We tend to trust professionals who have diplomas, certificates and licenses hanging on their walls. So, when a toothpaste maker wanted to gain market share, it borrowed that trust we have for licensed professionals in a regulated field. If dentists recommend a product, it must be good.

There’s another reason for surveying professionals to pay attention to dentists besides healthy teeth and gums. Jeff Lucas offers the particulars in his column this month. It’s a cautionary tale of how a regulated profession needs to protect its future.

At a time when, like many professions, surveying is seeing the Baby Boom bubble move through its senior ranks with nowhere near the number of replacements needed entering the field, the potential entry of unregulated players raises serious issues. On the one hand, it is a solution to the issue of headcount. With fewer barriers to entry, we can bring in more workers.

On the other hand, what do lower entry standards mean to the professionalism and quality of the work being done by the current, highly qualified workforce?

Experience and judgment count. When I was in college, I went to the campus health center for some illness or another and was told they would need to draw some blood. I waited for the phlebotomist. I have to admit an initial wave of concern when I recognized the woman who walked in with the tray of instruments from my English class. Did I really want an English major sticking a needle in my vein? I decided this was not a task the health center would entrust to just anyone, and I might be wrong — she may have been in pre-med fulfilling an elective in my English class. I trusted that she had the experience and judgment gained through training and proper supervision over time. I knew I had recourse to ask for a nurse or doctor whose credentials were spelled out on the wall or in the letters after their name.

Years later, a housing inspector told me that if I did my own electrical work, I did not need a permit, but if a contractor touched the wiring, not only did I need a permit but a licensed electrician had to sign off on the work. I don’t know what made my electrical repairs more trustworthy than a carpenter or handyman who had probably seen more wiring than I’ll ever see, but I had three choices. If I used a licensed electrician, the work would be done under the permit, certified and inspected. If the handyman did it, I would have to get a permit, bring in an electrician to certify the work, and go through an inspection. If I did the work myself, I could avoid most of the steps or bring in the electrician at the end to check my work. The most efficient and cost-effective approach was to start with a licensed professional.

As we watch the dentists — who can legitimately argue they want to protect the health and safety of the general public — we shouldn’t dismiss the issue that is engaging them. We can’t afford to sound like we want to exclude legitimate players from the market, but we must defend the standards and qualifications that are the hallmark of this profession. If the dentists lose ground, so do we, and so do other regulated professions.

I do feel some comfort when I see those licenses and diplomas on the wall.

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