Oil Boom Produces Financial Trap for Archaeologists

Posted on June 23, 2014


You might have seen this article popup on Facebook, Twitter, or news organizations in the last week or so- ‘Oil Boom Produces Jobs Bonanza for Archaeologists‘. It is an AP article which means that everyone and their brother has chopped, cut, and pasted bits and pieces into their own little mini articles. Which means you would have probably read some version of it.  It has a great tidbit about the oil and gas boom in North Dakota and how it is affecting archaeology jobs:

‘Over the last decade, the number of firms authorized to do surveys in North Dakota rose from around 30 to 50, said Paul Picha, chief archaeologist at the historical society. No one in the field keeps track of exact archaeology employment numbers, but the oil boom has almost certainly expanded the ranks of North Dakota archaeologists from as few as a few dozen to several hundred, if not more.

For instance, the Bismarck office of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants has roughly doubled in size every year for the past three years, according to Damita Engel, regional director of operations at the firm, which is based in Golden, Colorado. Three years ago, they had 10 to 12 employees. Now they have 53. “And we’re still hiring,” Engel said.’

The Dakota Disease, The London Pox, or an Aberdeen Abscess? 

While the increase in archaeology jobs is always welcome, it is the wrong sort of job increase as anyone who has lived in North Dakota, Aberdeen Scotland, and for different reasons California or London, England will know. High cost of living will leave you off poorer than before.

In the case of ND and Aberdeen a huge influx of money from Oil and Gas drives up prices for everyone else and cripples non-oil and gas related business. When it happens on a country-wide level economists call it the Dutch Disease. While archaeology companies work for oil and gas companies, and so benefit from the business, their employees suffer. Call it the Dakota Disease or the Aberdeen Abscess to keep with the disease reference of economists.

Dakota Disease or the Aberdeen Abscess

In the case of Archaeology the price of work and wages near oil and gas development does not increase to the same level as oil workers. I have been tracking wages in the US and have data going back to 1999. Advertised wages in ND are no greater than the surrounding states.  They are still better than the East Coast and range from between $13-17 per hour for a Field Tech but you can get those same wages in Nevada or Montana. Rental costs alone in ND, driven up by O&G workers, makes this a bad deal. My bother worked in the Oil Fields in ND last year and the rental price for a two bedroom house/apartment was $2400 a month. Even split between two people that is close to 15k a year. Accommodation is half that in surrounding states with the same wages. If you work in Montana or New Mexico you will make about the same amount of money but have $7200 more to spend. Even if you are making $12 an hour in Iowa you still come out ahead.

Aberdeen here in Scotland is the same. My wife recently applied for a Museum job up there which paid 5k more than her current job. However, we found out a one bedroom flat would have cost us 500 more a month than what we pay in Edinburgh. Taking into account only accommodation we would have been £1000 poorer per year than we are now if she had taken the job.

The London Pox 

While the title of this article is about Oil and Gas that is not the only thing that drives up cost of living. Some places, such as big cities, have very high costs of living, like London. In the UK people will jump at the opportunity to work in London because they pay £19,000 for a Tech job when everyone else pays £17,000. However, adjusted for living costs (one of my bosses, who lives in London, was shocked when he could buy two pints for under a tenner in Edinburgh) wages should be around £21-22k not £19k. Call it the London Pox, if we are keeping with the theme.

Away Accommodation 

Now if you are a field tech and most of your projects provide per diem and accommodation this can lessen the pain. You can avoid renting and just spring for accommodation on your days off. In the case of ND that is very likely. However, in the case of London it is not. There is enough work in London and the surrounding area the most companies do not/cannot (due to the density of competition) offer accommodation. Moreover, you might be expected to provide your own transport to site. Thus not only are you paying higher accommodation costs but you are paying for transport each day, poof there goes the pay check. I should say providing your own transport is normal in the rest of the UK too but depending on where you work, not as frequent and the public transport costs are usually lower, depending on personal circumstances (for myself in Scotland it is lower).

Long Term Lock?

Even if you might be shielded from the costs, i.e. away projects pay for accommodation, the high costs of living might eventually catch up to you. To become a project officer or manager or supervisor or crew chief you have to have years of experience. Moreover, that experience usually needs to be local/regional-ish. If you spend all your time in North Dakota it will be very hard to move up the employment ladder anywhere else, which means you eventually have to face high living costs. Higher positions usually involve office work which means no paid for accommodation or per diem. In a way, the boom of jobs in ND might end up locking down a lot of good archaeologists in that area because they won’t have the necessary experience to move elsewhere, except at the field tech level.

Look Before You Leap

This is not to say don’t go to these places and work. If you are just starting out and need some experience, go. ND is apparently in need of archaeologists. London is a good place to visit. I should also say only parts of ND have ridiculously high living costs. If your company is based far enough away from the oil fields rents are much much better. The general advice I would give is to look at many different factors, not just pay, when deciding to take a job. Even though I have only talked about money and accommodation here there are other factors too- social life, weather, etc. Many people love ND for various reasons. Try to take everything into account when looking for a place to work, if you have the option.

Edit- Chiz provide some nice links to reports about allowances and travel pay in the UK, well worth reading:

How different allowances and travel pay affect your real income: http://www.scribd.com/doc/227943225/Diggers-Forum-Report-on-Away-work-and-Travel-in-UK-Commercial-Archaeology-summary-article-Summer-2012

The next one runs through the report and DF recommendations on how adverts could be made more transparent so we could know how specific Terms & Conditions like paid accommodation, or unpaid travel time would affect our income, it also contains a set of recommendations for basic allowances and paid overtime: http://www.scribd.com/doc/227944045/Diggers-Forum-Report-on-Away-work-and-Travel-in-UK-Commercial-Archaeology-summary-article-Winter-2012

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