In limbo: site slippage and juggling jobs

I was meant to be working on site today; at less than an hour’s drive up the road it would have made a pleasant change from working several hours’ drive away, but the site start date has slipped. It’s a fairly common occurrence and can happen for any number of reasons, sometimes down to delays in planning permission or due to other construction work, the client’s cash flow, or sometimes just the weather. Sometimes sites go into apparent hibernation and only resurface months or even years down the line, when suddenly you get a call or an email saying that ‘the footings are being pulled next week, where are you’!

On this occasion it is due to planning control and not yet having the Written Scheme of Investigation signed off –this is the document that says what we will do on site (and afterwards), and how we will dig and record it, and it has to be approved by the local Planning Archaeologist within the relevant local authority. Ours is still in limbo, so the site can’t start.

Managing the flow of work is never easy, and is part of the reason why site staff contracts are often short, and not extended until the last minute –no-one knows if the work will be there on Monday. When you are a sole trader it gets harder –you either need to be able to clone yourself to deal with a glut of work, or find something to fill the hours when a job slides. It is almost always outside your control, and sometimes there seems to be little that can be done to mitigate the problem.

My freelance work is luckily not restricted to site work –I’m also an illustrator, create training materials, do grant-funded research and I carry out post-excavation and publication work on various archaeological projects. All this work often has slightly less demanding deadlines than the fieldwork -it has to be done, but the deadline is usually ‘tomorrow’, rather than ‘yesterday’. So having a mix of different types of projects gives me the flexibility to be able to deal with last minute delays to sites. Picking up and putting down projects every few days isn’t the most efficient way of working, but  sometimes you have to do it: its a juggling act.

Day to day the juggling of current jobs is usually ok, and you do get the occasional day off to counterbalance the runs of 18 hour days required to meet deadlines. The bigger impact of slippage is in tendering for future work as it may take a month or longer for sites or PX programmes to go live, and all the time all your jobs are slipping, being brought forward, and morphing from one day watching briefs into three week excavations. The Year Planner starts to look like 4-D Tetris, and its often only at the last moment that it all comes together.

So today, instead of digging a late prehistoric/Roman and medieval site next to a pub in the Cotswolds, I am finalising the report on a project I did in Nepal earlier in the year…

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