Arbit, Contractors, Engineer, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts

Life Lessons from a Mini-Excavator

For the last couple of months, I have been spending my time in West Virginia supervising a construction job. A big part of my responsibility here is to optimize and coordinate work between different contractors so that the overall project progresses efficiently. So I am continuously involved in assessing the resources available, the tasks to be accomplished, the sequence of those tasks, and how many (and which) people can be working at any given time – all to ensure that the overall schedule moves forward without any undue delays.

On one such day sometime last month, we had to accomplish a certain amount of excavation work and a certain amount of non-excavation work. But space constraints dictated that the large excavator that was scheduled to be used for the excavation work could not start the work until the contractor doing the non-excavation work got done with his task and got his men out of the way. The large excavator and the earth mover were on standby, waiting for the space to be cleared out for them to start working. This was clearly a waste of time and resources and I was looking for something – anything – that could help the situation.

I considered the mini-excavator sitting idly at a corner of the site. The amount of work that needed to be done was quite significant, which is why I wondered if the mini excavator would be able to contribute in any meaningful way. The size of the excavating bucket on the mini was minuscule compared to the size of the bucket on the large excavator. Not only that, even the power the bucket on the mini could apply on the hard soil paled in comparison to the large excavator. Generally speaking, the mini excavator accomplished in an hour what the large excavator could possibly accomplish in less than 10 minutes. And with the large excavator seeming like it could start working at any point, I wondered about the utility of using the mini to do any work at all.

mini-excavator

But like I said, I was looking for something – anything – to help with the situation. So I asked the excavating contractor to get the mini up and running. This was at about 11 AM. For the next 6-7 hours, I watched the non-excavation crew continue to ‘complete’ their job, while the large excavator continued to be on standby. And all this time, the mini excavator plowed on the dirt with its small bucket and far inferior power. It kept digging as much as it possibly could, only pausing to refuel at one point. Nobody initially seemed to care much for the work that was being accomplished by the mini. It was only around 4 PM or so that we all started to notice the significant amount of area that the mini had excavated out. And by the time we stopped work for the day at about 6 in the evening, the mini had accomplished way more than what we had expected it to.

It was a moment of pure inspiration. “That right there is the perfect analogy for anything and everything you are trying to accomplish in your life,” I told my co-worker. Indeed, there were so many lessons to be learnt from just watching that mini excavator work. All it was was a small amount of work done continuously and without worrying much about the overall progress or the general expectations. It was work that was done not waiting for the perfect time to arrive when all conditions would be conducive for the work to be done. And it was work done knowing that the resources available at its disposal may not be all of what was needed to accomplish that task.

Most of these lessons may be well obvious and familiar to the point of being a cliche. But that doesn’t make them any less true.

Take going to the gym for instance. Working out is possibly the number one new year resolution ever made, and is also the first that gets thrown out of the window. We put targets and expectations on ourselves before we even get started. We wait for the right time to come in our lives to even get started – after this project is done, after this trip, when I finish my course, etc, etc – and then promptly convince ourselves that it was not a realistic goal considering all the ‘commitments’ we already had going. Or we go to the extent of making excuses that we don’t have what we ‘need’ to start working out on a regular basis – I need to get the right shoes, my gym doesn’t have these specific classes at these specific times, there aren’t enough treadmills in my gym, etc.

The key, as the mini excavator clearly demonstrated, is to do something and keep doing it without worrying about the overall progress or expectations. The effort to optimize every single aspect of our lives is not at all worth it. I am guilty of it myself. Instead, we need to focus our efforts on simply doing something – anything – and keep doing it. So next time you find yourself unable to get yourself to the gym, or unable to make the effort in any task you want, just ask yourself one simple question:

What would the mini excavator do? 

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Liquidity in Job Markets

For the past month or so, I have been  looking at job postings in my field of specialization – Geotechnical Engineering – across the US and Canada. During my searches, I noticed some general trends that the companies exhibit when it relates to the expectations and/or qualifications of the candidates they want. Most are what is to be anticipated for the corresponding position. But of all the different expectations listed, one particular aspect has many interesting collateral impacts for the overall job market. And that is the requirement of Experience.

