Can you ever get out of cultural resource management archaeology?

Yes. You can get out of cultural resource management.

No. You can’t get out of archaeology.

Aside from the latest episode of The Great War on YouTube, the highlight of my week has been following two Facebook threads asking, “Why did you get out of CRM archaeology?” Both threads amassed over 100 posts in less than a week and have provided some amazing insight into the workings of the CRM industry. Few of these insights are good.

One thing I kept seeing in these posts is the fact that almost every person who responded did not want to stop doing archaeology. They were sick of the work conditions but the vast majority of them missed doing archaeology. These folks were archaeologists first and foremost. They changed careers for other reasons but they still loved archaeology.

I spent over an hour reading the posts, dissecting them for overarching themes or common experiences. Here’s what I noticed:

The Work is not Steady: This is the number one reason why people leave CRM. They cannot depend on it for a steady paycheck. Nearly every shortcoming in CRM that I describe below would be ameliorated if we could just solve this one problem.

The Pay: This is the second biggest reason why archaeologists leave the industry. They aren’t being paid enough to cover their expenses. How can you pursue your dream if you can’t even pay your rent?

Most CRMers have gone into this field because they know it’s their best chance at doing what they’ve always wanted to do: archaeology. However, attrition rates at the archaeological field technician level are appalling because there are few individuals who are willing to work at the poverty line for very long.

The comment thread continually came back to the fact that those who left found jobs making more money in other fields: nursing, farming, IT, GIS, the oil and gas industry. Many pointed out that employees at Walmart or McDonalds in their areas made more than archaeological field technicians. And, CRM companies wanted field techs who had a college degree. Walmart doesn’t.

Education Requirements: If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you probably know archaeology education is a perennial topic. While it’s possible to get a field tech position without a college degree, most CRMers at all levels have at least a BA or BS in anthropology or “a related field.” The requirement to have a degree to get the experience necessary to land a job in CRM is what I call “The Archaeology Education Paradox” ( Getting a degree—either Bachelor’s or Masters—costs money. Taking on student loans is how most students plan on paying for school, including those in anthropology. But, tuition rates are increasing much faster than pay in archaeology.

So, how can new CRMers pay those loans doing archaeology? The answer is: Most can’t so they leave the industry.

Student loans are a drag on the whole CRM industry because few companies have figured out a way to pay field techs and crew chiefs enough money to cover the payments on the loans taken out to attain the education necessary to work in the industry ( This is one of the reasons why college survey and ranking websites call anthropology—indeed, all of the humanities—the worst thing in which to major. Few students are willing to enter a field that is called “the worst” no matter how much they want to do archaeology.

Another thing that creates a disconnect between CRM and today’s college students is the fact that students today have different career and life goals. *Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z have different desires and personalities than previous generations. If you’re young and burdened with debt, owning a home, car, or television is not as important as getting things as cheaply as possible, having as many choices as possible, and having near-instant satisfaction. If you never know when your paycheck is going to stop coming, it behooves you to work towards a career ladder, buy stuff that requires payments, or wait to get things you need. Young Americans aren’t going to spend four to five years working their way up any sort of ladder to achieve a livable wage. Too many of them are living paycheck-to-paycheck for them to give any company the time it takes to cultivate them into an excellent employee.

(*NOTE: I know all young people that have been jammed into these “generations” are not all the same. I’m just using this for convenience and because there is research behind this stuff.)

Job hopping is the only way you can make a living as a Millennial. Job hopping is what they know. Job hopping is what they do. For Millennials, a career is like a braided stream with many channels, eddies, oxbow lakes, and meanders. There is no ladder or path. Only a hodgepodge of different jobs. This puts every CRM company in a tough place. Why “waste” money cultivating young techs who are nearly certain to job hop once they get the skills they need? A positive feedback loop is created: Companies know techs will job hop, so they invest little in them à young techs feel undervalued and unmentored (and they are) so they job hop, if they can à Companies lose what little they did invest in their young techs so they are even more reluctant to invest in new hires. The cycle continues.

Also, in a world where there are way more aspiring archaeologists than jobs, companies have incentives to treat techs the same way they would a shovel or trowel: Use them until they’re used up and then hire another. Even though I was taught how to sharpen a shovel in field school, some companies have told me not to sharpen shovels because it’s more cost-effective to discard the shovel if it breaks. Those are the same companies that “toss” field techs willy-nilly. Similarly, they are also the same cost-cutting, low-balling companies that bring down the entire industry.

Poor Treatment of Parents (specifically, mothers): Once I wrote that archaeologists aren’t allowed to have kids. Based on the comments on these threads, I was more right than I ever could have imagined. From what I heard, in CRM companies:

  • Regularly fire women if they get pregnant.
  • Are reluctant to hire pregnant women (even though that’s against the law for companies with more than 15 employees).
  • Routinely expect parents to leave their children for fieldwork whenever the company wants.

