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A roustabout is a temporary worker who performs basic manual labor. These unskilled to semi-skilled workers can be found in a number of industries providing valuable labor as needed by employers. The term “roustabout” in the sense of a manual laborer appears to date to 1860s America, with a variation on the term, “rouseabout,” being used to refer to temporary manual laborers in Australian English.
Originally, this term was used in reference to boat and dockworkers along the Mississippi, and roustabouts can still be found working as boat and dockworkers in many regions of the world. Someone performing this type of work helps with loading and unloading, managing ships and boats, warehouse security, and so forth. He or she may belong to a union which coordinates labor in a particular port or region, and many roustabouts can find steady work as long as they are skilled, thanks to the continuous flow of cargo of all sorts around the world.
Roustabouts can also be found working at oil drilling facilities, including offshore platforms and oil fields. Roustabouts and roughnecks are entry level workers who perform basic maintenance and other tasks, with the potential to become long-term employees of the oil company. Working in this position in an oil drilling facility can be grueling and very dangerous, but for people who are willing to stick it out and become long-term employees, the compensation can be very good.
The circus is another employer commonly associated with roustabouts. They help to set up and break down the circus at each venue, handle cleaning, perform maintenance, and assist full-time employees of the circus. They may travel with the circus or be hired at each venue; many major cities have a large pool of semi-skilled labor who can be hired for circuses and other events like traveling theaters and concerts.
Getting a job as a roustabout may require joining a union or registering with an employment agency. Poeple with some training and skills can be in more demand, and have the potential to become full-time workers with better job security and the possibility for benefits. A roustabout must be in excellent physical condition, and may need to demonstrate the ability to lift heavy weights and use basic machinery and tools with confidence. Roustabouts may also need to possess valid driver's licenses or operator's permits for certain types of machinery found in the work environment.
Some years ago, my brother decided he wanted to work on an oil rig in the Gulf Coast. He headed down south, but found out the only job he could get with no experience was one of the roustabout jobs.
He got on as a roustabout and did unskilled, entry-level work, cleaning, painting, and maintenance work.
After 2 years as a roustabout, my brother became a roughneck. (I have to chuckle at this job title). In this job, he had the responsibility of connecting the pipes together as they drill down. This was hard work - his shift was sometimes 12 hours long.
He took some training classes and eventually became a supervisor on the rig. He likes his work and it pays well, too.
The times when I have heard talk about roustabouts was when the circus came to town. Before the circus came, they hung around the circus area asking for temporary circus jobs. Sometimes, they were kind of unsavory characters, but apparently they did a good enough job taking care of animals, helping to set up the tent, and general clean-up.
I don't think there were any unions like there are today. They were on their own. When we went to the circus, we knew the scruffy looking men were the roustabouts.