Do You Have a Job or a Profession?

by Jeff Haanen

The difference between the two isn’t about white collar versus blue collar, salary versus hourly wages, or masters degree versus high school diploma. It isn’t even necessarily about enjoying your work. The key is a commitment to the moral purpose of our work – doing our work the way it ought to be done.

We commonly think of professions as a certain category of work – accounting, law, medicine, business, higher education – that is more akin to a “career.” Whereas a job is generally thought of simply as work for a wage, usually at an hourly rate. But these often aren’t helpful definitions. Many “professions” are ruled by “billable hours”, and many hourly wage laborers – mechanics or carpenters – are every bit as much in a career as a CPA.  So what’s the difference between a job and a profession? And how does it matter for how we see our work?

What is a profession?

Hugh Heclo provides a helpful contrast between professions and jobs. Today, Heclo says, our way of thinking about professions is impoverished. Most professional schools teach the relevant technical skills and knowledge that allow graduates to use those skills to extract “rent” and advance their personal careers.  But in the pre-modern world, the idea of “profession” was connected to a whole orientation of the profession to moral purposes. That is, people “professed” a set of moral truths that guided, for example, professions like law, business, medicine or architecture.

“In this view,” he writes, “the professional embodies a deeply held sense of responsibility to the call of worthwhile purposes beyond oneself. That call and response are identity forming. Being a member of a profession means more than acquiring a body or theory and set of techniques, though it does mean that. It means a principled way of being in the world.”

Consider the example of a mechanic. What is the most important thing you’d want from a mechanic if you dropped your car off to him with a loud clunking in the engine? You wouldn’t be concerned about his age, race, friendships, or ethnic background, nor  even how long he’s been a mechanic, since he may have spent years ripping off customers.

We would want him to do the best job he can as a mechanic, because that’s what a mechanic ought to do. We would want him to see fixing cars as more than “do the minimum required to get paid.” We would want him checking fluid levels, inspecting tires, and finding the underlying problem causing the engine noise.

We want people to fix our cars who take pride in their work – and do the finest work they can. The difference is between doing the work either the right way or the wrong way. Here, we could say, this mechanic is a professional. Whether consciously or subconsciously, his work shows he “professes” a certain set of standards about how cars should be fixed.

Then what is a job?

In contrast, a job is “(1) a miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate, (2) something to be done for private advantage, and (3) a task that has to be done. A job is a view of human activity,” Heclo writes, “that implies no larger meaning beyond the tasked Self.”

What the vast majority of people have is a succession of “jobs.” Resume building has become a modern art form. I’d argue that many LinkedIn profiles have this view of work in mind as well. In stark contrast to the 1960s, when many people worked at the same job for a career, today the average worker changes jobs 7 times over the span of a career. Some of this is due to the changing nature of the global economy. Fair enough. But I’d argue that it just as much is an attitude about work that says that your job should contribute to your self-actualization (fulfilling your own personal potential), and you have the right and duty to change jobs whenever a job doesn’t fit your personal life plan. Better to keep an eye out for the next job offering greener grass – and greener bonuses.

Very rarely do we find true professionals – those committed to a set of ideals about the way work should be done. Far more common is simply to go and get a job – a set of tasks to be completed for a stated wage.

A mechanic, for example, who simply has a “job” may go through the same task list as the professional – but if oil is leaking through the gasket, he won’t be bothered by such a detail. After all, it’s not on the checklist. He’ll collect his paycheck either way.

Can my job be a profession?

The contrast between a profession and a job is vast, but often overlooked. Professionals share a normative vision of what it is to do work as it ought to be done. Those with “jobs” complete tasks, build resumes, collect a paycheck, and care very little for the greater purpose or effect of work on others. True professionals adhere to a moral obligation and sense of duty to clients and even their industry; those with mere jobs simply complete tasks for a wage.

With this definition, a vast array of work could be a profession: roofers laying tile with the care of a craftsman, waiters giving each table superb service, baristas artistically arranging foam in the shape of flower on lattes. Yet those we think of today as professionals could also be just doing “jobs”: a lawyer using legal arguments to crush an opponent on the way to becoming partner, pharmaceutical companies pricing drugs at exorbitant rates despite the vast needs of the uninsured or underinsured; an accountant failing to mention to a client a major problem because, “It’s not my problem.”

The issue here is not just ethics. It is a view of your work. Do you go to work simply to do tasks and collect a check, or are you embracing “deeply held sense of responsibility to the call of worthwhile purposes beyond oneself?” In other words, do you have a job or a profession?

Discussion question: In your industry, what’s the difference between doing your work as a job or a profession?

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder & CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Littleton, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Church.