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The Technology Benchmark-Prescription for reviving the surveying profession.

September 1, 2007
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In keeping with the latest theme of going where the conversation takes us, I want to discuss the current state of the field of surveying, as a career and as a profession. Many of my recent conversations with surveyors from around the country have centered on the perceived decline of the profession.

This decline is evidenced by a lack of respect and acknowledgement toward those in the field, perhaps because most laypeople do not understand what a surveyor does; they don’t understand how strongly measurements affect our lives. Many of you have heard the comment “Are you taking pictures?” when someone sees you peering through an EDM. Or when they see you staking corners, they say, “Some guy is drawing invisible lines on the ground out there.”

The perception that surveying is declining comes from various surveyors I work with every day, and it speaks volumes as to the urgency with which surveyors need to address the issue. It appears there are several factors contributing to this decline; allow me to lay them out and invite your comments.

• The average age of surveyors. Within their respective surveying societies, I hear the average age is in the range of 55 to 57 years old. Or do we presume that only older people join these societies?

• Relatively little new blood entering the profession. Many states have more surveyors retiring than new licenses being granted. I also noticed that other countries are decrying the same thing: More people are leaving the profession than entering.

• Increased educational requirements. At the same time, some states are increasing the educational requirements to become a licensed surveyor. This is putting increased pressure on candidates since the prospects of receiving a degree in surveying in the United States are minimal and perhaps decreasing. Can we learn from Canada where a licensed surveyor must have a bachelor’s of science in geomatics? Further, few American colleges offer surveying degrees.

• Relatively low salaries within the profession. Compared to other industries that require less technical knowledge and less strenuous or even dangerous work conditions, surveyors are paid a relatively low wage. Ironically, the arguably most important person on the job, the rodperson, is paid the least.

• The relatively high mathematics requirements (knowledge of algebra, geometry and trigonometry) for a surveyor. Most industries do not need these advanced mathematics skills on a routine basis. This is why, in our country’s history, it was usually the upper class who surveyed. Think Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau, each one an educated man. I dare suggest that the average layperson would have substantial problems with the level of math needed daily by a surveyor. And it is certainly a requirement for the position.

• The strenuous physical aspects of the job. A lot of fieldwork is required and is routinely done in undeveloped and dangerous areas where new development is occurring. Climbing rugged terrain, carrying heavy equipment, enduring insects and snakes, cutting line, handling unruly and weapon-carrying humans are all part of the job.

• The high legal liabilities. Virtually all construction requires a surveyor’s blessing, whether through stakes, cutsheets, 3D digital terrain models, stringlines, property corners and building corners. If anything is wrong with these measurements and the deliverable supplied by the surveyor, guess who holds legal and financial liability to correct these issues?

• The high costs of maintaining a surveying business. This includes equipment costs, liability and E&O insurance, technology, training and labor demands.

• Non-licensed individuals. Much of the work that previously fell into the surveyor’s domain is now being performed by non-licensed people in many areas due to advanced technology, such as machine control and subscription-based GPS.

• Lack of knowledge about the surveyor and his skills. Civil engineering has been called “The Stealth Industry” by the American Society of Civil Engineers because laypeople do not know what a civil engineer actually does. If that is true, it also affects surveyors since they work hand in hand with civil engineers. Generally, people don’t really know what surveyors are doing nor to what extent and depth they are doing it.

• Lack of collective pride. Generally, surveyors are down on themselves and their profession. Although they like what they do, there is a resistance to change (I call it a High RTC Factor). There is insecurity within the profession that permeates directly into the bidding process where one surveyor will easily underbid another or feel that his work is somehow not worth what it could be. In some states, survey work is considered a professional activity and low bidding is illegal, at least for state work. In those cases, the most qualified surveyor obtains the contract and goes through a fee negotiation afterward. This sounds like a great place to start in establishing a business model.



Two of the issues facing the surveying profession are that more people are leaving it than entering (the average age of today’s surveyor is in the mid-50s), and that educational requirements to become licensed are increasing.

Suggestions for Remedy

The following list of suggestions is provided to assist in strengthening the profession, not only in the eyes of fellow surveyors but in the eyes of the community as well.

