Professional Topography: Why can't Johnny pass the exam?

August 1, 2010
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Professional licensed land surveyors are an aging lot throughout the United States, with probably more than half of them older than 60. 

Professional licensed land surveyors are an aging lot throughout the United States, with probably more than half of them older than 60.

New surveyors are entering the workforce at a much lower rate than those who are leaving the active ranks, either through death or retirement. Thus the licensed profession--and I’m using the term “profession” loosely--is experiencing steadily falling numbers.

The lack of new surveyors will have negative consequences. If the profession continues to see its numbers decline, the remaining licensed surveyors will (theoretically) be stretched thin by the work load. We will also see more work go to unlicensed surveyors, and more people are likely to rationalize that a survey is not necessary--whether for a real-property transaction or an accurate measurement of elevation, position or volume--and instead rely on some online technology hosted by a government or corporation as a satisfactory substitute for the services of a land surveyor.

An Education Problem

Alarmingly, states that are seeing a steady decline in the ranks of licensed surveyors do not seem to have any apparent sense of urgency to address this problem. In many of these states, the shortage of surveyors is exacerbated by the low passing rates on one or both of the exams prepared by the National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveying (NCEES), as well as the state-specific portion that is prepared by the registration board in each state.

Why, on the average, do land surveying exam applicants have so much trouble passing the licensing exams? In my opinion, the basic problem can be attributed to lack of preparation. Of course, an applicant’s preparation is not the only reason why these exams can be difficult to pass. Other issues that can contribute to an exam’s difficulty include the amount of material that was taken from a syllabus, the style of the questions and the wording of the questions. An applicant’s success can also depend on the support he or she receives from the industry.

In my experience, I have witnessed several areas that are lacking in potential applicants. These areas include:

•           A lack of mathematical fundamentals and a lack of practice in applying those mathematical principles to solve problems--surveying and otherwise.

•           A lack of background in the sciences and how they influence the measurement processes.

•           A lack of understanding about the technologies used in surveying.

•           A lack of knowledge of the theory of surveying principles and a lack of ability to apply basic surveying principles.

•           A lack of resources, mentoring and guidance on how to prepare for the exam.

•           A lack of adequate education in the applicant’s formal schooling.

Not all applicants are so ill-prepared. In some states, such as New Jersey, the educational process for licensing is mandated by law. Unfortunately, states like New Jersey are in the minority. We have many states where it is still possible to apply for a surveying license without having had much formal education beyond a high school diploma. 

What About Experience?

If an applicant lacks a formal education, surveying registration boards often take experience into consideration. But these boards can make assumptions about that experience, and they fail to investigate further. The boards do not ask whether an applicant understands mathematical or scientific principles. They do not mandate a mentoring system. The boards do not require a portfolio or other record that shows a diversity of experience. They just assume that if the individual was working under the supervision of a licensed surveyor, the applicant will have obtained the necessary skills. Thus, it is possible for an applicant to appear at an examination hall with an extremely lopsided view of what the exam covers, and he or she can be quite surprised at the breadth and depth of topics in it.

As a profession, we tend to assume that applicants will tap all the available resources on their own to learn what they can about the exam. From teaching exam review courses around the country, I can unequivocally state that this is not the case. Sometimes applicants are fortunate to have worked in an environment that fosters learning, but many have not. I have even had some students in my classes tell me that their work environment is actually hostile to their application process.

We as a profession need to support surveying exam applicants better. We need to provide study materials and a standard method to nurture professional work and thinking habits. We also need to participate in forums for both licensed surveyors and unlicensed ones to discuss professional issues, ethics and possible solutions to the problems our industry faces.

Some of my colleagues have blamed the lack of knowledge of the principles of mathematics and science on poor education at the primary and secondary school level. Sometimes the finger is pointed at the two-year and four-year colleges. But I believe the surveying exam applicant’s lack of preparation extends far beyond what is taught in the classroom, and we as professionals must address this situation.

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Recent Articles by Joseph Paiva, PhD, PS, PE

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