Why do professional bodies matter?

Why should you care about professional bodies? Who are the innovators across different sectors and what does 'changing the game' in industry even look like?

If you’ve been working in a professional capacity for some time there’s a fairly good chance you are a member of a professional body. In some professions such as law, accountancy and medicine, you will have been a member since you first qualified, although in other industries and professions membership is far from universal.  This probably explains why the list of thelargest membership bodies in the UKis dominated by those three professions.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a number of professional bodies during my time at Springpod (including several on that list), and a few common themes have emerged from observing the work of truly game-changing professional bodies. 

Chief among these is a focus on the future as well as what might be considered the “day job” of looking after those already employed. Another key factor is championing and highlighting those game changing individuals within the profession and bringing them to the fore, but more on that later.


Heritage and innovation together

Before we consider the future, it is always worth looking to the past, as many of the bodies we’ve worked with have been around for some time. There are lessons in that rich history which are still relevant today.

Today’s professional associations can often trace their lineage back hundreds, if not thousands of years. In fact, the ICAEW’s history of accountancy goes as far back as recording the income of temples in lower Mesopotamia in 4,000 BCE. Recently the ICAEW was the first major professional body to go fully carbon neutral, supporting UN Sustainable Development Goal 13. Quite a journey, and a wonderful example of how a profession remains relevant throughout recorded history.

Another moment in history that struck me (the last one I promise, and don’t worry I won’t be adding to the ever-growing number of history podcasts) was the early days of the existence of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). 

The body was started in 1818 at a coffee shop on Fleet Street by eight young engineers, the oldest of whom was 32, the youngest just 19.  Engineering was very much dominated by the military, and these young visionaries wanted to define their fledgling “civil” profession as something different, and establish a community of like-minded individuals that could help each other. 

Things didn't go very well for the first few years until they invited  Thomas Telford to become their first president. Telford was an engineer of such prodigious talent that if you have driven across a body of water of any significant size in the UK, there’s a fairly good chance you did it on a bridge designed by him over 200 years ago. 

He was a star of his day, and his involvement built not only the Institution, but helped establish the profession as it exists today. His successor and 2022/23 president Keith Howells spearheaded a project to highlight the diverse ways the profession protects people and the planet and helps tackle misconceptions about who civil engineers are and what they do. 


Establishing a body in a new industry

Of course not all industries can trace their lineage back to the building and commercial operation of ancient temples. 

I was relieved to discover that the International Federation of Robotics has been around since 1987, it is good there’s someone closely watching the robots, given the rise of Artificial Intelligence.

We recently worked with the Institute of Acoustics, a relatively new organisation at a sprightly 49 years old, to help them bring their fascinating area of engineering to a younger audience. 

This highlighted how even those industries at the cutting edge of modern technology need to have an eye on the future of their profession.


Attracting young people to an industry vs a company

Whether large or small, part of an established profession or forging a new path for an emergent industry, the professional bodies that really make an impact are those that concern themselves with the next generation of the profession, as well as those currently in work.

Most companies have a fairly obvious commercial imperative to attract future talent. As the world of work changes, work experience and apprenticeships offer a route to attracting those future employees who could drive your company to success for many years to come.

The challenge of attracting young people to an entire industry or profession is a little more nuanced, but can be a great deal more effective. 

Just as professional bodies offer impartial advice and expertise to governments and companies, so too they occupy a unique position of trust with young people. By viewing the entire sector young people can make informed choices. 

As highlighted by  Health Education England, young people may want to work in healthcare, but are a long way from deciding to specialise in one area. A professional body can give them the tools to make informed education choices, or even advise on extra curricular activities that not only give them a good chance of pursuing a career in that industry, but will stand them in good stead if they ultimately choose a different path.


Test and learn - find out what connects

A key question remains -  what will appeal to young people? There’s only one way to find out, and that is to ask them. 

Of course, not every 15-year-old is the same, but it is worth spending time first to find out what those who may be your future colleagues feel about your profession, and perhaps what you can do to shape those perceptions. 

