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Work Life

Becoming an Asset

At Sunset

Career guidance for many workers is to become an asset to their employer or organization rather than a commodity. Each plays its role in life and on the job, and has for me.

A commodity worker is someone who plays a specific, interchangeable role in a business or organization. For example, a dishwasher is an essential part of restaurant operations yet the people who play that role are completely fungible. The restaurant is the less if the dishwasher doesn’t do their job. If they don’t do their job they can easily be replaced. We rarely know the names of dishwashers.

Becoming an asset to an organization means bringing a special skill and value. I worked as director of legal affairs for a logistics company. My knowledge of existing contracts and contract law enabled me to evaluate new agreements as we grew our business. I knew when to consult with our attorneys and when it wasn’t necessary. I interacted with sales staff, operations, and the president of the company. The expense savings over having a lawyer on staff were considerable, and my contribution during negotiations with customers was tangible and effective. It helped close new business and retain business where the contract was reaching the end of its term. It wasn’t a plug and play role and was important when growing new business.

After my first retirement in 2009, I sought commodity roles to generate income. It’s a tough row to hoe. Pay is low, there are physical risks in the form of a changing work environment, and almost no job security. I will be forever grateful for this part of my life because it provided first-hand insight to the lives of low wage workers.

Extended periods of standing on concrete floors led to foot problems after which I gave up running for exercise. Commodity jobs externalize the costs on worker lives, seeking the lowest possible cost to make assembly line kits, serve food, or provide retail sales customer service. The underlying assumption by workers and management is these jobs won’t persist and people will come and go in them. With short tenure, companies avoid long-term costs of maintaining a workforce, including workers compensation claims, retirement contributions, and health insurance. When employee costs are externalized, other, more controlled aspects of an expense ledger receive focus. It works great for companies who outsource labor particularly, and for any business with low gross margins.

In my transportation and logistics career I became an asset although I didn’t understand it at the time. While we lived in Indiana I became dissatisfied with work managing a trucking terminal with 600 drivers, a maintenance facility, and a driver recruiting team. I sought to leverage my assets somewhere else. The result was taking a job with a Fortune 10 oil company that had an irregular route truckload fleet which was bleeding expenses. The salary was good, although a daily commute from Northwest Indiana to the Chicago Loop was challenging.

I hoped to get into the oil side of the business after I proved myself as an asset for the fledgling business unit. It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t a viable career expectation. I was hired for my specific knowledge of truckload transportation operations as an asset, and while I was uniquely qualified, a path to something else materialized only after I resigned from the job to return to my trucking terminal in Indiana. The business unit folded shortly after I left it.

In a time of professional human resources consultants large companies develop methods to control costs with elaborate pay schedules and organization charts. People perceived as assets command a higher salary than commodity workers, even if the HR consultants have defined a market rate for such positions. One’s value to a large company comes to light if a person can transcend the position for which they were hired. I found that challenging in my career with more failures than successes. On the positive side, I was in a position to leave the business at an early age to pursue other interests.

The difference between asset and commodity workers is a useful paradigm. The business environment in the United States has few guarantees for longevity in employment. If one wants longevity, they should find work owning a small business or in commodity work as a specialist with professional skills. With a growing population, society will need more medical professionals, plumbers, auto technicians, social workers, insurance and car sales people, government office workers and the like.

If the conventional wisdom is to become an asset in an organization, I disagree. The best option is to become your own best asset and live that life at work and at home. It’s something I work at everyday.