Surveying Mentorships: From Prospects to Veterans
When a surveyor retires, a wealth of knowledge goes with them. Mix that reality with the fact that there is not necessarily a sufficient stream of incoming surveyors to replace their aging predecessors and it becomes clear that action must be taken. One way to address the issue is through mentorship.
Lee Spurgeon, LS, is the chairman of the Educational Goals and Outreach Committee for the Professional Land Surveyors of Oregon (PLSO). The land surveyor of 40 years oversees the group’s mentoring program and says mentorship in the surveying profession is really important. “The average age of a surveyor in Oregon, I think, is 56 years old, which means we’re all going to retire in the next eight or nine years. So we need to find replacements or we might end up with things like a paralegal — a para-surveyor,” he says. “Institutional knowledge is lost when the old-timers retire, so mentoring will be able to pass that information on and just have a much more informed profession so everyone can do a better job of retracing those original monuments.”
Bobby Tuck, PE, RLS, CP, PMP, is a part of the “soon-to-be-retired surveyors” group, and he is taking a proactive role in mentoring employees to ensure both his business and the surveying profession as a whole are left with competent successors once he retires. Tuck is president, owner and founder of Tuck Mapping Solutions Inc., located in Big Stone Gap, Va. The company specializes in LiDAR, photogrammetry, surveying and GIS. A licensed surveyor in seven states, licensed engineer in four states, and licensed airplane and helicopter pilot, Tuck has seen a lot during his 50 years of project management experience.
Tuck has three project managers that have worked together, under him, for the past five years. He says, hopefully, in another five years, he will be able to take a smaller role in Tuck Mapping Solutions. He plans to have all three managers run his company, so he is training them to take over.
Ashleigh Csontos, PMP, GISP, is one of the three mentees. After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography, she says surveying wasn’t really on her radar. She met Tuck about six years ago at a conference and they have been working together ever since. While Csontos has a broad, base understanding of surveying, she is not a licensed surveyor. However, her exposure to surveying through Tuck has inspired her to pursue licensure, which she is in the very beginning stages of. “My background is in GIS, and I realized there was a difference between GIS and surveying, but through this mentorship he’s pushed me and given me opportunities and afforded me support to where I can see myself in this profession, whereas I really didn’t have a direction before I came to work for him,” Csontos says. “I have, hopefully, the education. So I’m starting the process of taking that initial [national] exam.”
Being that Tuck has been exposed to the state surveying licensure process seven times, he is making it a point to guide Csontos through it. But that is just one area Tuck is focusing his training program on. His mentorship covers a wide range of administrative and technical skillsets, and the experience has taught him and his project managers a lot about how a mentorship relationship should work.
“I think a mentor is there to take you … to a level that’s 125 percent of where you thought you could be. People do not understand, sometimes, how far they can actually go,” Tuck says. “I started this company 35 years ago and did not have the knowledge to do what I did. Ashleigh’s 29 and in five years she’s still not going to be 35, but I want her to start out with what I have learned over 35 years of experience... So she can learn from my mistakes, but she can help take this company far beyond where I ever dreamed it could be.”
In Tuck’s search for successors, he sought three qualities: technical soundness, leadership temperament and integrity. Along with those, he says it is important that his mentees are comfortable with respectfully standing up to him when necessary. “The first thing [Ashleigh] does is ask, ‘How would Bobby do this?’ and the second thing she says is ‘How could he be doing it wrong? Therefore, how can I improve?’ You have to make those two determinations,” Tuck says. “She’s very tough on me to where she makes me justify everything I say. So you don’t want ‘yes people,’ is what I’m trying to say.”
Something Tuck has learned about himself through mentoring is that he has a natural tendency to be too protective of those he is training. But he realizes that allowing his mentees to experience things on their own is essential, so he has worked hard to find a balance. An example of this is when he took Csontos along on a job in Oklahoma that involved inspecting dams, a type of project she had never done before. After two or three days on site, they returned to headquarters and he worked with her, putting a proposal together. Then, Csontos returned to Oklahoma by herself and completed the Army Corps of Engineers project, which utilized underwater equipment to inspect the dams.
