Dr. Lachlan Barber joined the Newfoundland Field Research Component of On the Move in September 2014 as a postdoctoral fellow. His Ph.D. is in Geography from the University of British Columbia. Lachlan is working with Project Director, Barb Neis and with partners Alton Hollett from the NL government and Rosemary Sparks from BuildForce – the former national construction sector council. Lachlan is doing research on extended commuting in the construction sector with a focus on Newfoundland and Labrador and on employment-related geographical mobility (E-RGM) associated with work linked to oil and gas and residential construction. Lachlan recently transitioned from a postdoctoral fellow to a co-investigator within On the Move and is currently living in Hong Kong, working in the Geography Department at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Q: What are some of the factors that influence extended commuting for oil and gas-related construction work?
L: Construction offers a fascinating case for the study of E-RGM. It is a highly-gendered occupation with men accounting for over 90 per cent of the workforce. For households and communities where men (and some women) who hold construction jobs are absent, this can create challenges. Construction is also a large and complex industry; some of construction work (particularly in the residential sector) involves lower levels of mobility and that is why we are comparing these two types of construction work. In residential construction, a five- day work-week may be common, while work on major industrial work projects, especially for oil and gas, is organized around rotational schedules and often involves extended commuting. An important question is who chooses the mobile work and who chooses the local, residential work? What are the differences in E-RGM between these two parts of the construction industry and how do the labour forces and companies interact, if at all?
In general, several factors influence extended commuting: family and household characteristics, location of primary residence, government policies, including N.L.’s “Special Project Order” legislation and Industrial Benefits Agreements, provisions of collective agreements, particularly a provision called the “Living Out Allowance,” and more. We [the team] are trying to understand these factors and the relationships between them.
Q: How did you become interested in this area of focus?
L: I became interested in this topic through my [PhD] research on urban development. An element of development that hasn’t received much attention from geographers and other social scientists is the construction sector. It’s also somewhat taken for granted by the general population, but is extremely important for the economy and for our daily lives (which depend on goods and services that require construction of different kinds).
Q: You started out as a trainee (postdoctoral fellow) and now you are a co-investigator living in Hong Kong and working for Hong Kong Baptist University. Has your perspective on the project changed?
L: My perspective on the project hasn’t changed very much. What is wonderful about OTM is that the team is quite spread out, but we have tools that allow us to keep in touch and meet virtually on a regular basis. One thing that has changed is that it’s a bit harder to get to the field to continue research and the 11.5-hour time difference isn’t always favourable for meetings.
Another thing that has changed is that I am beginning to think more about the environmental questions related to the construction and oil and gas industries. Hong Kong doesn’t have the luxury of open space that many areas of Canada have; environmental impacts of economic and industrial activity tend to be more visible than they are at home.
Q: What has been your experience as you continue to work on the project from overseas?
L: I have been busy adapting to my new job and new life here, but I have been doing some writing for the project based on research that I conducted last year. I am looking forward to the end of the teaching term so that I can devote more time to my OTM work, particularly to doing a detailed analysis of the interview data.
Q: Why is it so important to understand E-RGM in the construction sector?
L: 1) Employment-related geographical mobility is an extremely complex phenomenon with different kinds of impacts (social, economic, cultural, and political) on many levels (individual and household, community, region, industry, state) that are not well understood. Furthermore, 2) the project is collaborative and interdisciplinary and it involves close linkages with partners for whom the research is very important.
Q: What have you learned from your research in this field so far?
L: We are researching a phenomenon that all of us live and experience in different ways. I think it is important for us to continually reflect on our own mobilities and those we encounter during travel and movement, whether on airplanes, waiting for the ferry, on the road, or elsewhere.
We have learned so much, but we still have much more work to do and it is important to reflect, write and develop as we move forward.