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The Business Side: Planning ahead.

October 28, 2002
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A.C. Mulford wrote the following quote about the surveyor in 1912 in his book Boundaries and Landmarks, A Practical Manual:_

The vocation of the civil engineer has always been invested with a dignity of its own. But it seems to me that of late years. In paying him the honor, which is due, we are apt to fix a little too wide a gap between him and his humble brother the Surveyor. We give the engineering the chief attention in our technical schools, but surveying we wont [want] to relegate to the freshman class. Yet the profession of the Surveyor deals with one of the oldest and most fundamental facts of human society—the possession and inheritance of land. Fire, flood and earthquake wipe out the greatest works of the engineer, but the land continueth forever.

As Mulford indicates, the surveyor is surely needed, however, the number of surveyors who are going to retire in the next 10 to 15 years is staggering. Where are we going to get the qualified people to fill those places in our profession? What worries me most is the dropping numbers of surveyors being registered annually. In states with a required four-year degree, the numbers are almost nonexistent. We continue to lose more of the surveying programs across the country because of low enrollment and financial constraints. And it will continue to be important to draw students to the profession as states’ mandatory four-year degree laws go into effect.

The Problem

I was recently in a state that does not have a mandatory four-year degree requirement. I met two young surveyors who moved from a state with the mandatory degree requirement to a state where they could realize their dream of registration (without mandates). I do not believe that all states will pass a four-year degree requirement, but does this mean all future surveyors who don’t want to pursue a degree but want registration will move to those states?

I am not against the concept of the four-year degree for our profession. (I would be glad to show you my college tuition receipts for my children.) But how do we balance attracting future surveyors to our profession to do the surveying work society needs and still uphold the education quality of the surveyor? I see two problems with our current required four-year degree system. The first is that most of the graduates do not go into private practice but rather government service. The second problem is that most graduates know very little about the art of land surveying… most do not want to work in the field doing survey work. How much good would an engineer be to a company if he did not want to design projects? Surveying is a profession that is field-oriented. Consider another piece from A.C. Mulford’s book:

Yet it seems to me that a man of active mind and high ideals the profession is singularly suited; for to the reasonable certainty of a modest income must be added the intellectual satisfaction of problems solved, a sense of knowledge and power increasing with the years, the respect of the community, the consciousness of responsibility met and work well done. It is a profession for men who believe that a man is measured by his work, not by his purse, and to such I commend it.

What Mulford says is something we all know; no one is going to become rich being a land surveyor. The joy of being a land surveyor is derived from many other rewards as pointed out in Mulford’s quotation.

The real danger that faces the surveying profession is if there are not enough surveyors registered in any given state, someone will draft legislation that will give the right to survey back to engineers. This would be a disaster for the quality of work the general public has come to expect from the professional surveyor. In my state of Alabama we have a pending four-year degree requirement law. In the last year we licensed 45 new surveyors and 626 engineers. We currently have 10,453 engineers, 780 surveyors, and 338 with both an engineer and survey license. I suspect that when our four-year degree requirement takes effect, the number of licensed surveyors will drop below 10 per year. The number we currently license is barely enough to fill the depleting ranks from death and retirement. So what are some solutions to this predicament?

Some Solutions

I think we need new and creative ideas to train and educate surveyors. The daughter of a friend of mine recently graduated from Auburn University with a degree in architecture. The last year of her studies was off-campus and consisted of remolding an old building into a community center in an economically depressed area of Alabama. This was true hands-on work with three other students. Maybe a similar situation could be developed for surveying where the final part of the training is done in the field under the direct supervision of a registered surveyor. Maybe the training company could become a certified trainer. While this may not give the surveyor a conventional Bachelor of Science degree, it could result in a four-year distance learning degree. While this degree might impose a burden to those who want to pursue an advanced degree, most surveyors just want to practice their profession. The first few years of study could be through a junior college or an online college. I don’t know if this is the answer, but we need to start doing something before it’s too late. It’s almost too late already!

Now, let’s talk about your company and planning for the future. Sometime in the future you may find yourself ready to retire and have no one with the proper license to sell your company. This is surely going to happen in states that are licensing fewer then 10 surveyors a year. You need to start working on an ownership transfer plan to make sure you have the licensed personnel in place to take over ownership of your company. A few last words from A.C. Mulford;

Curiously enough the Surveyor is isolated in his calling, and therein lie his responsibility and his temptations. The lawyer comes nearest to understanding the work, yet of actual details of a survey most lawyers are woefully ignorant. The business man who can judge to a hair the fulfillment of a contract has no eye for the shortened line or shifted landmark. To the skilled accountant of the bank the traverse is a closed book. Dishonesty in ordinary business life cannot long be hid and errors in accounts quickly come to light, but the false or faulty survey may pass unchallenged through the years, for a few but the surveyor himself are qualified to judge it. I maintain that in the hands of the surveyor, to an exceptional degree, lie the honor of the generations past and the welfare of the generations to come; in his keeping is the Doomsday Book of his community, and who shall know if he is false to his trust? Therefore I believe that to every Surveyor who values his honor and has a full sense of his duty the fear of error is a perpetual shadow that darkens the sunlight.

Legislation can always be modified or changed. America would not be better off if people who provide the majority of surveys today would be locked out of being surveyors tomorrow.

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