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Management and supervision Trades

Labor is not a fungible commodity

I’m Jason Firth.

There’s a statement that I’ve said on a large number of occasions, basically that labor is not a fungible commodity.

To understand what I mean by this, first we need to go to the definition of a fungible commodity. A commodity that is fungible is a commodity that is basically interchangeable. If you buy a block of gold, you don’t really care if it was Canadian gold or us gold or Chinese gold, the gold is gold. As long as the quality is what it says it is, you’re good. There are a lot of quantities that are fungible like this. Generally speaking, oil of a certain grade is going to be fungible. Wheat could be fungible. Canola oil could be fungible. There might be specific boutique applications where you absolutely want to have a certain country or a certain companies product, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, as long as you have the product you have the product and it doesn’t really matter where it came from.

Now let’s take a look at labor. You could get 100 people, and every one of them is going to be different. Most of them probably aren’t even going to be good at the thing that you want them to be good at, but let’s pretend for a minute that of those 100 people you have 100 instrument techs. Let’s even go so far as to say that they are 100 very good instrument techs. You’re going to have 100 completely different skill sets. In a broad sense, perhaps you’re going to have some people who are better at construction, perhaps you’re going to have some people that are better at maintenance, perhaps you’re going to have some people that are better at the programming side of things, perhaps you’re going to have some people that are better at the design side of things, instrumentation and process control are such broad categories that even if you take 100 really good people you’re going to end up with 100 completely different skill sets.

This is very important for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is that you cannot plan as if labor is a fungible quantity. If you simply think that you will throw hours of work at a problem I’m afraid you’re in for a rude awakening. If for example, you give a programming job to somebody who’s an old school instrument tech, it’s very likely that that old school instrument tech is used to turning a screwdriver and pulling on a wrench and rebuilding control valves, and they might be very very good, and they are going to struggle a lot on a programming job. If by contrast, you take one of the new breed of very technical high technology instrument techs and give them a sea can full of control valves to rebuild, there’s a good chance that they’re going to struggle with that.

Besides that, the level of planning that you need for an individual may be different. There are some people where in order to properly plan a job you need to go through every step, provide every drawing, provide every data sheet, kit every single tool. On the other hand, there are other people where for the same job you can give them very little and they’re going to be more successful than if you had tried to micromanage them. Having an idea of who’s going to be doing the job when you’re planning a job is quite important.

If you are dealing with a team that you intend to be working for a long time with, there is a little bit of wiggle room. Just because your old school instrument Tech would prefer working on control valves doesn’t mean that he can’t be trained, and just because your new school technologist would prefer to be working on a computer doesn’t mean that he can’t be trained to rebuild control valves. In fact, I would argue that over a long-term this is an ideal strategy.

Regardless, it’s quite important to realize that labor is not a fungible commodity, that you can’t just throw hours at a problem and expect to have the job done the same way, that not all skill sets are the same, that planning requirements are going to be different, and that long-term training can help people who aren’t good at one thing become much better at that thing so that you can end up with a better balance team. These are all things to keep in mind.

Thanks for reading!

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