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The Technology Benchmark: The story behind licensure.

October 1, 2008
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In my June column, I urged engineers and surveyors to consider increased education requirements. After reading my column, Dr. David Gibson, founding director of the geomatics program at the University of Florida, called me to further discuss education and licensure issues related to the surveying profession. His insight and knowledge interested me, and I want to share what I learned from him with POB readers.



In my June column, I urged engineers and surveyors to consider increased education requirements.

After reading my column, Dr. David Gibson, founding director of the geomatics program at the University of Florida, called me to further discuss education and licensure issues related to the surveying profession. His insight and knowledge interested me, and I want to share what I learned from him with POB readers.

The History of Licensing

As Gibson and I spoke, we discussed why state boards issue licenses for surveyors in the United States. According to Gibson, the answer to that question dates back to the mid-to-late 1800s following the California Gold Rush. In those days, some surveyors and engineers created fraudulent mining claims and sold them to unsuspecting members of the public. Greed pervaded these property transactions, which were often found to be fraudulent to such an extent that the public welfare was threatened. After some time passed, the state government felt it had to step in and establish standards--checks and balances to restore trust in the profession. Without this cleanup, a pall would have been cast on all property ownership in the state. And so, California was one of the first states to license engineers and surveyors.

The next major transgression occurred during the Florida land boom in the 1920s when everyone was in a frenzy to own Florida land. The phrase “I have some swampland in Florida if you are interested” came from this episode in history. Unsuspecting buyers in other parts of the country bought the title, sight unseen, to swampland lots that were depicted as viable property. Gibson proposed that the lending practices associated with these types of property purchases were a major contributor to the 1929 Wall Street crash. (Does this ring a bell when considering our current land development crisis and its effect on banking and lending?) Once again, the state had to step in and require licensure for those drawing up these documents.

Gibson contrasted the U.S. requirements with the structure in the United Kingdom, where the self-regulating Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) oversees and governs surveying without government intervention. He pointed out that the only profession in the U.S. that doesn’t have state-board-issued licenses is the legal profession because attorneys are self-regulating; in other words, lawyers must be accepted by their peers in order to practice law.

It seems that the government steps in when the society does not police itself. A notable difference between society regulation and government regulation is that a society allows entry once you have proven yourself to your peers, whereas government licensure requires passing tests, thereby producing entrants who may be minimally qualified.

Becoming a Professional

As Gibson and I discussed licensure, our conversation naturally turned to professionalism. We both agreed that just because someone is a licensed surveyor, it does not imply that he or she is a professional. It simply means that that person has passed the minimum requirements to practice.

At the beginning of each semester, Gibson asks his students, “What is the root of the word ‘professional’?” After listening to a few of their responses, he explains, “It is ‘to profess,’ which means that you make a public statement. In our case it might be something along the lines of, ‘I am a surveyor; I can do the job for you, and you can trust me to do it correctly.’” After being hired to perform the task at hand and completing it as promised, a surveyor is paid as agreed and then receives repeat business for more of that type of work. This continuum makes a surveyor a professional.

Gibson said that he is a national advocate for requiring a four-year degree for surveyors and believes that the apprenticeship programs have been a detriment to the profession. This opinion sounded completely contrary to what I had heretofore embraced. I have written columns in the past that extolled these programs. Gibson explained his view: “These programs have been replacing the college degree, thereby perpetuating the perception that education is not the foundation level basis for surveying. Apprenticeship programs are the continuation of the technician image for the surveying profession.”

He went on to describe how this happens. “Generally, a surveyor starts his career as a technician. He increases his standing in the business through experience over the next 10 to 12 years. Many people within his own company see the surveyor as a technician regardless of the experience he has gained. This approach to becoming licensed simply [reinforces] the image that the public has of a technician surveyor and gives them the title of ‘licensed surveyor.’” In effect, the public considers the surveyor to be merely a licensed technician.

Education is the key to changing this perception. Graduates from Gibson’s program at the University of Florida are now getting salaries as high as--or even higher than--civil engineers. “They are fully employed upon graduation, even in this recession,” he added. “This statement is now beginning to get parents’ recommendations to children that surveying is as honorable and well-paying as the field of civil engineering.”

Gibson recommends that state boards and other influential leaders in the profession continue a campaign to increase the educational requirements for surveyors to become licensed. He estimates that about half the states have eliminated the “experience only” option for becoming a licensed surveyor.

My discussion with Gibson increased my respect for those who have aided this profession and helped us all get to where we are today. But this discussion should not begin and end with Dr. Gibson and me. I encourage readers to respond with their comments on increasing the educational requirements for surveyors.


For more information on the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, visit www.rics.org.


Want to share your opinion with other POB readers? Write to the editor at pobeditor@bnpmedia.

Sidebar: Historical Trivia

Q: Who was the first licensed surveyor?

A: Charles T. Healey of California. Healey was the Santa Clara county surveyor in the mid-1800s, city engineer in the 1860s and a mining engineer for two mines in California. (From "A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Environs," p. 110, Historic Record Co., 1915.)


Q: Who was the first licensed engineer?

A: Charles Bellamy of Wyoming. “According to the Wyoming licensing board’s records, [Bellamy] was the nation’s first professional engineer, licensed in 1907.” (www.progressiveengineer.com/PEWebBackissues2005/PEWeb%2062%20May05-2/Bellamy.htm )

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