Unlike other federal workers in Alaska, Mike Chen ’13 hasn’t resorted to hiding the words “please pay us” in his reports just yet.
After graduating from McCormick in June, Chen found work as an engineer for the US Forest Service in Ketchikan. There, he surveys land for highways, bridges, and other structures, along with following up on government grants.
But because of the shutdown, “it’s a mess all around, really,” says Chen. The contractors he works with have been left in the lurch, and considerable waste has occurred: a work detail flown in from the mainland had to be sent back without getting any work done.
Chen and his fellow engineers were prepared, however. Even if they work in the oft-unforgiving Alaskan wilderness, as federal employees, they are well-tuned to the capricious politics behind their paychecks.
“We saw it coming,” Chen says in his characteristic baritone voice. “Historically in federal employment these things usually come to head this time of the fiscal year – it cycles around. So we hear about this a little more often.”
Fortunately, Chen’s team isn’t in full-on survival mode. Highly-trained engineers in Alaska don’t tend to live paycheck-to-paycheck, he explains – but that hasn’t made America’s political class any less unpopular.
“Whoever wanted this to come to pass – well, they’re idiots,” says Chen. “They have a job: they pass the budget. But they didn’t do it. There are essentially no positives to shutting down the federal government.”
Like America, Chen has no real idea when he will be put back to work. For now, he’s “chilling” in government housing and hanging around Ketchikan [-can, not –kuhn], a town of 8,000 (“there’s a lot of bars around,” he says.)
At the very least, by not spending time in the field, Chen will avoid one of his job’s main hazards: bears.
“There’s a lot of bears out there. I’ve been within 50-100 feet of bears before,” he says. Chen carries bear mace, while some of his colleagues have gone through weapons training and carry shotguns as well.
And unlike Congress, the bears respond to a good racket: “you’ve got to make noise” for them to stay away, he adds.
Photo by Galen Reed.