There’s a saying in English that sums up someone who dabbles in several trades or occupations; we say he or she is a ‘Jack of all trades”. It is mostly used in a derogatory way to imply that the person is a master of none because they flit from role to role unable to learn any in depth or with skill. It should perhaps be a phrase consigned to the scrapheap now we’re living in an age when multi-tasking, flexible working, retraining and life-long learning are catchwords.
We start priming our school leavers that life will see them change job and shift careers and not just through downsizing, but because it’s essential they do so to fulfill their potential and because it’s the new norm. Actually, in Malta, the ability to shift and adapt has long been the norm.
Malta has a workforce particularly adept at flexible working, or being ‘Jacks of all trades’. It comes with the territory – literally. The small scale of Malta’s land mass and its small population (edging to 410,000) means that we have to seek within our ranks people capable of almost every job, role and specialism. Similar samples of 410,000 in regions within larger countries might of course not produce the people for the jobs.
We love the amateur; it’s part of nationhood. No one blinks an eye if we’re found one minute panel beating and respraying a car and the next we’re fielding a side for Malta against Croatia. Footballers are part-time, and our theatre is produced, promoted and performed by local ‘amateurs’ in the main. We enjoy the sports’ scene and cultural endeavours none the less, and perhaps all the more, because they are in theory amateur activities seeing the participation of the boy or girl next door.
This is not in any way to say that the nation doesn’t have an incredible pro talent base; it does. We’ve spawned world-class tenors in Joseph Calleja; world brands in Edward de Bono; and world sport personalities in Tony Drago. Malta also excels in professionals – lawyers, surgeons, accountants, architects and so on. Everyone here knows a bright young graduate who’s moved abroad for a fast-track career with an EU institution or is excelling in further, tertiary education.
The creative industries are seeing a release of talent on the islands in the likes of film maker Rebecca Cremona and multimedia visual arts creatives such as Cedric Vella, both of whom have won awards overseas. Ditto for upcoming writers in the Maltese language.
But there are people in Malta who simply have to double up at two or more roles. With salaries low compared to our EU neighbours (around a third lower in most cases, if not half), some find they have to make ends meet by doing two or more jobs. I know of a hospital IT worker who is a waiter at night and weekends; a policewoman who is a hairdresser when off duty; and a mum who is an ‘independent media production professional’ when time allows. I also know a good handful who I’d consider pro status photographers but who can’t make ends meet by following their creative talents so do various day jobs. The country can’t support the talent pool it has, so some leave, inevitably.
While we accept and need the services of the hairdresser-policewoman, enjoy and applaud the roles of the amateur actor and empathise with the odd-jobbing waiter, there are sectors in which amateurism may be masquerading as professionalism and which deserve critical appraisal. Politics and journalism are two key areas to ponder.
The social media age, which has brought more voices to bear, more scrutiny and more opinions to the fore, and less mediated commentary has also been the era in which we’ve seen more enquiry into the ethics and practices of these two fields; institutions which run and relate the day-to-day workings of the nation. The current war of words and now libel proceedings involving two news media, The Times and Malta Today, so-called upholders of the fourth estate, show that the media outlets themselves are now at the centre of the debate about professionalism vs amateurism. But they’ve entered the debate late in the day, because the populace has always known of and well understood the role of the amateur in Maltese society.
Photo: courtesy, Leslie Vella.