One of the key things is to give a platform to leaders who look like them.Adelin Mihalcea, a Year 13 student from Middlesex, took part in a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion panel and told us how important it was to show diverse individuals in top positions, and how this gave a blueprint of success to others.  Adelin said “It is motivating to see diverse people at the top because it shows that if you work hard and continue to pursue your goals, you'll be recognised and rewarded”.

As well as providing vital feedback, maintaining a regular dialogue with young people is an excellent way to inspire the next generation.  The Marine Biological Association for instance, holds a regularYoung Marine Biologist Summit, aimed at those between 13 and 18 years of age and presenting a wealth of inspiring information from professional marine scientists. This is also supported by a Young Marine Biologists Club which keeps young people updated all year round. I was frankly quite envious of the Marine Science Camp, where young people can gain first hand experience of all sorts of fascinating areas of study, especially the focus on Atlantic Grey Seals. These rich and rewarding experiences could provide life changing inspiration for the next generation of game-changing professionals.


Use your industry’s gamechangers

As we saw,  the Institution of Civil Engineers really took off when Thomas Telford joined, and there is a hint there for professional bodies today. You may not have an authentic legend at your disposal, but among your members will be people who are helping to shape the profession. 

These are the voices that others want to hear and the ones that will help shape the view of your industry to those outside. This can be even more powerful when they stand as examples of how people from different backgrounds can succeed in the profession. 

A modern game-changer,  Brenda Yearsley of engineering giant Siemens, spoke about how, with only 33% of worldwide researchers being women, she has spent her career educating those younger than her on the world of STEM, sharing her passion and encouraging others to get involved. 

Giving young people an idea of which subjects they should choose to help them succeed means they may be closer to the standards expected when they come to sit professional exams. So too establishing the skills, values and behaviours expected within a profession will provide useful guidance wherever they choose to begin their careers.


Shape your industry

One thing almost all professional bodies have in common is an ongoing commitment to maintain and enhance professional standards within their industry. In many cases there are professional qualifications and accreditations that members must complete, and often commit to ongoing professional development. In certain professions such as law or accountancy you can’t practise unless your accreditations are up to date. Many professionals are happy to do this, recognising how useful it is for them to keep abreast with developments in their field.

However some professionals have a range of qualifications, and accrediting organisations from which to choose. This often means that the role of regulatory gatekeeper is one of several core functions, and personal professional development is not the only service members look for from their professional body. 

A really strong example of this is the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub which provides funding, training, networking and mentoring from the nation’s leading engineers. Complementing this, and addressing some of the themes we’ve visited elsewhere is the Ingenious Public Engagement Awards, which has funded over 250 projects with a focus on building a sustainable society and an inclusive economy that works for everyone. These two programmes help the Academy to pursue its goals, give its members a chance to engage with the wider public, and perhaps most importantly actually make projects happen with funding and support. It’s hard to think of something more game-changing than that.


Giving back

Whilst addressing the profession as it is today remains important, looking to the future of the profession is vital. By speaking to people still in education, and giving them an idea of what is required to pursue a professional career, much of the work that was done by accreditations could be done before a person even qualifies. The best people to do this are those already working within the profession.

There’s something undeniably rewarding about helping the next generation on their way to success.

This is something many members of professional bodies look for in the organisation they are part of - both providing opportunities to pass on what they have learned to the next generation, and for their industry to demonstrate a commitment to the future as a whole. 

While membership may be important for their professional qualification, they also want to feel a sense of pride in the body, and the very best organisations take the lead in shaping the next generation.

This can also come from a commitment to huge issues such as the environment and equality and diversity, something the truly game-changing professional bodies are actively addressing.


Discuss Creating Your Programme Today

I hope this has been a useful insight into our work with professional bodies. You can see some of the programmes we have helped them create, and some of those launched by companies within their professions here. If you’d like to find out how we can help you reach the next generation of Thomas Telfords in your profession, get in touch.

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