Are Rural Data Center Jobs “Good” Jobs?

Written by Jenna Burrell, Associate Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley.

In Shoshanna Zuboff’s 1988 classic, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, she documents the impact of computerization in industrial workplaces on the bodies of workers. Workers, she found, had an ambivalent attitude toward automation. On one hand, it reduced demand on the body, entailed less toil, and alleviated some of the risks and dangers of work. On the other hand, it meant their work, “no longer requires either the strength or the know-how lodged in their bodies” (Zuboff 1989: 23). Thirty years later, how do workers think about the physical and embodied aspects of their work?

I center the human body and the embodied qualities of work as a prologue to a deeper discussion of rural workers in the digital economy. For the past four years, I have been studying rural communities that host core facilities of the global network infrastructure (such as cable landing stations, fiber optic cables, antenna towers, and data centers). The materiality of this infrastructure means its construction, repair, and maintenance requires a lot of what we often call “blue collar” work – from the linemen who lay fiber optic cables, to electricians, steamfitters and HVAC specialists who keep data centers up and running. More ambiguously, there are new job titles like “server technician” or “data center technician” that IT and media scholars still know little about. What is clear is that, for some workers, their pride and enjoyment in such work is still very much rooted in the physicality of it.

Figure 1: The high desert landscape in Crook County – in the center at the horizon line is a distant view of the Facebook data center. Photo by Author.

Town boosters call Prineville the “cowboy capital of Oregon.” With a high desert climate and a landscape marked by rocky buttes, juniper trees, and sagebrush, it has the quintessential look of a Western frontier town. It is a fascinating location to examine questions about work and rural economic development because it’s also the site of an enormous Facebook data center campus. Historically, the major industries in Crook County (where Prineville is the county seat) were logging, manufacturing, and cattle ranching. The percentage of residents who possess a four-year college degree is 18.8% (compared to the national figure which is 37%).

In 2009, in the depths of the recession, the unemployment rate in the county hit 18%, the highest of any county in the state. That same year Facebook announced that they would build their inaugural data center in Prineville’s rural enterprise zone. The Facebook data center stores the growing mountain of posts, chat messages, images, and videos that fill the newsfeeds of its 1.59 billion users. Since the data center’s initial groundbreaking, construction has carried on continuously. Five data halls have been built with two currently under construction. Each data hall is between 150,000 and 450,000 square feet (a range from 2.5 to 8 football fields). This illustrates powerfully how the digital ephemerality produced by social media users translates into something monumentally material.

Video of data center drive-by. Video by author.

Local leaders promised that the data center would bring the return of good jobs, specifically, “family wage jobs.” These are jobs that, as city manager Steve Forrester describes, were abundant until the 1990s when changes in Federal forest regulations radically reduced logging. He explained, “you didn’t need to go get a four-year education to make a very good living if you are a logger, if you are a sawmill electrician, if you are a sawmill maintenance manager, or a foreman… people could afford a nice home, a good vehicle, send their kids to good schools.” But do the data center jobs deliver on this promise of a revival of family wage jobs? Are data center jobs “good” jobs? And how might we define “good” in order to answer that question?

Figure 2: Stock photo of the Prineville data center supplied by Facebook.

Sociologists have documented a rise in precarious work, “employment that is uncertain, unpredictable, and risky from the point of view of the worker” (Kalleberg 2009: 2). For several decades we’ve witnessed a decline, particularly for workers without college degrees, in the types of jobs that pay well and come with benefits, that provide enough hours and on a predictable basis to maintain a decent standard of living (Nelson and Smith 1999). Research has also shown a rise in involuntary job loss. While many factors seem to contribute to this shift toward “bad” jobs, the decline of worker’s unions are often cited as one key factor. One irony of the data centers is how the notoriously union-resistant high-tech industry has generated so much work for union members in skilled trades.

