#SAA2014 Debrief, Part II: Jobs information, the future of the cultural resource management archaeology industry, and other lessons learned

#SAA2014 was loaded with good informationI’m still flying back from #SAA2014. Still sitting in first-class. Still hearing Lourde’s “Royals” playing in my head. Free Heineken? Why yes. I’ll have two.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Part I, I heard some gloomy information about the extreme competition in the cultural resource management archaeology industry. It seems like, each year, universities are graduating almost as many anthropology students as there are total archaeologists in the United States. This means there’s enough for an over 90% replacement of America’s archaeologists each year! In this environment, learning how to land a job is absolutely paramount. Competition is unbelievably fierce.

I also got an enlightening insight into ways the CRM archaeology industry can survive. It’s not going to be easy and it explains a lot about why there seems to be a race to the bottom in CRM archaeology.

SAA2014 was also my first complete travel hacking experience. My coaching from Grant Thomas of Travel with Grant was better than the training Yoda gave Luke. His advice was solid and effective. I ended up lucking into a $16 plane ticket that was upgraded to first-class ticket on the way home.

Here’s what else I learned at SAA2014:


1) Some SAAers have good advice on how to get an archaeology job…in CRM—I attended the “Get Hired!: Twelve Tips for Getting a Job in Archaeology” workshop taught by Carol Ellick and Joe Watkins. It was packed with great advice backed up by two experts that know what they’re talking about. The workshop was rooted in the Avenues for Professionalism class they taught at the University of New Mexico (Disclaimer: Avenues for Professionalism was the blueprint for the Paths to Professionalism course I contributed to on Landward.org). This workshop was great for anyone that wants to be an archaeologist— from students trying to break into the CRM archaeology industry to long-time denizens like myself. I learned a lot. I also picked up their book The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career in the conference book room. I’ve only finished part of the book, but it’s also loaded with excellent job search advice. I’ve started implementing their strategies and highly recommend it.

While there was a lot of excellent advice for CRM archaeology job seekers, the advice for folks looking to land an academic job was not so good. In the forum “Surviving and Thriving as a Student: Parts 1 and 2”, I learned that I have a better chance of hitting the PowerBall jackpot than getting a position as an archaeology professor. Basically, the advice for folks that want to become professors can be summed up in the following sentences: Publish articles. Teach at community colleges. Learn how to create a MOOC. Don’t have kids. And, keep your fingers crossed.

In all fairness, it’s almost impossible to give solid recommendations for individuals that want to become archaeology professors because the odds of landing a professorship are remarkably low (like, as in a less than 0.1% success rate [Note: that’s just my off-the-cuff calculation. It bears no resemblance to actual reality. In reality, your odds are probably even worse]). PhD graduates never know when and where professor positions are going to open up and they never know if their skills and experience will fill the job. It makes it hard to give good advice when talking about positions with such horrible odds in such a capricious job market.

My advice for PhDs that want to become professors: Take 10 years after graduating to cultivate an extensive network, build an exemplary career that includes several landmark publications, and teach at community colleges or as an adjunct. Then, start applying for professor positions.

2) Universities still don’t teach students about CRM—R. Joe Brandon (shovelbums.org) clearly stated that anthro students need to start learning the skills it takes to land and keep a job in CRM archaeology, but it doesn’t seem like anthro departments are getting the message. None of the panelists in the Survive and Thrive forum had a solution for this void in our education. They mainly said it’s up to the companies to teach CRM, acknowledging it takes 2 years to fully train a new CRMer.

How many companies actually hang on to their new hires for 2 years? How long will it actually take to learn CRM when most of us have 2-5+ employers in a two-year span after graduation?

It is not the professor’s fault either. I can count on my fingers the number of university programs in the United States that actually take pride in preparing students for life in CRM (BTW: If you want to hear an example of a professor that is doing exactly that, check out Central Washington University professor Steve Hackenberger’s interview on the CRM Archaeology Podcast). Applied Anthropology Master’s programs still do not include field experience or have ties to local CRM companies. Basically, Applied MAs still do not prepare students for reality. This is an important shortcoming in our higher education system and one of the central rallying cries of this blog.

Professors: If you’re reading this blog, figure out how you can get your students some CRM archaeology experience before they graduate. Internships. Temp work. Anything.

