Positioning Your Future
January 1, 2007
With the start of another new year, numerous surveyors resolve to improve their businesses and professional stature. At the same time, some things indicative of the surveyor will not change. Surveyors will always be “basically honest people with a flair for the technical and a love for the outdoors,” says Milton Denny, PLS, a now 48-year member of the surveying community. The majority of surveyors will most likely continue to be slow to prepare companies for sale upon retirement or to put a transition plan in place so they can retire. Most will doubtfully become expert marketers overnight. Several firms will overlook the implementation or enhancement of safety standards. For sure, most surveyors will not lose their immense interest for surveying-related history and law. Many will continue to excel in the cadastral surveying realm while others will investigate and adopt new services in peripheral markets. And as markets expand, surveyors are expected to keep up with advanced technology.
“Surveyors have always been the first to embrace technology that improves productivity more so than other industries (such as construction),” says Bryn Fosburgh, Trimble’s vice president and general manager of Engineering and Construction Business. “They’ve really continued to adopt [technology], probably at a faster rate than many of us all expected. They’re driven by productivity [and] strong on the measuring and legal components of the business.”
This combination of dynamic and languid approaches to the profession are equally exciting and predictable. But one thing is evident: today’s surveying professional has copious opportunities to grow. Some groups, for instance, are seeking professional surveyors to manage the charge of the base mapping for geographic information systems. These groups are realizing that only a professional surveyor is educated in the art of precision measuring and obtaining accurate positioning data. So while many in the profession believe surveyors “missed the boat” on carving a niche in the GIS arena years ago, there is still time--and several will prosper in business this year through GIS services.
“[The GIS] market has grown in the last several years,” says Bob Williams, president, Leica Geosystems Inc. - Americas Region. “But that market really started to build in a time when the residential construction market was growing and was pretty strong. So the surveyors didn’t have to [find their place in it] because they were all busy building sub developments and strip malls and so on. As the residential construction market flattens out, they have to look for new work, and that [leads them] to the infrastructure and civil world.”
While the nation’s infrastructure continues to require updates, repairs and new construction, opportunities surface for surveyors and other construction professionals. The solutions to these needs call in the traditional skill set of the surveyor and also challenge him or her to attain new skills. The increasing use of machine control and guidance on jobsites is one such technology requiring a new aptitude of the surveyor.
While potentially threatening to the traditional stake-setter, industry experts point out that this steadily growing construction solution offers opportunity and continues to depend on accurate data sets to successfully complete jobs. (See our story, “A Way to Grow” on page 26.)
As surveying technology continues to advance, surveying roles will shift, which opens new doors. Robotic instruments, for instance, have helped increase the number of sole proprietorship businesses and one-person crews. For the surveyor seeking to run his own business, this advancement offers a way to do so. Likewise, machine control creates new data preparation service options. Improved computer processing power, wireless capabilities and real-time networks permit surveyors to do more processing in the field that was once exclusively done in the office.
Laser scanning innovations allow users to enter new markets as well. Surveyors can branch out into the architectural as-built, historical rehabilitation and renovation, construction and forensics markets. According to Tom Greaves, managing partner for Spar Point Research, an independent research firm based in Danvers, Mass., scanning service providers especially have a pool of opportunity. With the prices of units coming down modestly (about 5-10 percent) in the last year, scanning technology improving (some manufacturers have added level compensators to scanners, for instance) and a notable growth on the hardware side of about 35 percent, the acceptance of terrestrial laser scanning is widening. “The economic value that the technology delivers is questioned less,” Greaves says. “[But] I don’t think if the price was halved today it would matter.”
Greaves says that several areas of construction are benefiting from the application of laser scanning, including the monitoring of construction sequencing, asset management and the locating of utilities. And when scanning is integrated with total station and GPS technology for best accuracy and georeferenced objects tied to a coordinate system, a full-circle solution is provided for the client. Growing interest from law enforcement and insurance companies for the use of laser scanning can offer another window of opportunity for surveyors as well, Greaves points out. “Law enforcement lacks the skills to do the accurate surveying needed (for forensics jobs). [And] insurance companies see some value for assessing liability.” Surveyors can carve out niches in these areas.
