Sunday, 27 July 2008

Coping with the crunch: hard times are coming

It isn't yet clear whether we are currently going through an adjustment, a correction, a downturn, or a recession, but what is clear is that the good times are over for development. In this post I want to highlight some of the likely effects of a worsening economic climate on the practice of archaeology in the UK.

1 Less development means less archaeology. Housing is the first sector to be hit, but that will have a knock-on effect on infrastructure schemes and minerals; a poor economy will reduce the appetite for shop and industrial constructions; government income will fall and so capital projects will be curtailed. There will be fewer developments, and those that do go ahead will pay much more attention to marginal costs: it may be worthwhile reconfiguring a design to avoid triggering expensive archaeological mitigation works. 'Bonus' aspects of work like educational, display or publication will come under pressure if they are not a core planning requirement. Competition between archaeological contractors will increase, with a focus on price as the determinant.

2 Developers are exposed. Some will fail. Projects with phased programmes may see later phases stalled or abandoned. If they run out of money, some archaeological contractors won't get paid. Some companies will go bankrupt.

3 Archaeological employment will get harder. One way or another, a significant proportion of the current archaeological workforce will become surplus to requirements. The job marketplace will be full of people trying to get on board the surviving companies. In general, mobility of employment will increase, and as a result companies will draw back from long-term training and investment in staff development.

4 Curators will become laxer. When different planning authorities feel that they are competing against their neighbours to attract the few developers with money to invest in the local economy, they will be reluctant to 'put them off' by stringent conditions; the result will be a Dutch auction where L.A.s try to minimise the entry costs.

To summarise, if you're not worried you're not paying attention. The economic downturn threatens to wipe out many of the advances in commercial archaeological practice, if the profession lets it, and we know how good it is at looking after its interests.

But what can you do? I think the key first step is to reconsider the extent to which the interests of you and your employer coincide. How likely is it that in five years time, the company will still exists, and you will still be working for it?

How to protect your career

Get accredited. Get round to joining the IFA, or upgrading your membership. Go on accredited training courses. You need to have a portfolio of qualifications and experience that will make sense to other companies. This may mean you have to spend your own money. Do so.

Get noticed. Talk at conferences. Go to conferences and talk to other participants. Write articles for The Archaeologist, CBA Newsletter etc. Join the regional IFA group and go to meetings. This may mean you have to invest your own time. Do so.

Get ready to go. Think about other employers: what would you like your next job to be? Are there loose ends (old projects, publications) that you need to sort out? Update your cv and your CPD log. Get in touch with contacts elsewhere.

Pay attention. Listen out for economic forecasts, business news; check your company's financial statements. If you can jump ship three months before it all goes wrong, you'll be able to choose where you end up. If not, not.

How to protect your company

Prevention is better than cure, and the safest and best way to weather a recession is to ensure that your employer survives intact.

Deliver for your clients. On time, on cost, on quality. At least it won't be your fault if it all goes wrong. Just hope they've got another project coming along soon.

Don't exceed the task. Either by overperfoming the spec or by undertaking work in advance of formal instruction. Anything you do that doesn't get paid for is a cost the company will have to bear, if it can.

Be competitive. It's hard to insist on quality if others are charging less, but in the long run, there is only room for one cheap and cheerful bargain contractor. If that isn't going to be you, stick to quality.

Don't be proud. If another contractor wins a dig in your own office car park, live with it rather than revise your costing to make sure you do the work. If the work isn't making you money, it's a bad thing to be doing it.

Don't be sentimental. Managers have to sack people. It's their job. Keeping people on without paid work for them to do is a path to certain disaster: the company will fold and everyone will be out of a job.

Reduce waste. Try to minimise machine hire costs, travel, consumables, cabin hire ... the less money spent on these, the more there is for wages.

And in general:

keep positive!

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