Viewpoint: The future is ours to choose.

July 29, 2003
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Concerns about the future of the profession as many baby boomers reach retirement, surveying degree programs struggle and the number of new licensees nationwide is limited.



Writers in the national publications for land surveying have discussed the status of the surveying profession, the future of the profession in the next 10 to 15 years as many baby boomers reach retirement and the struggles of some of the surveying degree programs, coupled with concern about the limited number of new licensees nationwide. These writers have reiterated the perception that there are not enough surveyors to meet local needs.

These concerns are quite real and can be heard nationwide. As I travel from state to state and discuss relevant items with my peers, the accents may change but the topics and concerns don’t. As the reasons for the current state of the profession are numerous and complex, so too are the possible solutions surveyors nationwide have raised.

“We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us”

In every state I visit, at some point in the conversation, a complaint is spoken against the “drive-by” surveyor, the “price cutters” or whatever the local terminology may be for someone who provides services at the very low end of the scale. I haven’t taken this comment as a condemnation of the small two- or three-person organization that provides quality services for a fair price.

I also experience conversations to the contrary by other groups of surveyors who bemoan continuing competency requirements, the need for a college degree and those “good old boys” who run the state societies and offer so many new rules they have to cut prices to get work. The dichotomy of positions in the profession is astounding! This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we receive 40 percent responses to polls and ballots, 10 to 15 percent of chapter members in attendance at meetings and 5 percent of the membership operating the societies.

It further focuses the major question we must ask ourselves as it is rapidly becoming “fish or cut bait” time for us: Do we want surveying to be a profession or a trade?

There it is, thrown out in the open. But a decision needs to be made. You cannot complain about the lack of professional respect and fight against degree requirements or continued competency. You cannot clamor for professional respect while attending board or agency meetings in field clothes. You cannot achieve professional status by telling a client not how well you provide your services but rather how cheaply. We are not pricing building additions or driveways; we are providing specific professional services that require education (not “training”), experience, judgment, expensive equipment, insurance and a plethora of other items. Fellow surveyors—stop selling yourselves short!

I recently needed repair on my plotter. A very nice young man about 23 years old was sent from the maintenance company. He wore a tie and jacket while efficiently and pleasantly repairing my machine. He then handed me the bill for his time at $150 per hour. If this rate was created by supply and demand (many machines, few technicians), why aren’t all surveyors getting higher rates when we are continually told there aren’t enough surveyors around to meet the need?

Before we place undue emphasis on the need for public relations to expand our exposure as a profession, we must answer this internal question to find what it is that all the members of our profession want to offer. This is a very painful, but necessary, first step.

“It’s The Economy, Stupid”

This well-beaten election phrase has some application here as well. For whatever reason, surveying is perceived to be a low-paying profession. Whether for the licensed surveyor or the staff technician, we must pay a good wage to justify people staying in our employ. This may require raising fees, which I know is blasphemy in some areas, but involves the lifeblood of our profession. It is also one of the reasons why enrollment in many degree programs is dwindling.

A young person looks at the salary potential in surveying versus other fields, and surveying pales in comparison. Even at the technician level we are competing with computer companies, electronics companies, trades and even governmental agencies, which can offer significant benefit packages due to the economics of scale that those of us in small, private practices cannot compete with. However, if it became known that a graduate surveyor could receive as much or more than a graduate engineer, environmental scientist, accountant or other specialist, the numbers should rise.

Further contributing to this lack of new technicians or degree enrollees is the dramatic shift in workforce makeup we have seen in the baby boomer generation. The post-World War II parent primarily did some type of manual or physical job. Mechanics, machinists, construction workers, retailers, bartenders, laborers (just to mention some of the fields my dad and his friends occupied) were the heads of most households. In the 1950s and early 1960s, most high schools sent less than 50 percent of their graduates to higher education establishments, leaving at least 50 percent to work as technicians of some sort. This is quite a large labor pool.

Today many high schools approach 100 percent college enrollment. This I believe is why we have difficulty in finding technicians—not because of the four-year degree requirements. If you don’t agree with this idea, ask an executive or attorney if he would like to find a good secretary. Ask a carpenter, mason or electrician if he would like to find more technicians. There just doesn’t appear to be enough people to go around. We have to be aggressive to obtain our share of the available labor force.

“There Are Not Enough Surveyors, So the Licensing Requirements Should Be Relaxed”

If you need an operation, do you want it performed by a doctor who took two fewer years of medical school because of the immediate need for doctors? Would you like your taxes done by an accountant who had no schooling but had done taxes with his father, the accountant, just because there aren’t enough accountants? Would you like your car repaired by an airline mechanic who should qualify as an auto mechanic just because he is a mechanic and there aren’t enough auto mechanics?

I realize these are silly ideas, but so is the concept of lowering professional standards to practice as a licensed surveyor (remember, a profession not a trade).

The connection between surveyors and civil engineers is historic and important. Surveyors and civil engineers have traveled in similar circles on similar projects with similar goals and traditions. However, the passing of time and technology have created very different directions for these old friends. They are no longer interchangeable parts of the same machine. GPS and boundary analysis are no more a part of engineering than advanced hydraulics and structural design are parts of surveying.

For these reasons, the concept discussed in many states of allowing civil engineers to take the surveying licensing examinations based on merely having an engineering degree and years of experience has no merit. It must be understood that the engineers would not be just asking to add another maple leaf to their cluster, but would be asking for the privilege of providing services to the public in an entirely different profession with no formal education in that field. (See previous silly ideas.) Considering that many major civil engineering degree programs have deleted even basic surveying courses, I would hope the state societies could put a stop to this line of thinking.

It would be unfair for me to continue without mentioning that I am a trans-professional—or survineer—or whatever you may call those with both a PLS and a PE degree. I have proudly earned my living for more than 30 years enjoying both, but will readily agree that it is more time-consuming each year to stay current in both disciplines.

Getting back to the expressed concern over the dwindling number of new licensees: in New Jersey, there were approximately the same number of licensed surveyors in 2001 as in 1980! Considering the advances in technology, each surveyor can produce much more than his 1980 counterpart, probably many multiples. So the problem is not that there are insufficient licensed surveyors in 2003, but insufficient technicians to work under their supervision. The four-person crew of the 1960s gave way to the three-person crew of the 1970s, which gave way to the two-person crew of the 1980s and 1990s, and finally to robotics. It is debatable as to whether technology fostered the need for fewer employees or whether the lack of employees created the need for the technology.

We surveyors truly have a monumental task in front of us to infuse new life into this great profession over the next 10 years, if we:

  • continue to support educational requirements;

  • convince ourselves to pay superior wages for superior people; and

  • truly support and believe in surveying as a profession.

I’m sure the numerous new licensed professional land surveyors in 2013 will remember us with a deep sense of gratitude.

What do you think about Bill’s viewpoint? E-mail brownl@bnp.com with your agreement or rebuttal.

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