another field.
Some societies to which I below started out being professional societies. However in their quest for growth, they have so broadened their missions that the focus as a professional organization has been lost and they have become trade organizations (perhaps with some vestigal function as a professional organization).
The distinction between a professional and a tradesman is made clear by the following definition:
Note there is no element necessary on formal specialized eduction. Tradespersons are thought of as electricians, plumbers, roofers, carpenters… They also include (IMHO) people who work hands on on the infrastructure of water and wastewater treatment plants.
Some years ago, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) (http://wef.org/) of which I am a member really blurred the distinction, and in my opinion crossed over from being a professional organization, by establishing a professional wastewater operators division. This truly improperly mashes two concepts together. While the implementation of water quality protection certainly requires skilled crafts (wastewater operators), it is illogical to consider them as professions sensu stricto. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) (http://www.awwa.org/) has gone down the same road.
While I have remained a member of WEF and AWWA, primarily to keep up with news and regulations in these areas, regrettably their value as professional thought leaders in the science and engineering of water protection has diminished (except for a couple of their specialty conferences).
I require the undergraduates I teach to join a professional organization. While I will accept membership in AWWA and WEF as fulfilling this requirement, I do so with regret. If they ask we, I much more strongly recommend IWA, ASCE, or a number of the other true professional organizations that are heavily populated by environmental engineers.
For many years I had hoped the tide would turn. But I think for some organizations, the seduction of expanding membership has caused a loss of focus and mission, and alienated their core audiences.
What do others think?