Some industries undertake big campaigns to reinstate pride in their job titles. Others seem to get redefined when the cool kids arrive or the main tasks in a job category become glorified—as with the whole audiovisual category. The nerds of the late 1970s have their revenge as the ultimate keepers of hipster skills whose jobs are coveted now and next. Engineering used to be the domain of Dilbert-style dweebs, but thanks to Silicon Valley, engineers are the rock stars of the digital society. Coders are hot, and companies like General Assembly are transforming people into Web entrepreneurs—and pumping them up, because what’s a cooler uncampaign than hipster startup?
A generation ago, secretaries became personal assistants, reaffirming their close connections, organizational savvy and invaluable helpfulness. (I think the job function today—not the phrase—is revered; young people are starting to get that the E.A. and P.A. sit close to power and learn by doing.) And now short-term secretaries for multiple clients are concierges or attachés, both of which have to sound chic because they’re French.
Bloggers became citizen journalists, until journalism came into some image problems of its own. The profession ranks lower and lower in surveys of public perception of how journalists contribute to the good of America. Editors became curators. Faced with online competition, old-school commission-based travel agents went upscale and rebranded themselves as private travel designers. Marketers have written rooms’ worth of essays and commentary about the need to rebrand marketing; some have wanted to make it a “noble” profession again.
The U.S. Army regularly rebrands itself, hoping to entice different generations into service against different geopolitical backdrops. The most recent, in 2006—the fruit of a $200-million-a-year contract with a major advertising agency—went from “An Army of One” to the more badass “Army Strong,” which implies self-improvement without being as preachy as the old “Be All That You Can Be.” The Marines, meanwhile, will always be the Few and the Proud; hey, if a brand isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
Plenty of other professional brands are in serious need of being fixed, yet no one seems to care whether it happens. The jokes and misperceptions prevail because no one is offering a better picture. Dentists don’t have to be associated only with Little Shop of Horrors, pain and fear, and overly generous use of laughing gas. Someone needs to come in and play up the positive outcomes of their work—prevention being the best cure and some brief discomfort a fair tradeoff for the continuing ability to chew.
Lawyers don’t have to be seen as ambulance chasers and billable-hours money-grubbers. I’d like to see more of them play up the positive outcomes they achieve for their clients, whether by dramatically litigating or triple-checking the fine print to avoid problems down the line.
Consultants don’t have to be known as pencil pushers who tell companies to fire people (or worse, as anyone who has ever had to apologize for working at Bain will tell you) but as the sharp business minds they are.
Teaching is another tricky one. Even with sinking test scores, misguided tenure policies and dismaying stories about “rubber rooms” where school districts send terrible teachers they can’t legally fire, most Americans still hold teaching in very high regard. Seventy-two percent said they agreed that teachers contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, just a few points behind the military, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center last year.
But very few young Americans want to be teachers. A big problem is money: Teachers are simply badly paid. (In a 2011 New York Times column that still holds up, Nicholas Kristof lamented that the average starting salary was then $39,000, and that the difference in starting salaries between teachers and lawyers was a startling $115,000, whereas they were only $2,000 apart in 1970. That, combined with gender discrimination, made teaching a desirable profession for the smartest women four decades ago. Now that smart women don’t want to be poor or do “women’s work,” they don’t think about it.)
Branding alone can’t solve teaching’s perception problem. Teachers need to be fairly paid. But the profession should work harder to resuscitate itself. Teach for America is a wonderful entity with coolness and cred, but it’s just a stopgap step in solving America’s teaching problems, as the kids who sign on don’t stick around long enough to become truly great teachers.
What America needs are teachers who are in it for the long haul, and too many would-be lifetime teachers are steered away by that lingering stereotype that theirs is either a job for people who can’t do, a refuge for the untalented or just a way to reclaim summer vacations. I’m seeing some glimmers of hope: A couple of years ago, the NYC design firm Hyperakt undertook the rebranding initiative Teach and its companion website, inspireteachers.org, to “more accurately reflect the sophisticated work 21st-century educators do.” Megaphilathropical gifts to school districts (like Zuckerberg to San Francisco) might reinforce the importance of schools as economic development and of education reform as community engagement, but we still need to go hyperlocal and celebrate the teacher in the classroom in every neighborhood.
Hyperakt set out to “capture the excitement and magic of activating the potential that is innate in every student” and was a success. That’s what we need to see more of—but not just for teaching; for every helping and connecting profession. Family doctors need a campaign, and god knows so do mental health workers.
Here’s to a recognition that a branded profession isn’t just spin but also steak (or local, pasture-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free chicken, depending on your point of view): Better people doing better jobs means more respect. And in this old America, respect can mean some change—financial and beyond.