So while surveyors have more opportunities in the civil market than perhaps ever before, common concerns still exist: Who will do this work in the future? How will technology play a role? And who will teach the surveyors of tomorrow?
Promoting PerpetuationThe average age of today’s surveyor (mid-50s by most reports) is telling of a growing attrition rate soon to come. And it is not argued that the next generation will be smaller in number than past generations. This may not be as much of a concern as projected since technology allows people to do more with less.
“The reality of the decline in the number of licensed surveyors and qualified field personnel in general is a concern to everyone involved in the industry,” says Ray O’Connor, president of Topcon Positioning Systems. “From a strict business standpoint, there continues to be a shortage of experienced, licensed experts. From a problem-solving and manufacturer’s perspective, we see an erosion of our traditional customer base.”
To make up for the decline in skilled labor, O’Connor says that “surveying professionals look to Topcon and other manufacturers to continue to provide new technology and jobsite solutions. Our customers continue to demand solutions to help them be more productive while maintaining the high levels of accuracy that this type of work requires.” He notes that the use of modern robotic instrument systems and GNSS reference network technology provides “increased productivity with less field equipment.”
These technological advancements are a hook for new students attracted to the profession--many are attracted to the “glitz and glamour” of the instruments and software programs. The lower numbers of newcomers also provide another bit of bait: more money. There is still a demand for surveyors, providing for a higher division of money with fewer professionals. Recent graduates can attest to offers of several jobs and acceptable salaries.
By supplying schools with today’s equipment and instrumentation, students can be better prepared to become solid contributors to the profession. Topcon’s Educational Partners Program, for example, provides surveying equipment to colleges and universities around the world. “Both Topcon and our dealers support national, state and local surveyors’ associations and societies through their annual conferences, educational programs and fundraising events,” O’Connor says. “Our hope is that the surveying community will find a way to attract new, talented young people to the profession and help the industry well into the future.”
But the state organizations and associations need help with recruiting efforts. “There’s somewhat of an expectation that [surveyors’] affiliates will take care of that,” says ACSM Executive Director Curt Sumner, LS. “[But] state associations have a hard time recruiting because of a low participation rate of members. Without the resources to carry them through, we’re not able to get our message out.”
“As the more experienced surveyors start to retire, the universities are not producing enough surveyors to fill what we think will be the future market,” Leica’s Williams says. “The manufacturers have the responsibility to work with the universities and local organizations to ensure that we’re producing enough resources and people, and recruiting people to the industry so that the services can be delivered in the future.”
“We’re keeping up for now,” Sumner says. “The one thing we’re all afraid of is that if we don’t keep up with demand, the work will be given to someone else. Keeping the relevance of what surveyors do is a concern. Some consider what surveyors do is less relevant.” Therefore, Sumner says, educating the public on the relevance of the surveyor as the foundation for every civil project is more necessary now than ever before.
But the public is often confused, in large part because of the divide created within the profession. Every state in the union seems to have its own set of professional standards, educational requirements and approaches to bettering the profession. Some neighboring states don’t even apply the same credentials for their licensees. And the educational requirements of adjacent states may differ as much as a high school degree to a four-year degree for licensure. “That contributes to the uncertainty in people’s minds,” Sumner says. “I really would be hard-pressed to make a prediction about when we’d ever get to the point where our requirements are in any way uniform because they are so widely varied now. [But] it’s difficult to focus in a particular direction when you have so many divergent attitudes about what that direction ought to be. If we don’t develop a cohesive and cooperative effort among the local, state and national organizations representing the surveying profession to carry a consistent message to the public about our relevance to them, I believe our profession runs the risk of becoming, if not obsolete, at least one-dimensional.”
Defining Educational StandardsAs the need for public awareness increases, so too does the need for a better educational system in the profession. Included on the list for necessary improvements for the profession is the varied schedule of educational standards. Nationally, a uniformed educational outlook and approach will most assuredly not be seen in the coming year. But picking away at some of the complaints and proposed changes may be beneficial, even in small part. One consistent argument among surveyors is that states must consider the level of difficulty of their exams. While the tests need to be challenging to pass only the qualified, they should not be so hard as to deter a large number of test-takers or repeat takers.
