For too long, Hong Kong has taken pride in having a flexible labour market, with workers deserted by sunset industries quickly recruited by new ones. In fact, as some economists have pointed out, the 'flexibility' betrays the low level of specialisation among Hong Kong workers. Compulsory education up to form three was introduced only in 1978. This means a large proportion of the workforce above the age of 35 now were educated up to primary six only. Now that low-level manufacturing jobs have all but gone, these unskilled and lowly educated workers are finding it harder and harder to find new jobs in the service sectors. Meanwhile, even though most young people now complete form five and more are receiving a tertiary education, standards at schools have fallen as more students are pushed through the system. Much attention has been given to complaints that university students are not as good as their counterparts were a generation ago. In fact, an equally, if not more, serious problem lies in the far greater number of secondary graduates on whom the society depends to staff a wide array of front-line jobs. Many of them enroll in training courses to become non-graduate teachers, nurses, technicians and the like. But there are signs their performance is a cause for worry. For example, although doctors, like anyone else, can make mistakes, incidents in the recent spate of medical blunders were mostly caused by junior medical workers - dispensers who mixed the wrong drugs and nurses who failed to dilute a concentrated medicine, or connect the tubing of a sophisticated piece of medical equipment properly. In the latest incident, several patients died while receiving dialysis treatment at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital. Commenting on the blunders, Professor Chang Hsin-kang, President of City University and a biomedical engineer with substantial experience working in leading medical centres overseas, said, while he was impressed with the medical facilities of local hospitals and clinics, he was struck by the apparently weaker preparation of the people who handle the sophisticated equipment. 'Almost no hospital employs biomedical engineers or clinical engineers. The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers has several thousand members, but only a handful of biomedical engineers,' he said. To him, the mishaps are also symptoms of a much bigger problem. 'Hong Kong is a newly rich society and still lacks the depth of human talent pool to cover all areas of work that a fully developed society needs,' he said. 'Even though our per capita earning is about the same as the US, Japan, France, and Germany; and higher than Canada, Australia, and the UK; let alone Taiwan, and South Korea, the number of well educated or highly specialised workers per 1,000 inhabitants in Hong Kong is much lower than the truly advanced societies and probably less than even Taiwan, and South Korea.' 'Our Government has not paid enough attention to developing our human talent pool and our employers [including the Government] are willing to let barely qualified or less-than-qualified people do the jobs that require a great deal more knowledge and training in the advanced societies. For example, the qualifications of our primary school teachers, nurses, bus drivers, and, alas, even some Government officials, are definitely lower than their counterparts in the advanced countries,' he said. Indeed, there is a world of difference between asking a nurse to operate a life-saving machine after receiving a few weeks of training on how it works, and deploying a medical technician who not only knows how but also why it works. Fatal mistakes aside, one can even argue that the low level of specialisation of the workforce may also be doing a disservice to Hong Kong's international reputation and affect the quality of service its affluent population receives. Many specialised jobs in Hong Kong are not done by trained personnel. A good example is the tourist guide. While much noise has been made about what Hong Kong might do to restore the flagging tourism industry, such as developing new scenic spots and cultural attractions, no one has said anything about the need to upgrade the professionalism of the tourism workforce by accrediting tour guides. This is despite the fact that what they say and do to tourists profoundly affects international visitors' image of the SAR. Meanwhile, Hong Kong people also get less than they deserve when they travel overseas in groups because they are accompanied by untrained tour managers on whose shoulders the whole tour's safety and comfort depends. In recent years, the Government has moved towards tightening control on the provision of specialised services. For example, electricians have had to be licensed since a few years ago, while estate agents will soon have to be registered. But far too many specialised jobs - motor, or air conditioner mechanic, construction worker, decorator - can still be done by anyone claiming to have learned the skills. Even though the Vocational Training Council runs courses to teach people to do these specialised jobs, it is hard to say if the certificates it issues are really useful because there is nothing to stop anyone from professing he can do the work. As Professor Chang noted, in France, hairdressers and barbers have to learn about human skull anatomy, physiology of blood circulation on the head, skin disorders and hair growth in a training course leading to certification, without which one is disqualified from plying the trade. By comparison, in Hong Kong anyone can claim to be a barber, even though there are training courses. Credentials are much disdained in developed countries where sometimes the mere possession of a formal qualification is seen as more important than perhaps having the real ability to do a job well. But this should not distract from the fact that a labour force with training qualifications is one of the standards of an advanced society. Such a system also means tougher barriers to entry into certain occupations. But the key is to find the right balance between the costs of licensing, and shoddy service by untrained operators. Professionalism does not mean merely requiring everybody who professes to be able to do a job to receive relevant training. It is also about imbuing a sense of pride in a trainee that he or she is skilled and will be justly recognised and rewarded for their expertise. Hong Kong should look forward to the day when every job requiring specialised skills can be done only by trained personnel. This is not just to guarantee a minimum standard of service, but to make the individuals feel proud of themselves and the jobs they do.