Let’s get fiscal

The definition of “professional” is subjective, says Nury Vittachi
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Accountants aren’t workers, they’re professionals

Hong Kong’s humorist on what it takes to be called a professional in today’s world

By Nury Vittachi

A long time ago, this reporter was at a London dinner party where the subject of “the professions” was being discussed. Most people are workers – but accountants, lawyers, doctors, and architects, are “professionals.”

“The difference is that they are accredited by their peers who strike them off if they misbehave,” said a rather grand young accountant. He looked at me: “What happens to a reporter who misbehaves?”

“He gets promoted,” I said.

It was true. I was working for the popular London newspapers at the time, and the quickest way up the ladder was to libel and slander celebrities, causing as much trouble as possible.

The accountant was delighted with my answer. “I rest my case,” he said.

That was then. This is now.

Today, accountants have to share the title of “professional” with a huge number of people – including people who cut fingernails for a living. I’m not kidding. A Hong Kong friend’s daughter who works in a “nail bar” wanted to move to the United States but discovered that “nail technicians” in that country needed professional accreditation, presumably by people who have spent years doing Harvard doctorates in fingernail-cutting techniques.

I told her that if she was going to get accredited for anything, it might as well be for a real profession such as accounting.

“Too boring,” she said.

Shame. Her blue hair, nose ring and miniskirt would have added much-needed drama to the accounting scene. But of course I didn’t say that – these days, even thinking about making a personal comment is an arrestable offence punishable by two million #MeToo tweets on Twitter, right?

Yet she did admit that “accountant” as a job title was much classier than “nail technician.”

Having a decent job title matters. I once met a 30-something guy who worked with old folk for the Hong Kong government’s Social Welfare Department: his job title, and I’m not making this up, was “Elderly Officer.”

In the private sector, I used to know a Dongguan garment factory foreman whose name card said: “Manager of Bottoms.”

At that long-ago dinner party, a teacher said she considered herself a professional. “And my dad is a taxi driver,” she added – in a tone of voice that showed that she believed that getting a London taxi license was much harder than merely gaining accounting qualifications.

That conversation was in my mind because the night before writing this, your columnist was master of ceremonies at one of the professional awards ceremonies that are ubiquitous now.

It was a classy steak-and-lobster event in the ballroom of the luxurious Island Shangri-La, reminding me that accredited professionals, on average, earn far more than other people. I texted this thought to Miss Bluehair Nose-Ring.

“I know,” she replied. “The average U.S. nail technician earns US$10.46 an hour. Pretty good, huh?”

I pointed out that amounts in U.S. dollars always sound good, but that sum is only HK$82 – the same as parking for two hours in Central.

I asked a U.S. friend whether the definition of which jobs count as being among “the professions” in his country had broadened, as it has in other places.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “For example, no one in the U.S. calls their secretaries ‘secretaries’ anymore. The official title now is ‘Administrative Professional.’”

So it’s really true – everyone is a professional these days. Possibly even reporters, or perhaps I should say Troublemaking Professionals.

Life is strange. There’s really nothing quite like it. 

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three story-books for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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