2006-378p-skills-shortage

In general, I noticed the following breakup in the job postings (I do not have hard numbers, but a constant exposure to the postings will pretty much confirm this):

  • Senior Geotechnical Engineer (40% of available positions): 10-15+ years of experience.
  • Intermediate Geotechnical Engineer (30-35% of available positions): 5-10 years of experience.
  • Junior/Entry Level Geotechnical Engineer (25-30% of available positions): 0-3 years of experience.

At first glance, the above description appears to be rather innocuous. A direct correlation between seniority of position and expected level of experience from the candidate is fairly obvious and definitely warranted. But this does not provide the complete picture. What needs to be looked at is that about 70% of jobs in the market are only for candidates who have experience in the range of 5-15 years or more. So what does this imply?

First, we have to understand where the labor supply – all experience levels – comes from and where they are currently and where they will be in the future. In the field of Geotechnical Engineering, I can think of a few hundred people graduating with a Master’s degree every year in the US, and a Master’s degree is pretty much a requirement for a career in Geotechnical Engineering. So that means there is a constant supply of maybe 200-400 eligible candidates every year for the Junior/Entry Level positions. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that all these graduates get an entry level job. (From my own experiences in trying to hire entry level candidates for my company, I can say that the demand exceeds supply. So this assumption is valid). And let us also assume that most, if not all, of the demand for the entry level/junior Geotech positions is fulfilled. So far, so good.

But this is where the fun starts. Because you see, unlike the constant supply of eligible graduates for Junior/Entry level positions, there is absolutely no such supply for the Intermediate and Senior level positions. The people graduating from colleges are unemployed and actively looking for entry level jobs. Companies are also actively looking to fill their junior/entry level positions. So there is a constant match between demand and supply for the entry level jobs.

But there is no such connection available between eligible candidates and the Intermediate/Senior positions. The ‘eligible’ candidates for these positions are typically already employed and lack any incentives to change jobs. The lack of incentive only increases with a person’s experience. That is, the longer a person spends time in a city or a company, they are unlikely to move away from either or both. People develop professional connections, drop roots in a community, buy houses, start a family and get settled in one place as they progress in their career.

If anything, the factors listed above only contribute to a ‘cost’ for the person if they were to consider changing companies and/or cities. And any company looking to hire for an Intermediate/Senior position will have to ‘compensate’ for that cost in some visible form – higher salary, higher position, faster career growth, better living/working conditions, etc. And it is not sufficient for the company seeking to hire the candidate to be just ‘better’ than the candidate’s current employer. They will have to be ‘significantly better’ since they will have to provide additional compensation for the ‘cost’ the candidate has to pay to change jobs.

All this points to a job market where the entry level positions are continuously filled and the intermediate/senior level positions are hard to fill. Most of the intermediate/senior level jobs typically stay open for a long time (several months). Anyone can login to any job platform and see this for themselves. In spite of this, one cursory look at the tone and content of the job posting requirements for intermediate and senior level positions reveals such a sense of idealism on part of the company seeking the candidates. There are typically such a large number of specific requirements listed for a candidate in these positions, one has to wonder exactly how successful are these companies in hiring people for this level?

And that is not even a rhetorical question from my side. I am genuinely interested to know what the success rate is for companies seeking to hire intermediate and senior level positions in a specific high skilled profession. What percentage of these positions actually get filled? How long are they typically open for? Do the recruiters ever relax their requirements? Do they promote someone from within the organization and/or give them additional responsibilities? Are the recruiters even aware of the nature of the job market? What do they do when they absolutely need someone?

Or in other words, exactly how liquid is the job market at the intermediate and senior positions for high skilled professions? 

These questions take me to yet more interesting aspects/impacts on the overall job market. In an illiquid job market, what does job creation even mean? Exactly how valuable is experience for a given role? How would/should one define skills shortage? And how should this be addressed? What should be the role of immigrants in such a situation?

These are questions I seek to address in future posts. Stay tuned.