Being a commodity can be very rewarding under the right circumstances. If you are a commodity that commands high wages, you show up, do your job and rake in the money.
Some past examples of this type of commodity were design engineers, system analysts, database administrators, and MBAs from recognized universities.
I was a commodity for the first eleven years of my working life and never knew it. As a computer design engineer I was always getting job offers at higher salaries and as a result, I changed jobs every two and a half years. The fact that I was difficult to manage and didn’t understand office politics made little difference during those golden years. I was a scarce commodity at the time and benefitted greatly from being in that category.
I didn’t realize there was a downside…
The downside was that I never developed an understanding of the
importance of company culture and working on goals that were meaningful
to management. I was never very good at meeting expectations because I
would tackle anything, even projects that were virtually impossible.
When I became a middle manager in due time, I started running into
trouble because I didn’t understand that setting expectations properly
was more important than getting the work done well. I was also no
longer a commodity that was in demand. There were millions of middle
managers around and most of them were better at politics than I was.
It didn’t take long to learn that being a commodity is great if you
are a scarce commodity and dismal if you are no longer in demand. Large
companies are good at hiring commodities because they can easily use a
checklist to see if you are qualified. There is no judgement call
required to hire you.
What took a very long time was learning that re-creating myself as
an internal consultant with a unique set of skills gave me enough
visibility that I could be perceived as a valuable contributor and this
got me through the next twenty years of corporate life until almost
everyone in my salary bracket was playing the same game.
Continual reinvention is necessary in a world where employees are
increasingly considered as dispensable parts of a larger whole. When
the company has a couple of bad quarters, they rarely hesitate to lay
If you want to survive in today’s working world or if you are
working for yourself, you need to understand what is unique about your
abilities and promote that to potential customers, clients and
employers. That way, you stay in control of your career. If you offer a
unique benefit or service, that lessens the possibility of your client
or employer of finding an alternative solution elsewhere.
There are a lot of hungry and well-trained people in other countries
who can do many jobs as well as Americans for far less money. The only
way to ensure that your job can’t be exported is to acquire the skills
that make you more valuable than the guy down the street or around the
If you are a commodity because of your training or education,
prepare yourself for the time when employers or clients are getting
that commodity elsewhere. Find your niche and excel at servicing it.
More to come…