Sunday, 8 February 2009

Hard time economics

Any doubt about the impact of the recession on commercial archaeology has been removed by the recent IFA/FAME report on Job Losses in Archaeology. Depressingly, this news has already led to the re-emergence of rhetoric about cowboy contractors and dodgy freelances. It is sad that archaeologists instinctively think that any organisation that operates more cheaply than them must be transgressing established standards of practice, when these are probably the least threatened area.

It is worth thinking, though, about what a mature commercial archaeology industry would look like. The starting point must surely be that a unit should conduct its main operations within, say, one hour travelling time from its base. It can make no sense in the long term for field teams to commute or live in accommodation: either that becomes very expensive (if those involved are properly compensated), or very demoralising (if they aren't). The logic of 'super units' like Wessex and Oxford is debatable. From the starting point of a unit covering a radius of 30-50 miles, you can work out how much archaeological work can be expected, and therefore how many staff are needed. If the current capacity is more than the work available, the unit is unsustainable even in times of high economic activity.

One question that seems mystifying to many diggers is how one-man-bands (OMBs) and freelances can undercut established units. Maybe they do turn up on site in sparkling new 4x4s and use gold-plated trowels, or maybe they don't.

What the successful ones do is:
* work hard - not 8 hours a day, 10 or 12 (office work gets done in the evenings)
* limit overheads - minimal office staff
* cost carefully
* work locally
* know their area well
* don't pay themselves much

There will always be a market for OMBs alongside larger units. OMBs offer personal service and cheapness: to compete, units need to offer something more, in terms of reliability, range of skills, track record, professionalism and scale. Some clients will go for the certainty of outcome of an established unit; others will take a risk. Perhaps the hardest thing for OMBs to handle is contingencies: if a minor watching brief suddenly turns into a Roman cemetery excavation, where can they find a digging and specialist team to deploy in a hurry? Having said that, units might have problems responding too, but since they have more than one project at once there is at least the possibility of switching resources when needed.

The real problem for unit faced with a drop in workload is cutting back. The idea that less digging means fewer diggers is one that most managers can grasp. But unless overhead costs are reduced, they will become ever more disproportionate as the volume of work drops.

How to cut overheads

There are no painless cuts. Archaeologists expect admin support, facilities, and management. Hard luck: they may be luxuries.

As turnover drops, the ability to resource secretarial and administrative support shrinks. Because archaeologists don't pay themselves very much, it is often cheaper to get them to do this work. There was a time when the hassle of sending faxes, typing letters and routing phone calls was a distraction for archaeological staff, and it therefore made sense to employ office staff to handle them, but perhaps these days with email and mobile phones that is no longer true. Most units are stuck in an 80s organisational model of who does what.

One of the problems with project work is that the team involved pays little attention to the wider organisation: it's 'just there'. 'Why aren't there any more context sheets?', people ask, not expecting the answer 'Because you didn't get any more printed.' Tools, PPE, cameras, surveying equipment, vehicles, finds bags, computers: it's all stuff that someone has to resource. It may well be that the stock of material cannot be maintained, and projects may end up having to cost for new purchases instead. This may be wasteful and expensive, but it does have the benefit of forcing managers to consider the full historic cost of their work ratehr than the incremental costs.

Cutting management costs is hard, partly because this is managers deciding to put themselves out of a job. But it is worth thinking from scratch: how large does an organisation have to be until it can support a chief executive who undertakes no chargeable work? It depends how much they get paid, of course. But most unit are top-heavy with not one but several senior managers. This may have been sustainable in the days of large project volume, but if the volume goes down, it isn't any more. Not that they need to be sacked, but they do need to change their work pattern so that they carry out their management tasks in gaps between chargeable work.

Finally, it must be faced that many of the things that units like to do may not be possible: outreach events, open days, conferences may have to be dropped unless they come attached to their own income streams.

It is interesting to note that these measures would make units much more similar to the OMBs.


A longer article based on this post was published in The Archaeologist 71 (2009) now available as a pdf

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