Tuck had initially planned to return to Oklahoma with her, but she asked him not to. Csontos pointed out that if something were to come up, Tuck would inevitably make the decisions on how to troubleshoot; but on her own, she would be forced to at least try to solve problems herself, knowing Tuck was just a phone call away. As it turned out, major problems did arise, but Ashleigh persevered and finished the job one day ahead of schedule.
“I have to be very careful,” Tuck says. “Ashleigh and these other guys are very independent people, and sometimes project managers do not know what they do not know. … I’m not going to let them sink without a life raft handy, so I monitor what they’re doing. And yes, I put them in situations they’ve never been in before, but they know they have a resource that can help them. But the only way they’re going to learn is to put them out there and let them do it.”
Tuck says he had a great mentor of his own when he started project managing construction jobs in his teens. He appreciates that he was given the opportunity to fail and learn, and has found out through his own experience as a mentor that he can’t expect his project managers to do things exactly as he does. He points out that a lot of times there are multiple ways to carry out a project, and that while he may think he has the best method, that isn’t necessarily true. “We’re looking for results and you have to understand that your project managers are not going to be mirrors and mimics of you. … You want someone that is an independent thinker, so you want them to think of a different way of doing a job.”
If nothing else, Tuck says he wants his project managers to learn to be honest and do what they say they’re going to. Csontos finds that being honest is extremely important for a mentee like her. Letting Tuck know what she does know and still wants to learn has been important in helping her through the training process. Along with that, she says Tuck has been very honest with her and her co-project managers, talking them through their weaknesses and exploring how to minimize them. As for strengths, Tuck makes it a point to play to what his mentees are good at to make their learning experience a positive one. “I’m a very visual learner, so [from] the first year and a half working with him, I have two binders full of drawings he did about surveying and engineering and photogrammetry. He saw that, very early on, I like pictures,” Csontos says.
While she is just getting started with her surveying career and realizes that now is a crucial time to soak in the knowledge of a more experienced mentor, Csontos says she can see mentorship benefitting her for many more years to come. “Somebody always has more knowledge or a different perspective or just something new to bring to the table that I may not have considered, I may not have thought about, so just having that relationship with somebody or a couple of people where you trust each other enough to tell each other the truth and share knowledge; I can see that being important throughout my entire career.”
In his role as coordinator of the PLSO mentoring program, Spurgeon says he sees considerable demand for mentors, not just from next-generation surveyors, but veterans of the profession. “There are two distinct groups,” Spurgeon says. “There’s the group that’s in high school or just out of high school, and they make up about half of the mentees. Then the other group is people who have been out in the field for a while.”
As an example, Spurgeon, who does a lot of legal work, says he once had a 78-year-old local surveyor approach him in search of a mentor. He was retiring and wanted to focus on an expert case once every few months. “He phoned me up and said, ‘Next time you run into something that’s going to be a lawsuit, I want to see how you prepare,’ and that sort of thing. So we had a two- or three-day mentoring session in which we did some mock court work, and then had him go and meet with the attorney and see how we interact with attorneys and that sort of thing, and how we go out in the field and the different approaches we take for gathering evidence for a trial,” Spurgeon says.
As a matchmaker for surveying mentorship programs across the state of Oregon, Spurgeon is not usually the mentor paired with mentees, but in that particular case he knew he could provide value to the kind of help that was being requested. What usually happens is those in need of a professional surveying mentor call PLSO’s executive director, who sends the call to Spurgeon. He has created a database of surveyors who want to mentor and he tries to match prospective mentee needs with the surveyor who is most suited to meet them. He says it typically takes just two or three phone calls to find the right mentor.
Many of the mentees served by the PLSO mentorship program are high school students. Spurgeon once mentored a group of students who were doing topography for a building construction class. He showed them how to use instruments to complete a survey themselves. Then he processed the data and turned it over to them. For students whose senior mentorships must be longer, maybe 40 hours, Spurgeon says he finds surveyors who have the time to bring them along with the crew. He makes sure they are exposed to a wide variety of tasks. Since many of these students have decided to move forward with a career in surveying after high school, the PLSO mentorship program makes sure they are taught where to find financial aid and how college admissions work.