Public Relations

• Begin a public relations campaign to inform the public about what a surveyor does. See if your firm, your peers’ firms, and local and state societies might join in on a subsidized ad campaign. These campaigns might occur in non-traditional survey forums, such as billboards, newspapers, Web sites and Webinars put on by the local or state surveying societies. Communication with local college and university student guidance departments is a good idea to open them up to the needs of the industry. Inform them of the ad campaigns and the links to Webinars.

• Join industry panels wherever possible. POB and Site Prep magazines have industry panels on specific topics that perhaps some of you would like to join. At the very least, you must attend these online panels and make your voice heard. Contact POB’s editors for more information.

• Ask your local unions if they handle the education of construction surveyors and see if they will allow for joint advertising about the profession of surveying. These unions usually have fine training programs. Refer to the September 2006 article “Virtual Stringline: Training High-tech Equipment Operators,” Site Prep magazine (www.siteprepmag.com) on the training offered by the International Union of Operating Engineers.

• Run for elected office at virtually any level. Surveyors are down-to-earth people and relate well with the public on a face-to-face basis. Many of you would make great candidates for office and provide honest and straightforward solutions. I know several engineers in Virginia who have successfully run and held office; why not surveyors? Again, think Washington, Lincoln, et al.

Education

• Meet with your local colleges and universities to see if they will begin a geomatics, geodesy or surveying degree program. Education commands respect and surveyors may need to lobby the schools to reinstate the programs they have dropped over the past decade or so. There is no reason that every college that offers a civil engineering degree shouldn’t also offer a geomatics degree. If the hiring community can show the educational institution that their graduates will have employment and that there is a need for the graduate, then that information is strong ammunition to create a degree program. (To read about Florida Atlantic University’s new geomatics engineering degree program, turn to page 16.)

• Alternatively, meet with your local college or university to persuade them to create a professional certificate program in geomatics or surveying. Certificate programs typically include theory, methodology, technology and best practices as related to the field. Courses emphasize primary core competency areas and students are awarded a professional certificate after the successful completion of a series of courses (which may comprise perhaps seven required core courses and three elective courses). Certificate programs are usually fast-tracked and can be completed in time periods as short as seven weeks with three hours for each class. They allow attendees to obtain leading edge skills and knowledge that may be used immediately in their current job or for future career advancement, with their ultimate goal being increased credibility and recognition in the surveying field.

• For surveyors who work in the field but do not have a degree, consider a degree in geomatics, geodesy or surveying, or civil engineering with a minor in geomatics. It is never too late to start. Consider that most surveyors begin and end their day earlier than most people. That actually leaves significant time for afternoon and night classes at a community college, university or technical school.

Personal Involvement

• Join your local state surveying society, become active in their endeavors and participate in their goals.

• Write articles. Surveyors do not write enough. POB magazine is a great place to be heard and the editors are always looking for articles on success stories, application to projects, and perhaps even failures that were resolved imaginatively. Very often, we here at POB are told that real-life stories are among the most interesting. Almost 20 years ago I was asked to write an article for a magazine and was very hesitant to do so because I was an engineer, not a writer. The marketing department manager who asked me to write the article had a degree in journalism and offered to edit my article if I would write the content. I acquiesced, provided the content and she cleaned it up so it made sense. Our efforts produced one of the first articles on automated data collection, which was titled “Are Field Books Obsolete?” I took a lot of heat from that article, but it turns out I was right; they have become all but obsolete. If the topic works for the magazine, I am confident that the editors who still assist me today in my writings will assist you in yours. e-mail them with an idea or abstract. The content can be about what you do, about the people you meet or about the projects that have interesting challenges. Other surveyors want to read about your experiences. Plus, your state might give you educational credit for the publication.

• Give lectures to organizations. State societies have conferences annually, in addition to the ACSM (www.acsm.net) and National Society of Professional Surveyors (www.nspsmo.org). They are always seeking topics and speakers; involvement in this way can go a long way toward disseminating information.

• For business owners and managers, set a price for your work that allows top quality work all the time.

Get Active

To provide the profession of surveying with a shot in the arm, there are several things we all can do. They comprise a range of activities, including getting more colleges and universities to offer surveying education, advertising to the public what surveying offers the community, speaking and writing about the field more and running for elected office. If we all do a small part, it will add up substantially--and maybe breathe new life into the profession.

Please contact me at hward@carlsonsw.com if you have comments on this issue.

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