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MU archaeology program reacts to predicted industry job growth

Missouri Department of Transportation archaeologists excavate a site, Oct. 5, 2011, near Route 168 in Marion County.
Missouri Department of Transportation
Missouri Department of Transportation archaeologists excavate a site, Oct. 5, 2011, near Route 168 in Marion County.

In an archaeological ceramics class at MU, students are learning how humans in the past made pottery. But about three years ago, anthropology professor Todd VanPool started another class in response to a growing demand for professional archaeologists. Over the summer, students can earn credit for fieldwork at a dig site in New Mexico.

“They can learn how to, uh, use the tools properly, how to fill out the forms and do all the things that we expect from professional archaeologists,” VanPool said.

A 2010 national Bureau of Labor Statistics report predicts that the number of jobs for archaeologists and anthropologists will increase a combined 28 percent between 2008 and 2018.

“It would be a mistake for us to not modify our curriculum as new needs arise,” VanPool said.

And changes are still ongoing. VanPool says his department will add another course next spring aimed at making students better able to draw historical inferences from artifacts. But these days, archaeology is more than excavating ancient tombs.

The Missouri Department of Transportation hires archaeologists to check whether proposed construction and renovations along Interstate 70 might infringe on historical sites. That kind of work is called cultural-resource management, or CRM. Any developer that uses federal money must comply with historic preservation laws.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a higher number of construction projects in the coming years, meaning an increased need for archaeologists. But some in Missouri say their business is what needs preservation. Craig Sturdevant is the president of the Environmental Research Center of Missouri, a private archaeology firm in Jefferson City. He says although his company has taken on nearly 5,000 projects since 1980, recent business has declined sharply.

“Within the last, oh, let’s say, two years, we’re down to maybe 100 or less. And the last four months, maybe three or four. It’s really gone down the tube,” Sturdevant said.

Several archaeologists in Missouri and on the West Coast acknowledged that the recession hit the industry hard. But federally funded energy and constructions projects are expected to spark new job growth. Terry Majewski is the president of a national trade organization for private preservation workers.She’s cautiously optimistic about the future but isn’t sure whether students feel the same.

“A lot of the younger people are now thinking, ‘Is this a good career?’ even though the academic realm has started to respond and come up with programs for them.” Majewski said.

Majewski says although many universities were slow to react, she’s now confident in the archaeological programs they’re offering. MU anthropology doctoral student Kyle Waller says he’s optimistic about the direction MU is taking. He participated in that field class in New Mexico in 2009 and says he’ll benefit from its real-world approach.

“If I had a CRM job as a contractor for the government, I would be doing essentially the same thing I was doing with the VanPools’ field school,” Waller said.

More than 50 MU students have taken the class since it started.

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