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Keeping the Lights On
The search is on for a new lighthouse keeper to work along Scotland's stunning coastline – and you'll only work 184 hours per year!
The Northern Lighthouse Board in Sutherland, Scotland is searching for their next lighthouse keeper. The job requires monthly maintenance checks of two lighthouses along one of the most stunning coastlines in the United Kingdom, but it only pays £2,043 (around $2,400) per year. The good news: the new hire will only be asked to work 184 hours per year. Dozens of people are expected to apply for this part-time job due in part to the working conditions, which are a lot more pleasant than they were 100 years ago thanks to technological improvements.
The lighthouse is a classic example in economics of a public good, one in which beneficiaries of the service cannot easily be charged for using the service (non-excludable), and allowing an additional user doesn’t increase the cost of providing the service (non-rival). Under this framework, a profit-maximizing firm would be unlikely to provide the service and thus the government is likely to provide the service and fund it through taxes. There was some debate about whether lighthouse keepers of yesteryear were able to charge passing ships for their services, but we’ll leave that as homework for the curious reader.
This story focuses on the lighthouse keeper, not the lighthouse itself. A recent article in The Daily Record highlights some of the non-pecuniary benefits associated with this part-time job. These are benefits that focus on the non-monetary aspects of the job. This particular position is ideal for people who enjoy being in isolated, remote areas along scenic coastlines. The previous lighthouse keeper will retire this year after covering seven different lighthouses and felt this position was “close to a dream job". Look at this view:"
Technological improvements and automation have largely rendered the need for a full-time lighthouse keeper, both on the input and output sides. Out in the open waters, sophisticated electronic navigation systems have vastly reduced the number of shipwrecks. Previous generations of lighthouse keepers would have been responsible for responding to these emergencies quickly. Labor is considered a derived demand, which means that as the demand for lighthouse services decreases, so too does the demand for lighthouse keepers.
Inside the lighthouse tower, keepers are no longer replenishing fuel that powers the oil lamps, winding clocks in the lighthouse tower, or cleaning windows to improve visibility. Electrification moved the lighthouse from oil lamps to lightbulbs, but someone still needed to make sure the bulbs weren’t burned out. In the late 1960s, automatic bulb changers were introduced, which can detect when a bulb has burned out and automatically switch to a new bulb. Remote monitoring systems allow maritime operations to be housed off-sight, further reducing the need for someone to be in the lighthouse. Whoever is hired as the next lighthouse keeper will only need to stop by each lighthouse roughly once per month to complete routine maintenance.
Lighthouse keepers used to work in an environment with a lot of unpleasant working conditions, and as such, were paid well. The typical image people have of a lighthouse keeper is a solitary, grizzled man in a rain slicker. These men were asked to work in remote, dangerous areas and were often isolated from the rest of civilization. During severe storms, they had to ensure ships had safe passage, which meant their jobs weren’t limited to the evenings. Lighthouse keepers were expected to be available at all hours of the day.
When jobs have unpleasant working conditions, like isolation or increased risk of serious injury, fewer people will want to work in those occupations. People would rather supply their labor to more pleasant jobs. As such, it creates a gap in pay known as a compensating wage differential. The difference in pay compensates workers for the added risk.
Over time, automation and electrification have made the lighthouse keeper's job much safer. This allowed more people to consider the role as a viable occupation, which increases the labor supply but decreases pay. Unfortunately for aspiring lighthouse keepers, there has been additional downward pressure on pay from the role automation has had in decreasing the demand for labor. But the views!
Most lighthouses in the United Kingdom and the United States are heavily automated and don’t require the full-time attention of keepers. There is one exception if your dream job involves wearing one of those yellow rain slickers. The historic Boston Light is perched on Little Brewster Island and is the oldest continually operating lighthouse in the United States. Dating back to the Revolutionary War, it is the only lighthouse in the United States that requires a full-time keeper. A 1989 law requires that the Boston Light remain manned full-time.
There are 208 lighthouses operating in Scotland [Northern Lighthouse Board]
The median US salary for bridge and lock tenders, which includes maritime professionals who operate bridges, locks, lighthouses, and other marine passageways, is $45,390 per year [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
Male lighthouse keepers in the 1800s earned about $600 per year [Smithsonian Magazine]
Most lighthouse keepers in the US as we think of them were originally employees of the United States Lighthouse Service, which was founded in 1789 [National Parks Service]
There are roughly 700 lighthouses in the United States [Fodor’s Travel]