Wanting to be a parent, difficulties raising kids while being in the field, and being away from children for extended periods of time were all reasons why many of the commenters on these social media threads cited for leaving CRM. As a parent, I wholeheartedly understand what these folks are talking about. I missed the first 6-months of my son’s childhood for CRM fieldwork (see below). It was a major motivation behind my decision to go back to school for my PhD. I’m not alone.

Bad Management: Working with horrible or inept (or both) supervisors was also a common reason cited for leaving archaeology. Many people discussed how they’d been told:

  • To overlook archaeological resources found in the field.
  • To inflate the number of shovel probes dug each day.
  • Work in unsafe conditions with little or no health and safety
  • Stay in double occupancy rooms even though the contract provided a room for each crewmember.
  • Stay in unsafe lodgings frequented by drug dealers, drug users, and prostitutes.
  • Work additional, unpaid hours.

I read so many comments like this that I cannot remember them all. Each of these workplace condition issues is 100% related to poor management. I’ve done CRM for over a decade and have experienced almost each of these issues. Sometimes I could take the ethical route and refuse to comply (i.e. inflating probe counts or overlooking sites); other times I could not (i.e. staying in roach motels).

In addition to crummy management, I also heard about field supervisors cultivating work environment akin to an abusive relationship. Numerous stories about how complaining about workplace conditions was normalized, even encouraged. Bosses that yelled at their crewmembers. Companies cheating employees out of money. Encouraging employees to hide injuries; laying-off employees because of workplace injuries. The list goes on.

All of these workplace abuses and failures were cited as reasons for leaving CRM. I have not personally witnessed many of these activities but can attest to the apathy and culture of complaining that is rampant at some of the companies I’ve worked for. Most of this was a product of the aforementioned grievances.

Not a single person refuted any of it: This is the worst thing about the entire Facebook threads—nobody refuted any of these complaints. Not a single person spoke up for the industry. Not a single company owner told how they were working to fix these problems. Not. One. Person.

In fact, not a single commenter was surprised by any of this—even the stories of activities that are illegal! Not even me. You know an industry has a problem when nobody seems surprised that companies are breaking the law.

Are they any different than we used to be?

To say the CRM industry is in trouble would be an understatement. Based on these comment threads, I’d say the workplace for young CRMers is toxic. But, I have to keep believing there is a cure to this toxicity and it starts with compassion.

Today’s young people get the same bad rap Gen-Xers like myself used to get. Remember? They called us “slackers.” Said we didn’t care about anything and had no idealism. We were selfish and cynical. Remember all that stuff we heard from our “elders” (i.e. the Boomers) when we were twentysomethings?

Seems like nothing has changed. Not only have I heard Boomers speak negatively about Gens Y and Z, I’m starting to hear my own friends—who are only in their late 30s—early 40s—say similar things about today’s young people. Young people today are not better or worse than any of the preceding generations. They’re just different. In fact, today’s society is different than it used to be.

You might have heard that young people have no attention span because “screentime” has damaged their brains. This isn’t true. It’s not that they have no attention span; they have no attention span for time wastes. (This goes for Americans of all ages, even though we complain about its prevalence among the young.) Americans these days have an “8-Second Filter”— If you don’t make your point in eight seconds or less, people are done listening. Few young people have the patience to listen to you drone on-and-on about something that doesn’t have a direct impact on their lives at that second. If you think about it, you’re the same way too even if you’ve learned to put up with it.

This may sound horrible but there are other characteristics of young people today that could make folks born after 1980 the best generation of CRMers the country has ever seen:

  • They don’t just work for a paycheck, they primarily work for experiences and personal growth. Young Americans are willing to follow their dreams.
  • With constant access to the internet and familiarity with using online platforms, they can go deep into any subject. Once something grabs their attention, they can zero in on minutiae and pursue it for a long time.
  • They’re used to and expect constantly changing experiences. In the right conditions, these are considered challenges that make work interesting.

So, when compared with Gen-Xers and Boomers, Gens Y and Z are perfect for the constantly changing, mobile world of CRM archaeology. However, CRM is unsuitable for young people in other ways. Here are some other characteristics of the young that CRM is unlikely to provide:

  • They don’t want bosses, they want mentors.
  • They want steady, frequent feedback to know how things are going and if they are improving.
  • They want job security.
  • They want respect.

I can hear many gnarled CRMers complaining about “snowflakes” and “dandies” and how “I never got any of those things while working in CRM.” Well, guess what? What happened to you was wrong. You deserved better but did not receive it. You learned through trial and error because nobody showed you what to do until you’d already failed. That was wrong. We don’t have to be wrong anymore.

Today’s field techs are different but they want the same opportunity and respect given to anyone willing to work in this field. Nobody wants to be talked down to and dismissed as a “tool” that’s used for a single project then tossed in the dumpster. I hated when older archaeologists treated me that way. I know young archaeologists feel the same way.

You can get out of CRM but you can’t get out of archaeology

Despite these many shortcomings, nearly everyone responding to those two threads said they missed doing archaeology. Their current jobs have allowed them to pay their bills, start families, and get where they’d like to be financially but they all lamented the fact that archaeology as a career hadn’t worked out for them.