I spoke with two union organizers working in central Oregon about the impact of the data centers on their membership. The IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) local 280 has grown by 50% since 2012. Along with more work comes more apprenticeship openings with licensed journeyman. These union organizers did not, however, necessarily see the path from apprentice to journeyman in a trade as the best bet for job security. John, an organizer for the IBEW, described a full-time job at Facebook (even as a non-union server technician) as similar to a career in nursing, “[the] work’s always going to be there.” Skilled union labor, he noted, relies heavily on jobs in the construction industry, which is volatile – the work may be abundant (as it is now) or it may completely dry up. The recent recession loomed large in his memory, “You saw what we went through in ’09, ’10, ’11. I don’t care if you’re union or non-union, times were tough.”

For many workers in rural central Oregon, and particularly for those in agriculture, what constitutes a good job is not tied to pay at all, it’s about the work itself. For some, a good job is one carried out in the outdoors, guided by one’s own initiative and self-direction. A distinctive set of occupational values are common across many of the industries that have employed residents in Crook county — from fighting wildfires and logging to cattle ranching. The tech industries arrival has the potential to alter rural communities, not simply in a narrow economic sense, but through the type of work it offers. These enduring or changing occupational values also matter. Certainly they do for workers.

Figure 3: Still room for data center expansion in Crook County, Oregon. Photo by author.

In Fort Bragg, CA I spoke with Lyle, an AT&T lineman and member of the CWA union who was on strike. Asked what he liked about the job Lyle said, “the work is absolutely fun. Climbing poles I love, I would climb every day of the week and twice on Sunday.” He then pulled back his sleeve to show me a tattoo on his forearm adding, “that’s me on a tree when I was 18, climbing is a kick in the ass.” His enjoyment of the work was, at least in part, about the thrills it provided, the headiness and physical attunement that comes with undertaking bodily risks.

Figure 4: A CWA union member’s tattoo. Photo by author.

Calvin, an itinerant farm laborer in his 50s who had worked cattle ranches across the West, spoke about this poetically. He had run a saddle-making shop for a bit, but “just couldn’t stay inside that much.” What he likes about cowboy life is, “just being free, you know…” He saw that he would likely never retire, “I’m gonna die somewhere and the next guy’s gonna step over my body to do whatever I was doing when I died.” A data center job might pay well, but is it a job worth doing? For whom is work in the cavernous, dimly lit open space of the data halls appealing? Zuboff’s questions about the shifting qualities of work in a digitized economy seem once again relevant.

I’ve detailed how job security, pay and benefits, and the nature of the work all may contribute to what makes for a “good” job from the perspectives of rural residents. Ultimately, we don’t know all that we would like to about data center jobs because Facebook doesn’t want us to. I posed a set of questions to a Facebook spokesperson – What is the distribution between employees and contractors? What does the work “server technicians” do entail: is it like manual labor? a skilled trade? IT work? How many locals have secured permanent jobs at the data center? I have, so far, received no response. A request to tour the data hall was declined (though I was told by some locals that public tours remain routine for certain groups). Data center workers I asked to interview cited non-disclosure agreements. Definitive answers about data center jobs are hard to come by particularly around employment classification as well as the long-term outlook, such as the potential threat of automation. Facebook has so far succeeded in maximizing their own flexibility around employment – who to employ, under what terms, how many to employ, and for how long. They have multiple reasons to shape how they present data center jobs differently (as skilled or unskilled, numerous or few, permanent or temporary) for different audiences.

Kalleberg, Arne L. (2008) “2008 Presidential Address – Precarious Work, Insecure Workers: Employment Relations in Transition.” American Sociological Review, vol. 74, pp. 1–22.

Nelson, Margaret K., and Joan Smith. (1999) Working Hard and Making Do: Surviving in Small Town America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Zuboff, Shoshanna. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books.

Bio: Jenna Burrell is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. She is the co-director of the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group. Her first book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (The MIT Press) was published in May 2012. She is currently working on a second book about rural communities that host critical Internet infrastructure such as fiber optic cables and data centers. She has a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on how marginalized communities adapt digital technologies to meet their needs and to pursue their goals and ideals.