Students: If you’re reading this blog, figure out how you can get some CRM archaeology experience before you graduate.

3) CRM archaeology is a commodity— That explains a lot.

In case you don’t know, a commodity is a generic product that pretty much anyone can produce. Think apples, oranges, flour, steaks, paper. Of course, you have to know what you’re doing to make money producing these products but the required knowledge and experience for success is something a huge percentage of our society can acquire. You don’t need to go to college to learn how to grow apple trees, harvest the apples, and get them to market. Your success as a commodity producer depends on some business savvy, luck, and knowing the system— stuff we can all learn over time.

[UPDATE: I just realized Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, and Eddie Murphy do a much better job explaining what commodities are in their 1983 movie Trading Places. Inadvertently, they also do a pretty good job explaining the way Big-Box, environmental “solutions” companies feel about CRM– “Whether they make or lose money on CRM, the company makes money on the entire environmental solutions package]

Chris Dore’s SAA2014 presentation “Heritage Business Problems” was enlightening. In sum, Dore explained that the halcyon days when most CRM companies were established (1960s—1980s) is over. The market is saturated with nondescript CRM “solutions” companies that can more than adequately provide clients with the services they need. Thus, what used to be considered an industry dominated by a select few individuals with special expertise has devolved to the same level as a construction job site clean-up or Port-a-potty company. Our clients see us as an industry that simply provides another service. That’s sad.

Dore’s solutions are:

  • Recognize CRM is a commodity and strive to do things more efficiently and cheaply, or;
  • Try to differentiate ourselves through branding, and;
  • Increase capitalization as a means of growing the company in order to increase market share.

Currently, I see a lot of CRM-only and full-service environmental “solutions” providers going the “cheaper, faster” route. These companies are trying to get their clients’ “cultural resources box” checked and don’t care about the craft of archaeology. Their reports and work is so bare-bones it barely deserves to be considered archaeology. This strategy is the main fuel of the CRM industry’s race to the bottom.

Conversely, I see a very select few companies trying to differentiate themselves from the rest of the market. I also see some companies capitalizing themselves through the acquisition of historical properties and archaeological sites. These techniques are both necessary if CRM-only companies want to exist in the future.

I think the best way for CRM-only to continue is by transforming ourselves into Heritage Conservation expert service providers. This includes ethnography, historic preservation, architectural history, heritage planning, public outreach/education, historic real estate acquisition, historic tax credit advising, social media marketing, and digital media production IN ADDITION TO archaeology. We need to become experts on how communities can improve their quality of life through conserving their traditions, customs, history, heritage, and built environment. This will force us to become embedded in local communities, harness local universities, and expand beyond the confines of archaeology as business.

4) Travel hacking is 2legit2quit— I saved a mountain of dough on this trip. My flight was $16 (I’ll tell you how I did that in a future post), I spent about $260 on 5 days of lodging, ate/drank another $170, and bought $40 in books. Including registration and SAA membership (which I’d absorbed long before the actual trip to Austin), the conference cost me less than $700. This is good because I struck out on my travel grant application and missed the deadlines for other grants. If I’d landed those grants, the conference would have cost about $200 or been totally covered.

Travel hacking has its drawbacks. I had to share a condo with some other folks (including sharing the bed with another dude named Bill for a few hours one night). I also had to go to Austin a day early and leave on Saturday in order to get the cheapest fare. But, in sum, it was worth it.

If you’re a college student or employee at one of those companies that’s winning the race to the bottom, travel hacking is for you.

5) The SAA isn’t really that bad—I’m not a solid convert yet, but I actually enjoyed this year’s conference. My wife is pushing me to attend the 2015 conference in San Francisco so we can see friends and family, but I think that might be a little difficult seeing that I’m a die-hard Seahawks fan (mark your calendars: Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014 at San Francisco 49ers, 5:30 p.m and Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014 vs. San Francisco 49ers, 1:25 p.m; @Seahawks Route to Super Bowl XLIX). I don’t want to give a paper with tar and feathers in my hair or have to endure some fisticuffs over wearing my ‘Hawks hat in Frisco. Only time can tell if you’ll see me at SAA2015.

I covered a lot in Parts 1 and 2 of my #SAA2014 debriefs. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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