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Why Antarctica relies on Centennial to find plumbers, electricians and other seasonal staff

Colorado's many links to Antarctica include a national hiring program and two Denver contractors designing McMurdo station to improve efficiencies -- and require fewer support staff in the future.

The South Pole station during the winter season with the Aurora Australis. (Keith Vanderlinde, United States Antarctic Program)
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The job opportunity of a lifetime starts this week in … Centennial, the south Denver suburb where organizers of the annual Antarctica recruiting event hope to attract people interested in a seasonal gig at the South Pole. 

But you don’t need an advanced science degree to apply. Thursday’s event is in search of plumbers, firefighters, carpenters and other workers to support the three U.S. research stations on the world’s least populated continent.

“We’ve had people from all over in the past fly in from, for example, Washington or Virginia, because of the unique opportunities available,” said Kelly Folks, division manager of AD Works, the regional workforce center in Arapahoe and Douglas counties hosting the event for client Pacific Architects and Engineers, or PAE, the subcontractor hiring for seasonal workers in Antarctica. 

“The great thing about this event this year is that it’s virtual,” she said, ticking off a list of countries from which registrants hail this year: India, Chile, Kenya and Afghanistan. 

Overlook of McMurdo Station in Antarctica with Observation Hill in the background. (Elaine Hood, United States Antarctic Program)

The highly coveted seasonal jobs have originated in Colorado since the 1990s, when Antarctic Support Associates moved its office here from New Jersey. And in recent years, more area companies have been linked to Antarctica’s future, as the U.S. base stations, like the 165-acre McMurdo Station, undergo massive reconstructions for the sake of efficiency and scientific research.

Elaine Hood, who joined the Centennial operation in the 1990s, now handles communications for what’s called the Antarctic Support Contract team. It’s a mix of about 400 employees who work for National Science Foundation contractors or subcontractors supporting Antarctic research crews.

“They wanted to be located here because the type of people that we tend to hire are outdoorsy-type people who are mountain climbers, hikers, as opposed to a city person in Paramus, N.J.,” Hood said. “When Raytheon won the contract in 2000, they kept the same building.”

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So did Lockheed Martin Information Systems, which was awarded the contract in 2011. Lockheed handed operations to Leidos Holdings in 2016 after a merger. But the companies kept the same office next to Centennial Airport as the operation’s home base. 

“It’s always amazing when people find out that we exist and we’re in Centennial and we’ve been there for decades,” Hood said. “We’re a well-kept secret and we don’t want to be a secret.”

Not just any seasonal gig

While many people might qualify for the Antarctic jobs, such as cooks, store clerks and skilled laborers, these are not easy jobs to get, said Peggy With, senior recruiter with the Antarctic Support Contract who works for contractor PAE.

On Tuesday, AD Works had already vetted 101 applicants registered for Thursday’s recruiting event (you can register here). They want to make sure job seekers know what they’re getting into: contract work, away from friends and families for five to 12 months and no spouses or children allowed.

Employees work nine hours a day with only Sundays off. Dorm-style living plus cafeteria-style meals are included, but nothing grows down there, so don’t expect fresh fruit and vegetables. The pay is similar to what one might make in similar jobs in the United States, and bonuses are paid out after the contract is done. Additional bonuses are available to folks who return for another year. You still have to pay taxes on your income.

A fuels operator working on the runway in Antarctica. (Jonathan Foster, United States Antarctic Program)

If you’re game after the caveats, be prepared for the interview.

“It’s quite an extensive process, including multiple technical interviews, there’s a background screening, a drug screening, a medical qualification process,” said With, who visited McMurdo and the South Pole stations in 2016 to recruit workers for the following year. “And (they need) the willingness to be gone for extended periods of time.”

No one will leave the Thursday career fair with a job offer, partly because of the virtual screening this year. But in the past, hiring managers were able to attend and get the interview process started. About two out every three candidates who land an interview don’t wind up going. It can be due to not having the right skills or failing to pass a test. Some decide at the last minute to skip the trip, With said.

This week’s event is more of an informational session and applications will continue to be accepted after the event.

While for some it’s a lifetime opportunity, for others, it’s become the career of choice. Rob Ray, who lives in northwest Montana when he’s not “on the ice,” first traveled to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station in January 2019 working as an electrician. 

“It was such a unique opportunity and my original contract was for four months so I figured I could at least give it a shot,” said Ray, an electrical foreman at McMurdo who is back home and plans to return in August. “But when I got there, it just felt like the right place for me. Almost like I had been training my whole career to build the skills necessary to work there.”

