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The Business Side: Where does surveying go from here?

April 29, 2009
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I have been involved with surveying my whole life.



I’ve gone from sitting under a tree and calculating distances with a pad of paper and Peter’s sine and cosine tables while laying out a subdivision to using the most modern total stations and GPS equipment. I’ve served as president of a state surveying society and as a member of the board of directors of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping. I’ve authored many different sets of standards and regulations in an effort to improve the quality of surveyors and survey work. I feel like no one could love our profession more than I do.

We have been faced with many different challenges before but none quite like the challenges that currently face both our country and our profession. Because our profession is so steeped in history, surveyors generally feel more comfortable looking backward. But I think the time has come to look forward and leave the past behind.

Paving the Way With Education

One of the most important areas for us to examine is education. In the world of the future, a college degree is not just a benefit--it’s a necessity. So why not a survey degree? We need to accept the fact that a degree is the future of surveying and work toward making this a reality.

A common problem in all college and university survey programs is a lack of students. I believe this problem is tied to two realities, both of which relate to money.

When it comes to college, money is everything. Yet the college scholarships that our professional societies and associations offer to students won’t even pay for their books for one semester. If we offered full scholarships to graduating high school seniors, there would be no lack of students interested in surveying. Perhaps we need a program called “Invest in your Future,” where all survey firms commit money each year that goes directly into scholarships, instead of investing the money and using the gain--if any--to fund scholarships.

The second reality is related to how much money a licensed surveyor with a college degree can expect to make. While most surveyors never get rich, they can make a decent living and provide for their families. Even though we are currently in a very real financial struggle, these events do not last forever. Will the country ever return to the real estate boom of the last 10 years, including all the house flipping and related surveying demand? I don’t think it will. But I do think we’ll see a more stable economic model emerge--one that includes well-run survey and engineering companies providing services and making a profit. This information needs to be more widely publicized to students.

Expanding Regulation

In many countries, anyone can survey, and it sure shows in the disorder of the land and development. Most of the success of surveying and engineering in the United States can be attributed to the creation of professional boards to regulate these practices. Surveying has come a long way in the last 25 years, and the quality of the work has never been held to a higher standard. I only expect this situation to improve as new technology--such as a nationwide network of CORS--becomes commonplace. However, many boards of registration/licensure only focus on the work of the land surveyor and are failing to address the many different types of survey services that are increasingly being performed by nonlicensed individuals. These boards are exposing the public to danger.

I know of one state in particular where the board ruled that base mapping for a GIS system was not surveying and therefore should not come under the board of registration for that state. If the main purpose of registration is to protect the public, then we need to greatly expand it to include surveying related to GIS and all aerial mapping products. Many states have done this, and my hat is off to them for their foresight.

Remapping Our Business Plan

The survey company of the future is going to be very different than the companies most of us worked for in the past. Three words describe the future of surveying: technology, technology, technology. Firms that have embraced technology and are involved with larger clients that have high-tech needs are still making a decent profit despite the current downturn.

The greatest changes in surveying are still to come and will be driven by technology. The new horizontal adjustment of 2007, which is outlined in the National Geodetic Survey’s Ten-Year Plan, is just the first of many steps that will put the United States on a worldwide system of coordinates. This system will deal with issues such as tectonic plate rotation and local subsidence, define new datums, and provide coordinates in the ITRF (International Terrestrial Reference Frame). Hang on tight--it’s going to be a high-speed ride.

Pricing is also an issue. At some point, the real estate development market has to return. When companies are in need of our services, it is important that we demand the correct price for the work and not let the real estate industry set the price. The mortgage survey is now a litigate survey because we let someone dictate a price lower than it cost our industry to provide the service.

On a more positive note, surveyors are finally starting to get involved in GIS. Some are starting to realize that part of surveying is providing data. Becoming a value-added reseller of data obtained from many different sources will be a much bigger part of the survey company of the future.

Will we finally embrace the term “geomatics professionals” rather than simply surveyors? That’s a tough question to answer, and it will probably be best addressed by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. The boards of license/registration all still use the term “surveying” or “surveying and mapping.” Whatever we decide to call our profession, it needs to be the same in all places.

The bottom line is that we need to get control of our own future. We don’t have the time--or the option--to reminisce. Let’s all get in lockstep and move forward together. Remember Lot’s wife. If we continue looking backward, we just might turn to salt.

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