The sad truth about archaeological technician wages — and what we can do about it

You are working as an archaeological monitor on a highway project. You ask around and you find to your surprise that even though you have a BA and several years of experience, you are the lowest paid person on the crew. Even the unskilled laborer without a high school degree is making about $5/hour more than you. How can this be? And, what if anything can we as a discipline do about it?

To answer the first question, the SRI Foundation (SRIF) asked one of its board members, Marion Werkheiser and her firm Cultural Heritage Partners (CHP), to look into the legal rationale behind wage rates on federal and state funded contracts. Marion enlisted archaeologist Ellen Chapman and attorney Katherine Sorrell of CHP to research the issue. The CHP report can be found here.

The analysis is not encouraging because it shows that federal laws protecting the salaries in the transportation sector do not cover archaeological work and are unlikely to do so in the future. The legislation protecting transportation industry wages is the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 (DBA), which requires contractors and subcontractors on federally funded or assisted construction projects to pay prevailing wages and fringe benefits as determined by the Department of Labor (DoL) to positions meeting the criteria of “mechanics and laborers.” While the Act itself does not define which workers are covered as “mechanics and laborers,” Federal guidance limits the Act to employees physically involved in project construction. Therefore, archaeologists are not required to be paid prevailing wages on transportation projects.

Archaeological technicians are covered by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act of 1965 (SCA), which requires contractors and subcontractors on federal contacts that provide services to pay prevailing wages and fringe benefits as determined by the DoL. However, SCA only applies to direct federal contracts, and states mostly do not adopt these requirements.

Many of the projects resulting from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will be in the transportation sector, and most of these will be administered by state Departments of Transportation. As such, there will be no wage determination set for archaeological technicians. However, it is possible that the flood of government dollars into CRM due to IIJA, the Great American Outdoors Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will drive wages higher through market forces. Indeed, there is some evidence that wages are increasing, albeit slowly, especially as recognition of the CRM labor shortage increases (for more on that, see the article Help Wanted: U.S. Archaeology Confronts a Labor Crunch in the Spring issue of American Archaeology).

History, however, suggests that the labor demand by itself will not be sufficient to raise wages to DBA laborer levels. For example, when the senior author was an archaeological technician on his first CRM project in 1976, he was paid $5/hour to survey a proposed waterline outside of Boston, Massachusetts. According to Twin Cairns December 2022 job report, he would be paid about $17.75/hour for the same job today. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator estimates that $1 in January 1976 is worth about $5.41 today. To keep up with inflation, then, the archaeological technician of 1976 would have to be paid just over $27/hour today. Even in the highest paid region in the US, the Northwest, the average hourly wage ($24.64) has not kept up with inflation over the last 47 years.

Low wages are a threat to the health of the CRM industry. Archaeological technicians are the entry level into the profession. Within a relatively short time (1-3 years), an archaeological technician either decides to commit to a CRM career, which usually means going back to school for a Masters degree, or to leave the profession. Unless one is able to see a secure financial future, the likelihood that the person will stay in CRM is low.

What to do? We suggest a few approaches to pursue simultaneously. First, the wage floor needs to be raised. To raise wages significantly in CRM, we need federal and state government—the biggest buyers of CRM services—to value archaeological work and set wages accordingly. However, we need to approach this effort tactically. Efforts to amend DBA to include archaeological positions or lobbying state legislatures to alter state wage laws are unlikely to succeed because there are no comparable jobs for archaeologists (e.g., environmental technicians, safety monitors, field biologists) who are also already covered by DBA. The design of DBA is to protect the incomes of “laborers and mechanics,” and any jobs not engaged in direct construction are generally left out of these job categories. Instead, we suggest focusing on SCA. CRM-affiliated professional societies should petition the DoL to review wage determinations for Archaeological Technician 30021-30023. They should point out that even though the DoL reviews wage determinations periodically, these particular determinations have not been significantly modified since they were adopted in the 1990s. At that time, SCA wage determinations were often 50-100% higher than prevailing wages paid for archaeological technicians on non-SCA projects. Today, they are at best equivalent, and often lower, than prevailing wages in many jurisdictions.

Second, we need to revisit the issue of threshold wage rates in CRM. Archaeological field technicians are the backbone of the CRM labor force, and it is upon their labor that the rest of the industry rests. We need to push for change industrywide so that wages for entry level employees are competitive with regional living wage minimums and with retail positions at large employers (e.g. Target, Starbucks, Amazon) that often do not require a BA degree, and which may offer quality of life or benefits that CRM cannot. While United Kingdom (UK) contract archaeology faces similar challenges regarding archaeological wage rates and inflation, the UK Chartered Institute for Archaeologists provides strong recommendations regarding compensation for archaeologists, and the British Archaeological Jobs Resource, a major jobs board in UK CRM, has committed to only advertising jobs that meet a minimum wage. Over the last five years, pressure from CIfA, BAJR, and unionizing groups has encouraged rising wages in UK CRM. Similarly, transparency campaigns within the historic preservation discipline in the US have resulted in more job postings listing salary ranges on Shovelbums, Twin Cairns, and other online historic preservation jobs boards. Promoting equitable living wages in our profession should be a priority for all CRM and archaeology-related societies.

Finally, the time spent as an archaeological technician needs to be shortened. The CRM industry should investigate means of fast-tracking education and experience qualifications so that the lower levels of the CRM career path are accomplished as part of an undergraduate education. Programs might explore ensuring that BA degrees include sufficient technician experience so that graduates can be hired as crew chiefs. Universities could also explore 4 or 5-year BA/MA programs, allowing students to become project/field directors upon graduation. The cost of gaining requisite field experience needs to be kept down. Innovative programs, such as using the US Forest Service’s Passport in Time program as a means of allowing students to gain credit for field experience and get paid for it, need to be encouraged.

The future of CRM depends in part on those entering the field being able to envision a career full of professional satisfaction and financial security. It is incumbent on those of us who have had such a career to pay our debt forward.

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