The British Antarctic Survey’s HR department has a cool job: finding carpenters, chefs, electrical engineers, communications managers and more to fill open positions at the organisation’s five Antarctic research stations. But don’t get swept away by thoughts of penguins and wide open icy plains, because the process is a bit more involved than just recruiting for skill. James Miller, HR partner at BAS, answers questions about building strong teams, keeping workers safe in harsh conditions and making sure recruits can handle this unconventional continent … and OK, there are penguins and ice shelves too.
How do you recruit for not only these types of jobs, but for the location?
Antarctica has a certain allure. It is a subject that seemingly everyone is interested in, so initial attraction is relatively straightforward. The challenge is to engage people beyond that and to ensure that they understand and could deal with what can be a difficult place to live and work. Ideally we are looking for people who are used to being self-sufficient and living in small communities, so people who have worked on ships or oil rigs can have the right sort of attributes and experience. Ultimately the social and interactional skills are as important as the individual’s professional skills.
How do you judge whether someone can handle the unique aspects of Antarctica, like its weather and isolation?
We work with all of our new recruits for a period before they go to the Antarctic. During the training program we get to know them better and carry out lots of activities that help them integrate into their teams. We ensure that everyone has a really good picture of the environment that they are going into so that there are no surprises.
Are there any particular concerns for HR regarding employee health and safety while in Antarctica?
The main HR concerns are to do with relationships, both personal and professional. In small and remote groups where the same people share their work time and their social time, then relationships can become strained.
People working there for any length of time are also living there, which means close quarters and potential for conflict. How do you build a solid team and create a great work environment?
It is the responsibility of the whole team to ensure that they find ways of letting off steam. There is a lot of potential for recreation depending on which of our stations you are at, and teams are constantly inventive about social occasions. There is always a potential for conflict particularly when numbers are smaller over the winter, but if we have picked the right new recruits and blended them with experienced returners, then generally people are able to take the longer view on things.
What skill sets and training do candidates need? Will there be any training offered?
The key thing aside from professional skills is the ability to get on with people and to work cooperatively. We do support our recruits with a training program in the UK prior to departure for specialist equipment as well as addressing the softer skills that will be required.
What are the scientists there currently studying?
A wide range of science is being studied. We have teams looking at the movement of glaciers and ice shelves, and others researching the marine environment and the ocean. We study wildlife, from penguins to wandering albatrosses, and we are constantly monitoring the atmosphere and the climate in Antarctica.