We often say that we want our employees and coworkers to be professional. What exactly do we mean by that? Like many words in the English language, that word's meaning has been diluted by overuse and misuse. Today we commonly use the word professional as an adjective to describe the image of the manager or salesperson we want to represent our companies. That image is one of a well-spoken, knowledgeable, clean-cut individual. But this definition only scratches the surface of what we should be striving for. True professionals have several distinguishable characteristics.

Education. Professionals are engaged in an occupation that requires intellectual ability often associated with a higher degree of education. A few examples are doctors, lawyers, military officers, engineers and CPAs. These professions require an intellectual decision-making ability that comes with advanced study (normally a degree beyond a bachelor's degree).

No institutionalized training program exists that's designed specifically for the electrical wholesaling industry. However, specialized knowledge of our field is essential for success, and fortunately there's an abundance of options that we can use to make our personnel more knowledgeable. Most major manufacturers offer excellent courses on their products. Many of these programs can be paid for or partially offset with co-op funds. The EPEC program offered by the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, Mo., is an outstanding course for both new and experienced employees. These correspondence courses can be combined into a tailor-made program for specific job descriptions in the organization. Remember, a supervisor or corporate trainer must closely monitor the program to ensure maximum results. Once you commit to investing in the education of your employees, you are on your way to building a professional organization.

Standards. Professionals must have formal standards of personal achievement that result in a recognized certification. Lawyers, for example, must pass the bar exam before practicing law. In most states, people who want to become CPAs must work in the accounting field for a year after earning an accredited accounting degree and then pass a CPA exam before becoming professional accountants.

We can duplicate this professional characteristic in our own companies by designing formalized standards to "certify" employees. For example, we could require employees to complete certain courses and on-the-job training requirements. Additional courses or tests can be tailored to specific positions. Certification should be tied to bonuses or pay increases, as well as promotions.

A typical program for promoting an employee to a purchasing agent position might consist of these requirements: completing the EPEC program and courses from your power distribution and lighting suppliers; passing a written exam that emphasizes the company's policies and strategies on purchasing; and taking a three-month internship with an experienced purchasing agent. Once the employee completes these requirements, he or she would be eligible for promotion to that position. The program should be formalized into company policy for each of the positions. Documentation should be kept current as the employee progresses and saved in his or her personnel file upon successful completion.

Organization. Another important characteristic of professionals is that they form self-policing organizations to design, implement and enforce the standards mentioned above. These organizations also provide guidance for the future of the profession by disseminating information and research results to their members through publications similar to Electrical Wholesaling.

It's important to note that I am not talking about unions. One of the finer characteristics of professionals is that they normally negotiate their own fees. Think of a doctor, architect or artist who may work on salary for a firm, but also has the option of hanging up their own shingle and going into business for themselves. Unions are not professional organizations because the engage in collective bargaining. This is a very important distinction. I believe one of the major contributions to the decline of our education system occurred when teachers ceased to be professionals and became workers/laborers by forming the National Education Association (NEA). Due to the recent changes in our health-care system, many in the medical community are pushing for physicians to unionize. If they do so, I see a similar decline in that industry.

There may not be any organizations specifically for electrical supply professionals, but many organizations exist that individuals in this industry can join to help establish their professionalism. For instance, the NAED promotes this industry's interests, and local organizations such as electrical leagues and civic organizations offer electrical distributors the opportunity to learn more about the needs and concerns of their customers.

Since there isn't currently any national establishment to organize electrical wholesaling professionals, we may not meet the most stringent definition of the word professional. However, we can strive for that standard. Simply coming to work every day does not qualify one as a professional, no matter how talented that individual may be.

Professionalism is something that goes beyond the 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine; it entails personal involvement and commitment to a higher standard, not only for our own benefit, but for the betterment of our businesses and the industry. We should insist on these standards, not just for managers and field salespeople, but for inside salespeople, purchasing agents and warehouse managers. As we develop more of our people in this way, our place in the market will become further solidified.