The Antarctic Support Contract team’s long-time office is located next to Centennial Airport. The “team” consists of employees who work for various contractors and subcontractors of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctica program. The main contractor is Leidos Holdings. (Provided by United States Antarctic Program)

About half of the Centennial crew travel to Antarctica each year because they supervise the various types of jobs. They also hire around 700 seasonal workers each year.

“They’re not all from Colorado, but we hire a great number of people who live in Colorado,” Hood said. “They’re keen on doing seasonal work because if you are working in Buena Vista and leading rafting tours … once the summer ends, then the austral summer is a prime opportunity to go to Antarctica and work from October through February.” 

Of course, there’s a kink in the plans with coronavirus restrictions still affecting operations. Chile’s Antarctic station became the first and only known outbreak on the continent in December.

Health precautions that began last year made the science agency decide to send fewer people. They reduced the number of seasonal staff to about 400 compared with 600 to 700 in non-pandemic years.

Traveling to Antarctica is also taking several weeks instead of days, said With, the recruiter.

Workers now fly to San Francisco, test for COVID-19, and spend four days confined to a hotel room before taking a chartered plane to New Zealand. They’re tested again for COVID and then isolated for two weeks. Only after passing all COVID tests do they finally get on a military plane and fly eight hours to McMurdo Station.

“But they are on payroll,” she said. “We take care of their hotel accommodations and room service while they’re in isolation.” 

A carpenter chain sawing in the South Pole ice tunnel. (Bill Bergholm, United States Antarctic Program)

McMurdo improvements will bring change

In the future, seasonal hiring could change. 

After a National Science Foundation panel in 2012 concluded that only 20 cents of every U.S. dollar invested in Antarctic activities was devoted to science, the agency was tasked with making the operation more efficient for science, for taxpayers and for people. According to the report, 30% of the funding was spent on labor costs by the prime contractor.

The National Science Foundation through contractor Lockheed Martin picked OZ Architecture in Denver to develop a master plan for McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. base. The goal was to make McMurdo a nicer place for humans, plus improve energy, logistical and operational efficiencies.

The more than 100 buildings, constructed as needed since the 1950s, seem haphazardly scattered on the 164 acres. Getting from one building to the next isn’t always convenient when it’s 40 degrees below zero. There are obtrusive pipes to get heat throughout the complex. Pedestrians share walking areas with heavy machinery and vehicles. The food pantry is located in a different building than the kitchen. The dining hall has a view of the vehicle maintenance building. No one has their own room.

“Our master plan basically took the 105 existing buildings and consolidated McMurdo down to about 15, so it’s much more efficient that way,” said Rick Peterson, principal at OZ Architecture who has traveled to Antarctica three times. “We’re also improving wellness at the same time — both physical and mental well being of people.”

OZ Architecture in Denver was hired to design a masterplan for the more than 60-year-old sub-zero McMurdo Station campus in Antarctica in 2012. About four years later, the company presented a plan that consolidated more than 100 structures across 164 acres into just six connected buildings. The more efficient campus cuts down on energy use and provides greater community and support for scientific research. Rendering provided by OZ Architecture.

OZ designed a central building with dining-hall views of Royal Society Mountain Range, the 13,000 foot mountains overlooking the McMurdo Sound. The larger space allows for office and administration desk workers to work nearby instead of having to walk to the other end of town. They added single-occupant rooms to promote privacy.

The redesign consolidates operations that are currently in multiple parts of the campus. With fewer buildings, that means less staff is needed to maintain the facilities. Overall, the new plan has room for about 850 people, or nearly a third fewer than the current peak summer population of 1,200.

“We were thinking we can increase the efficiency so much that you’ll only need 850 people to do the work that was needed when you had 1,200 before,” Peterson said. “That’s going to allow for more scientists as well.”

The project still needs to be built and Leidos hired subcontractor Parsons, which in turn selected the Denver office of architecture firm Stantec as the design manager.  While construction started in 2019 with the demolition of several warehouses, the work was put on hold last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. No updates have been shared by the National Science Foundation, but the completion is still years away.

Boarding the plane in Antarctica to return to the United States. (Mike Lucibella, United States Antarctic Program)

For now, there’s still time to get a temporary gig in Antarctica. And about 60% of workers return each year, With said.

“There’s always gonna be a handful of people where it’s a bucket list item, that it’s one and done,” she said. “And then there’s people who deploy and really fall in love with the community, really enjoy using their skill sets to support science in a unique way and continue to come back year after year.”

Missing your family will be the hardest, said Ray, so applicants must be prepared for that. But he plans to return for at least a few more years.

“It is both the most beautiful and frustrating place to live and work,” he said.

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