To provide surveyors with more working opportunities, and to serve the public as needed, ACSM’s Sumner suggests making school requirements flexible enough for students to work regionally or nationally, not just locally. Looking northward, Canada has established a solid foundation for labor mobility where surveyors can work in a cross-province manner. “The reason they’ve been able to do what they have [done] is because they have a history of setting down a requirement that everyone has to live by,” Sumner says.
Education of advancing technology is a major concern among surveyors as well. To avoid an increase of “button-pushers,” manufacturers must offer solid educational opportunities to learn their technology. These courses also provide for an environment of adoption. “I believe the state societies need to offer more educational courses on these various technology changes,” Trimble’s Fosburgh says. “Some can be done through on-the-job training; for [surveyors] to work more on the data management side, I think they need formalized short-term or long-term training through seminars or university programs.”
“Vendors and business owners should go out of their way to attract the smartest people,” Greaves says of the profession, adding that this education includes the integration of new technology and solutions with traditional technology.
“The key to the future of any profession or business is education,” Topcon’s O’Connor says. “Change, in business as in life, is constant and how well a person can adapt to changing trends in a particular business and industry will affect the amount of success [he or she] can achieve in the years to come. Topcon, along with other manufacturers and private service providers, offers educational programs to train people. Our Technology Roadshow program puts on educational seminars and demonstrations across the U.S. and Canada (more than 300 in just the past four years). Through our Roadshow program, we have tried to educate attendees to utilize new technology to expand their knowledge and expand their businesses.”
“If individual surveyors don’t keep up [with technology]... at some point, the methodology becomes cumbersome and doesn’t keep up with the post-processing,” Leica’s Williams says. “[Then it] becomes much more of a manual process than an automated process. Those surveyors take longer to do the same types of jobs and probably less accurately than surveyors who are keeping up with the technology. Then they will get left behind (and won’t be able to meet the requirements of the customer).”
A Promise to ProsperAs those in the profession--surveyors, educators, leaders, manufacturers, students--look to another year, obstacles and challenges await. The profession offers much in the way of opportunity.
“I think going into the surveying profession today probably offers more growth than it’s had in the past,” Fosburgh says. “Surveyors should be looking at this change as a real opportunity. My hope is that the surveyor really embraces it because it will allow [him or her] to grow.”
Surveying is, in many ways, in a state of transition if one looks to technology, educational requirements, qualified professionals, technicians and educators, changing products and new services requested by clients. “Somehow we have to, as a group, understand that we’re going to have much better success at fighting this battle if we find a way to do some sort of collective effort,” Sumner says. With some dedicated attention to these aspects, surveyors can strengthen their roots and continue to build a foundation for a great future. The question is: What will you do this year?
Sidebar: Opportunities for Growth: A Short List
- Forensic, as-built, historical renovation and rehabilitation, and construction work through laser scanning applications.
- Data preparation services through the application of machine control and guidance.
- High-accuracy GPS positioning services through the use of RTK networks.
- Precision measuring skills applied to GIS needs.
Sidebar: Goals for Improving the Profession: Things to do in 2007
- Unite with others and participate in educating the public of the need for the surveyor.
- Support the efforts of your local, regional, state and national associations and organizations.
- Evaluate efforts for recruitment.
- Promote the profession. When appropriate, sell it with the 3D value. Also consider radio ads.
- Actively recruit both students and qualified educators. Utilize the NCEES/NSPS Speakers’ Kit.
- Set up sensible co-op programs.
- Raise the expectations of your clients. Educate them on the benefits of new technology.
- Work together with the manufacturers to have the surveying community at large understand the possibilities in the profession today.
- Take advantage of advanced technology to succeed in business.
- Encourage a unified approach to combat obstacles in the profession.
- Support a uniform educational system to reduce confusion about the profession.
- Get involved in licensure matters, including the compilation of the national exams.
- Investigate and act on legislative matters locally, regionally and nationally.
- Resist bidding on projects with the lowest price.
- Encourage state regulators to better define the generation of data.