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Professional Topography: Yet another opinion on professionalism.

September 3, 2002
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Land surveying: An awesome responsibility, an awesome opportunity as well...



The surveyor’s turf, literally, is the land. Definitions of land surveying may vary from state to state, but they are unanimous that surveyors are the sole locators of land lines and property boundaries. An awesome responsibility, but are we up to the task? It is an awesome opportunity as well… but are we up to maximizing the exploitation of this opportunity? On both, the collective response, in my opinion, is mixed. And yet, being professional is so dependent on positive answers to both.

A “yes” to the former question makes it easier to say “yes” to the latter, whether considered personally or professionally. This is important because it has direct impact on the practitioner’s ability to prosper.

Why Mixed?

I judge (as I hope most would) the level of expertise of an individual in any discipline by the breadth and depth of their understanding of the basic body of knowledge required to practice their profession. In the case of surveyors this includes mathematics and physics, as well as the ability to analyze data, to have knowledge of the statute and case law that underlie the principles of boundary location and to understand instrumentation, the impact of environmental conditions and the design of pro-cesses to achieve required results. While this list isn’t comprehensive, it is a good summary of the areas of knowledge required to practice surveying as it pertains to property boundaries.

I often discover that the knowledge required in these basic areas is lacking. Quite apart from the legal principles of property boundary location, the surveyor’s ability to be considered an expert measurer is eroded by a lack of knowledge of the processes involved in making measurements, analyzing them and drawing conclusions from them. This is not universally true, and often when I find these gaps in basic knowledge, it is in the context of a presentation or short course on how to gain this knowledge. However, it is difficult for me to understand how they have been able to economically survive with such an inadequate grounding.

This brings me to my second question: are we as surveyors able to maximize the opportu-nity afforded to us by being the sole locators of property boundaries? The common complaints of surveyors revolve around difficulty in getting good help (mostly because they can’t afford to pay them a decent wage), lack of respect or regard from kindred professions and inade-quate economic return from the practice of land surveying. These complaints seem to imply that the general answer to the question is “no.”

My thesis, then, is that by consistently being an expert measurer and locator of property and land lines and providing significant proof that the surveyor is truly an expert due to a firm grasp of the required knowledge, the common complaints of the surveyor will subside and maximized return on economic opportunities will increase.

But How?

People with more training and experience garner more pay. Surveyors who don't abdicate their roles as locators of property lines to lawyers or title insurers are more likely to gain respect, financial rewards and professional status. If a surveyor chooses, however, in spite of professional licensure, to be a technician following directions given by others, the likelihood of exploiting the economic opportunities is small. Many times this happens when a simple question regarding conflicting data from two adjoining surveys is answered with “I don’t know.” Even “it depends” is a far better response because it allows for discussion of the issues, and for more than one set of answers in different theories that may apply in the particular case.

A surveyor who can portray him or herself as an expert at property line location and measurement, clearly explain the processes used to achieve certain results, back up conclusions with logical and precisely positioned arguments, explain discrepancies, differentiate between blunders, errors and already existing discrepancies and who doesn’t claim to have perfect measurements or remove all error through adjustment is more likely to be viewed as the provider of products with value. When results don’t have to be second guessed, the surveyor’s worth will increase.

The keys to attaining and projecting this worth is an understanding of the knowledge required to do the job thoroughly, communication about intentions, results and conclusions, honesty about analysis and fact-based conclusions and advice that is clear and unambiguous.

Not everyone will like all of this— surveyors and clients. Much of the resistance on the part of surveyors comes from being unprepared to be good communicators and degradation in the wealth of knowledge that surveyors possess. The most significant erosion of the surveyor’s stature has come from moving away from the wider understanding of the meaning of “surveyor.” Surveyors of the past have typically reported on the condition of the land, its status and its potential. They have contributed to the understanding of governments, investors and owners with respect to lands “surveyed” by them. This contribution has been meaningful in the future disposition of the land.

Resistance by clients to surveyors as “professional” comes from an extremely parochial attitude about professional services. Clients often misunderstand how a surveyor’s results are of value. Surveyors are many times engaged only because the lender, the insurer or a government agency requires them. Thus, clients don't understand that the condition of the boundaries is of as much, if not more, value than knowing what the exact dimensions and area are.

This degradation in the surveyor’s and the client’s understanding of the surveyor’s role has probably been somewhat mutually achieved. It is feasible to re-escalate the importance of the surveyor’s role, but only when enough surveyors desire it and are willing to commit time, energy (and money) to the proactive exercise of the aforementioned skills and knowledge, can it be achieved.

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