Archaeology always starts out as a dream job. Most of us wanted to become archaeologists for many years before we actually started getting paid to do it for a living. It appears like CRMers still yearn for archaeological fieldwork after they’ve left the field. In some cases, the former CRMers on these threads said they get their “archaeology fix” by doing small projects or volunteering on public archaeology projects.

Being an archaeologist becomes ingrained into a CRMer’s personal identity. This is both a good and a bad thing; it helps us keep striving towards our career goals even after things have definitely soured but it also makes it difficult to relate to other work identities after we quit. Once an archaeologist, always an archaeologist. This thread proves it.

Remember the field techs

We may not be able to change the pay situation as wages in the United States have been stagnant or falling for decades. Prices, especially the price of a college education, have been steadily rising. Even though an estimated billion dollars is being spent on CRM in the United States, field tech wages in most of the country haven’t risen significantly in over 20 years! It’s so bad, many companies won’t even state how much they’re willing to pay field techs in their job announcements.

While we may not be able to give field techs better pay, we do need to have sympathy and respect for the plight of field techs and archaeology students. The best CRMers used to be field techs, so we should draw upon those memories in order to cultivate a little bit of compassion for the young archaeos of today.

I know what it’s like because I’ve lived it. I remember not being able to afford health insurance. Once, I decided not to take a field tech position in California because my janitor job in Idaho paid better and had better benefits. I remember driving a 1990 Geo Metro well into the 2000s because I couldn’t afford a car payment. In my first paid CRM position, I worked Friday through Monday on a highway project in rural Idaho. I used to buy a large Safeway deli sandwich and cut it into four pieces for lunch each day. By the fourth day, the bread was soggy dough. I ate it anyway. A co-worker of mine was given a dollar and asked to leave Safeway. The employees thought we were homeless. We often camped in the forest after work, sometimes in the snow, just to save gas money. In the morning, we washed up in the Clearwater River.

I landed my first permanent CRM position in Seattle. I used to live in a 350-square-foot apartment with no hot water in the then up-and-coming Seattle neighborhood of Ballard with my then girlfriend (now wife) because we couldn’t afford anything better (FYI: I sold that Geo Metro to be able to afford the U-Haul required to get my stuff from Idaho to Seattle. It still wasn’t enough.) Today, after doing archaeology for nearly 15 years, we still couldn’t afford anything better in that neighborhood. I recall training a newly minted PhD in field archaeology so she could supervise me, getting an “hours reduction” as a Christmas present from the company, and having a co-worker who had to quit because she broke her wrist and couldn’t dig shovel probes anymore.

In Arizona, I vividly remember kissing my newborn kid in his crib each Monday morning at 3:30AM in order to get to the project area by 5:30AM. We had to leave so early because there wasn’t enough budget in a multi-million-dollar project to cover drive time both ways. I did field projects that kept me away from home for 9 months that year. In all, I was living in a hotel somewhere for 6 months of my son’s first year of life. At least they gave me 30 days of paternity leave (i.e. unpaid FMLA where my wife and I used our savings to cover household expenses. We had to save for 2 years just to have enough money for my wife to get pregnant and for one of us to stay home from work with the kid for his first 6 months of life).

I recall having to scramble to find a field tech position in Tucson after being laid off from my “permanent” position as an archaeological field director, the one where I was absent for half of my kid’s first year of life. (At the time, I had a mortgage, a wife, a one-year-old son, and was taking care of my teenaged half-sister after our parents died. My boss told me he tried “everything” to save my job but his idea of “marketing” was checking FedBizOps each morning in hopes something would be posted. He never landed a single contract the whole 3 years I worked there. He’s still there today, nearly 10 years later. The week before I was laid off they’d hired an aged Baby Boomer, PhD Principal Investigator who was friends with the company owners because he’d been laid off from his employer. Guess how many projects this “experienced veteran” brought in to the company? Guess who had to take unemployment?)

I remember days of eating cold ramen in the rain, lukewarm gas station breakfast burritos in the sun, bringing some of the hotel breakfast for lunch, or eating PB&J’s for 10 straight days because I couldn’t afford much else and I wasn’t going to get my per diem until we came back to the office and submitted our receipts. I remember giving back per diem because we finished half a day early. And, pulling off multiple 12-hour days in 100+-degree heat in the middle of the desert only to be told we went over on the budget and weren’t supposed to charge sunscreen or ice to this project’s budget (Sunscreen in the Sonoran Desert isn’t a requirement. We were only supposed to bill for water, not ice.)

I remember all of that stuff and more. I know what that life is like because I’ve been there. Some of y’all reading this were there with me. You remember too. Cultural resource management is an amazing job when it’s good, but it is a job. Unfortunately, it’s a job that has a lot of dysfunction. These Facebook threads have revealed much of what is wrong with the industry.

Therefore, I tip my hat to anyone out there willing to be an archaeological technician in cultural resource management for more than a single week. I can’t pay you more money but I can pay my respects. I know it’s not enough, but it’s all I can afford.
Write a comment below or send me an email.


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