Wednesday, August 13, 2008


This post is intended to be a sort of "fill-in-the-blanks" article, about the nuts-and-bolts of how this whole system that I've managed to get tangled up in works.

As everyone knows, I'm working as a Carpenter's Helper at Palmer Station, in Antarctica. This station is one of three year-round United States stations on this continent, the other two being McMurdo Station (south of Australia) and South Pole station (at the geographic South Pole).

All three stations, as well as a couple of research vessels and some temporary bases, are part of the USAP, United States Antarctic Program, which is funded almost completely by the NSF, the National Science Foundation. And while the NSF provides grants/pays the scientists, it doesn't directly handle the actual grunt work of building, maintaining, and running the stations. That's farmed out to a defense contractor, in this case, Raytheon. They're the ones who actually hired me, and who I get my paychecks from. Or, more specifically, a tiny division of Raytheon, the RPSC. Raytheon Polar Services Corporation.

The majority of Raytheon people here on the ice work on contract basis. We're hired for a specific amount of time, typically between 4-8 months, to do a specific job, and that's it. However, many of us sign up for contract after contract, with short breaks in between. This isn't the most stress-free employment. It's basically a job where you have to re-apply, re-interview and be re-hired a couple times a year. And because the name "Raytheon" is the epitome of a hulking, huge, clumsy and mind-numbing corporate bureaucracy, this isn't as simple as you'd think. I won't get into the details of Raytheon's hiring system, all you need to know is that it's insane, absurd and pathetically inefficient.

Contract lengths vary based on season and station. Here at Palmer, we have year-round access, so contract start and end dates are very flexible. Most contracts are either short-term (1-2 months) or for a season (6 months). Because we're not a large enough station to justify having some specialties (like a plumber, or refrigeration specialist, or welder, or fire systems tech) here full-time, when projects need a specialist, they're hired for just a month or two at a time. Most contracts though are for either a winter (March-September) or a summer (October-February).

The other stations are a bit different. South Pole can only be accessed for a narrow part of time, from about October through February. So summer contracts are about 4 months, and winter contracts are 8. Some jobs, higher-level supervisor positions, are sometimes hired for 12 month contracts, doing a summer, then a winter. This is to give the people a good idea of how things work there over the summer before they're sealed in with little to no outside assistance for the winter.

McMurdo station is often accessible from early September until late February, so the contract lengths there are a bit more even, summer vs winter.

This sort of flexibility in work is offset by the obvious lack of job security, as I recently found out. It makes it very hard to make long-term plans.

But for all the floybles, a heck of a lot of people come back season after season. Some only do one stint here, true. Typically it's the people with the really horrible jobs, DAs (Dining Assistants. Dishwashers, basically) have very low return rates. But it tends to suck many people in. This strange place, it leads to a life that has a good bit less stability, any a lot less sanity. It seems to have turned a lot of people here into nomads, wanderers, and severed their connection to reality.

But if someone really wants to work down here that much, it's doubtful they had much affection for reality in the first place.

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