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What’s your specialty?

August 5, 2003
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What's your specialty?

The practice of surveying includes the obvious—boundary surveying, but today it also encompasses much more than that. It can include photogrammetry, construction staking, hydrography and more. The percentage of surveyors who offer boundary surveying services alone is small.

Of the 83 responses to our June survey asking about specialized surveying, a full 46 percent reported that boundary surveying accounts for 25 percent or less of their total services. About 23 percent responded that boundary surveying accounted for 26-50 percent; for 17 percent it accounted for 51 to 75 percent of business and for only 14 percent did it account for more than 75 percent.

The most commonly listed specialized activity was topography, followed by construction staking, mortgage surveying, urban planning, hydrography, photogrammetry and mine surveying. Other activities listed were geodetic control, forensics, GIS, hydraulic, floodplain management, utility surveying, DOT control, photo control and structural behavior measurements.

Machine control is an area that surveyors are teetering on moving into. Of our respondents, only 16 percent were currently involved in this activity, 84 percent were not. But involvement in this activity will probably increase in time, similar to involvement with GIS. Had we asked for the percentage of surveyors involved in GIS a few years ago, the answer would probably have been much lower than the 40 percent who responded they are currently involved in GIS work. Still, 87 percent claim GIS work accounts for 25 percent or less of their total work.

Is the shift toward offering specialized services something that surveyors view as necessary to their success in the industry? A majority (90 percent) think that it is. C. Phil Wagoner, a North Carolina and Virginia surveyor said, “Specialized surveys provide projects with fees and profit margins large enough to finance other projects.”

Other comments included:

“There's not enough work doing just boundaries, unless you are semi-retired and working for yourself. Even then it may not be enough. Providing full service to clients would include many aspects of surveying, depending on the project,” -- Wendell T. Harness, Arizona surveyor

“With technology the way it is today, more and more architects, landscape architects and engineers are seeking out the services of land surveyors to provide them with detailed topographies that they can get in a timely manner along with the electronic file to do their designs from, along with more and more government bodies requiring that the data be tied to the state's geodetic coordinate network,” -- Ken Rasmussen, Illinois surveyor.

Washington surveyor Lyle R. Muller said, “In order to stay solvent in today’s economy one must be capable of providing a multitude of services to the prospective client. Additionally, one must meet each client’s timing demands, which is always yesterday.”

And Washington surveyor Doug Coombes said, “I think quality specialized services can be profitable, fulfill a need and always have a market, however, I think diversification will help a company weather rough economic times.”

Thomas W. Bock, PE, LS, of New York said, “There are too many “ma and pa” part-time survey firms with little overhead performing substandard boundary surveys with fees below the going rate. We prefer larger engineering projects that require higher quality surveys.”

In order to stay afloat in today’s surveying climate, 60 percent of respondents said that diversification was key, while only 19 percent thought being an expert in a particular area was enough. An even smaller percentage, 8 percent, thought traditional boundary offerings are enough. Other ideas included, “Being in the right location and offering the appropriate services. Our engineering clients are willing to pay for quality services after experiencing poor quality work (by other firms)and the added costs to fix the poor surveys,” Bock said.

Alex Arguelles of Florida said, “I would say diversification and being an expert in a particular area. Being open to new technology and well-versed on one thing makes you very valuable in today's market.”

“While being an expert in a particular area can be quite profitable in a healthy economy, I think diversification may be what keeps a company alive during economic downturns. Two prominent reasons that come to mind are 1) the demand for your specialty decreases and you lose business and 2) your specialty is the biggest thing in demand and the competition makes it their specialty as well and you lose business,” Coombes of Washington said.

Here are some thoughts from respondents on the biggest changes that have occurred in the industry over the last five years:

“Surveyors are in a position now where they have to keep up with the technological advances in equipment and procedures. If they do not, they will rapidly be replaced by "point locators" and "point positioners," said Robert Mellis, a Florida surveyor.

“Clientele expect fast technical response, so we have to stay on top of technology. GPS and robotics are a must to diversification. Every couple years we have to re-invest in new "modern" equipment,” said Brian K. McClintock, New Mexico/Colorado surveyor

“GPS application and availability of specialized mapping services along with the availability of large format digital images,” said Matthew Strogen of West Virginia.

“I only see the mechanics changing. The actual acts of survey to the end result remains the same,” said Al Ahner, New York engineer

When asked whether they saw the direction of surveying moving in a new or different direction, respondents had several interesting comments.

“I see it as a dying profession until the surveying community wakes up to the fact that the services have a value and with that value comes a cost for the service,” said Muller.

David Berry, a California surveyor predicted a focus on “more GIS and water quality applications/issues.”

“The age of chaining and conventional equipment is over. We are slowly being considered professionals, and our technical response and service must reflect that ideal. The requirement for all construction staking is less than 0.3 ft for vertical and horizontal. Therefore it is a must for maintaining "modern" equipment. The problem is that the fees are slow to respond to the high level of accuracy.” -- Brian K. McClintock

“New types of services are being developed both by surveyors and others. The GIS community has created an entirely new field that at times infringes on traditional surveying disciplines. The availability of cheaper GPS equipment along with GIS applications will create additional demand for these services. The traditional boundary surveyor soon will discover his services are not as valuable as they once were, in turn creating less demand for licensed land surveyors. Unfortunately, many smaller firms cannot afford the software, equipment or personnel required to diversify into this new market. The larger traditional firms will have a clear advantage because they have the ability to hire GIS and GPS specialists. These specialists will create additional applications for their services. These diversified firms will continue to compete with the smaller firms as the need for traditional surveyors is diminished. Eventually the smaller firms will find themselves relegated to doing unprofitable and undesirable projects.” -- Matthew Strogen, West Virginia surveyor

“GPS and GIS services and more one-man survey crews.” -- Paul Cook, California surveyor.

“Here in Florida, the profession is really struggling because of a shortage of licensed surveyors. Big changes are going to occur soon, I just don't know if they are going to be good or bad.” -- Alex Arguelles

“I am not crazy about the terminology of geomatics. Land Surveying is "surveying land," whether it be accomplished using GPS, robotic, total station, transit, etc. I feel to replace the name with geomatics is not furthering our profession.” -- Dorothy Salko, Pennsylvania surveyor

“A "Jack of all trades" is the master of none. Do a few things well and let others do other things well. The public is better served by those who have special knowledge and skills.” -- C. Phil Wagoner, N.C. and Va. surveyor

“Although I use and enjoy new technology, I see ever changing technology and stiff competition forcing surveying companies into a game of ‘keep up or go out of business,’ regardless of the quality or price of their work or the quality of their personnel. We must constantly invest a great deal of time and money in neverending and rapid changes in software/hardware, training, etc. and at the same time reduce fees to be competitive and stay in business. Technology seems to be overshadowing everything else. I believe we must keep actual surveying training, education and techniques the most important considerations with technology taking the backseat as a tool for us to use, not the other way around. Ignoring for a moment the current trend to integrate everything in the world into one great GIS, I think for many firms, remaining profitable is made more difficult and the efficiency of new technology is greatly reduced since in some cases the "cost" of the technology offsets the time savings. Of course, since the clients want what new technology can offer there apparently isn't much choice. I'm sure there will be an ever-increasing need for surveyors to integrate their work with other industries/professions.” Doug Coombes, PLS, Washington

Eighty-two (82) percent of respondents were land surveyors, 5 percent were engineers, 8 percent were both and 5 percent were neither.

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