During the economic downturn, Spurgeon says he coordinated a lot of mentorships for surveyors who did nothing but construction work and, when construction dried up, were looking to do boundary surveys. Since they may not have conducted a boundary survey in 20 years, they were looking to learn from someone on the cadastral end. “It’s been a wide variety of different things,” Spurgeon says. “We’ve had someone in his 60s come in and say, ‘I’ve never done GPS. I need to get into it. I don’t want to; what’s the easiest way we can go about doing this?’ Then we connected him up to, maybe not a GPS expert, but someone who uses GPS more casually.”
In three and a half years, Spurgeon says PLSO has made more than 100 mentoring connections. He is working to continue formalizing the program by establishing more official mentorship best practices and guidelines. In launching the program, he says he had trouble finding a model from another state association that he could emulate, so he encourages other groups interested in starting a mentorship program to contact PLSO.
Similar to the PLSO program, the ACE Mentor Program serves a lot of high school students. In fact, high school students make up the entirety of its mentees. The national program exists to engage and enlighten high school students about the construction industry. It works with construction related firms across the country whose employees volunteer as mentors. ACE offers best practices online so that, instead of reinventing the wheel, those who want to serve as mentors have access to materials including hands-on activities, and training on how to be safe and effective.
“We are what we call a ‘group mentor organization,’” says Diana Eidenshink, interim executive director of the ACE Mentor Program. “Basically, what we do is take a group of mentors and try to make it look like a design team. So if I was building a building, I would need an architect, a structural engineer, a mechanical engineer, a construction manager. We try to get a mentor from each of those disciplines. … What ends up happening is the kids sort of end up migrating to the person they most emulate, or, if they want to be an architect, maybe they start to work more closely with the architect.”
The ACE Mentor Program touches 8,000 students, on average, every year, and has more than 3,000 mentor volunteers. It has also given out $14 million in scholarships for college and apprenticeships, Eidenshink says. While surveying is not officially recognized by the national program in the form of a module, Eidenshink says she is aware of regional affiliates that have coordinated mentor groups which included surveyors, and she is happy to more frequently include surveyors in the group mentoring approach. “We’ve not done it on a national level, but would be happy to research and figure out how we can get more information on our website. … There is no discipline we won’t consider. We’ll consider them all.”
With many everyday people unaware of what surveying is, the minimum of 15, two-hour sessions a year — which can take on many forms, including field exposure and school visits — the ACE group approach could potentially play an important part in spreading awareness about the surveying profession. Since many of the students involved are already interested in architecture, engineering and/or construction careers, they are already, perhaps, more inclined to take interest in surveying than their peers. For example, a student entering the program interested in a more familiar role like project management, who initially knew nothing about surveying, may realize they don’t want to go into project management, while also learning about what the surveyor in the group does and moving in that direction.
The easiest way to get involved is to become a sponsor, Eidenshink says. The national organization invites sponsors who give a certain level of money to be on the national board, which gives them the opportunity to network with the leaders of the industry.
“I always say I wish ACE was around when I was a kid because I may have taken a completely different career path,” Eidenshink says. “I didn’t know what a surveyor did; I didn’t know what a construction manager did. That is why this program is growing so rapidly … Just showing them this is what an electrician does or this is what a plumber does or this is what a surveyor does — it goes in one ear and out the other. Show them how these pieces all fit together to build the future and we get their attention.”
While mentorship in general is a worthwhile way to help young, prospective surveyors succeed, it is a valuable tool for the future of the profession as a whole, which includes existing, more experienced surveyors as well. Spurgeon says it is important for the wider surveying community to realize that mentoring can take on many forms. Mentees don’t have to be the younger, less experienced partner; programs can last a few hours or many years; and the range of topics covered can be as limited or wide-ranging as the participants need it to be.
“We all have an obligation to the profession itself — the profession has done very well for me and most of my colleagues — and I think everyone owes something back to the profession. Mentoring is one of the ways to do that,” he says.