Joshua Barrett joined the Newfoundland and Labrador Field Research Component of the On the Move Partnership as a Master’s fellow in September 2014. Working under the supervision of Dr. Kelly Vodden and Dr. Keith Storey, he is currently working on finishing up the thesis portion of his M.A. in Geography. The primary purpose of his thesis research was to study the impacts of employment-related geographical mobility on economic and social development within source communities, with a particular emphasis on the case of nickel processing workers in Long Harbour, NL. He was particularly interested in understanding how commuting might affect communities during the operations phase of a megaproject, which typically provides more a permanent form of employment than does the construction phase.
Q: Your Master’s research explored the ways in which longer-term forms of employment-related geographical mobility (E-RGM) can impact economic and social engagement within source communities. What were some of your main findings?
J: In terms of community engagement, there appears to be an association between longer commute times and less engagement with the source community. Intuitively, that makes sense. But to what extent is it the case? Well, only 28% of my questionnaire respondents indicated that they had volunteered in their local communities in the past six months. In comparison, the national volunteer rate is 44%, with the highest provincial average being in Newfoundland and Labrador at 46%. In addition, people employed at Vale’s nickel processing facility in Long Harbour work different types of shifts, from an 8-hour Monday-Friday day shift, to a 12-hour day/night shift on a rotating schedule. Regardless of work schedule, the relationship between longer commute times and less community engagement still persists. However, many interviewees did point out the fact that when their work schedule is considered in addition to their commute, little spare time is left over for extra-curricular activities. So, while it is not the only factor that affects community involvement, time spent commuting certainly plays a significant role.
When considering economic impacts and spending patterns, 20% of individuals indicated that the location where they buy goods and services has changed since starting work at the plant. This was due, in part, to the fact that some workers moved into a different community after starting their employment. So, it’s difficult to gauge how select source communities actually benefit from E-RGM if some of their residents are moving out because of E-RGM. As a whole, however, source communities do benefit from increased income coming back into their economies. E-RGM also allows for workers to remain living in their communities, thus providing economic spinoff through housing, property taxes, and so on. People living in more rural communities indicated that they have to travel to nearby urban centres for certain purchases. Yet, interviewees indicated that because of the commute, they are less likely to come to St. John’s exclusive stores during their time off if they are able to buy their goods closer. There is an increased likelihood that people will spend in their communities, both because they have an opportunity to remain living in their permanent place of residence, and because they do not want to drive any more than is necessary.
Q: Why did you choose to focus your research on the nickel processing workers in Long Harbour? Was there something in particular that drew you to that specific population?
J: Newfoundland and Labrador’s only nickel processing facility is located in Long Harbour. While my study was focused on the Long Harbour workers, it was somewhat provincial in scope as I was researching the Newfoundland and Labrador nickel processing industry. I thought this itself would yield an interesting study.
Like many of us, I have had family and friends work away in these types of operations. In all of those cases, however, the work has been in the construction sector. My research focuses on the operations side of the nickel processing facility, which provides more long-term employment. Understandably, if someone is on a short-term contract, they are less likely to uproot their family and move, only to have to do the same thing again in a few years’ time. Why do people continue to commute in a full-time operation? Will they continue to do this for years? I was interested in learning the answers to these questions.
Q: What was the most interesting, surprising, or unexpected thing that you learned from your fieldwork?
J: Throughout my research, I asked questionnaire participants what factors or amenities would be needed in order for them to consider relocating closer to the worksite. I was surprised by the top answers: entertainment, grocery stores, and shopping malls/centres were the three most frequently cited factors that would need to be present in order for a worker to even consider relocating closer to the worksite. This was followed by: ‘nothing’. This was surprising for me because I had thought that workers would have referenced more family-related factors: job opportunities for their partner, education facilities for their children, and so on. Participants with whom I conducted full interviews, however, did indicate that the piece that would be needed most in order for them to consider relocating was an employment opportunity for their spouse. With one person working in St. John’s, someone will always need to commute. This was the response I anticipated.
Q: Did your findings suggest any exciting directions for future research? If you had an opportunity to build upon the work you’ve already done, what questions would you ask?
J: From a broad scope, implications of mobility for source communities have been sparsely documented. I am happy to contribute to this area and hope others recognize the significant differences between host and source communities.
My research was, from the Vale workers’ perspective, about how employment mobility impacts community development in their communities. Knowing what I know now, I would like to learn how source communities respond to E-RGM from a community perspective: In what ways has their community planning and policy changed? Do they do things to accommodate mobile workforces? What are the opportunities and challenges associated with E-RGM? With increasing development on the Avalon Isthmus I think we will see certain communities act as hubs for mobile workers – Holyrood perhaps – where families are close enough to ‘town’ and close enough to the Isthmus.
97% of my questionnaire respondents live outside of Long Harbour. With this in mind, how should Vale be active in their corporate social responsibility? Should they invest in the community of Long Harbour itself, or areas where most of their workers live? Which communities should be at the bargaining table? These questions need to be looked into so people and communities can receive benefits appropriately.
Q: Has your perspective shifted or grown as a result of your overall experiences with On the Move? If so, in what ways?
J: I’ve learned how multi-faceted mobility is. Starting this project, I had the fly-in/fly-out mobility mentality, where people are on rosters and work two weeks on and two weeks off. Yes, this is certainly one aspect of mobility, but it is not everything. We have people researching ferry workers, home care workers, temporary foreign workers, and more. By the same token, I’ve learned how personal mobility actually is. There are news stories about the thousands of commuters that flock to Alberta or travel to the Isthmus. When you talk to people one-on-one, you hear the personal stories, you hear the opportunities and challenges, the risks and the rewards, and how it affects people and their families on an individual level. On the Move is looking into how mobility is experienced, and I’m happy they are, because everyone’s story is important.
Q: You are now in the process of finishing up your Master’s program. What do you think (or hope) is in store for you next?
J: The age-old question! Currently I am finishing writing and editing my thesis, and hope to submit for review during the summer. I’m working on a few other research projects with my supervisor in the coming months. I hope to work in a field related to economic geography, whether it’s as a community development practitioner, policy analyst, or just continuing my work as a research assistant. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to work with On the Move and look forward to my next chapter!