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The Business Side: Five Questions that Could Change Your Business Plan

December 7, 2010
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With the stock market fluctuating and with life-changing new technologies being introduced just about every few months, now might be a good time to re-evaluate your business plan.

It seems that almost everything has changed within the last 10 years. The impact these changes have had on surveying and engineering has almost been overwhelming. You might be thinking, How am I going to survive and continue to practice my profession? It’s a fair question and one that bears further examination.

In most cases, the final survey product delivered to the client is controlled by a state board that regulates surveying and engineering. These boards don’t dictate methods; they just set standards and provide guidance on the finished job. Most reputable companies can meet these standards with little effort. This long-established tradition has served the profession well and probably won’t change. What has changed is the amount of work available and the pressure on the price for the job. In some cases, entire markets have disappeared, such as subdivision design and layout. I was told recently by a city employee for a major metropolitan area that an eight-year backlog of platted subdivisions existed in the county courthouse. This scenario is probably similar across the country, and it does not bode well for future subdivision work.

We need to ask ourselves some very direct questions related to the future of the surveying profession. If we can answer these questions and react properly, this profession may have a future. If not, we may go the way of the hula hoop.

1.  What technology will we be using in 10 years?

In accordance with the NGS 10-year plan, we will all have the black box that has been discussed in surveying for at least the last 25 years. This GPS-related equipment tied to CORS and maybe even cell-type towers will provide millimeter accuracy horizontal and centimeter accuracy vertical. We may also be working toward the International Terrestrial Reference Frame with tectonic plate velocities. Many surveyors will be providing both aerial and ground laser scanning and the collection of GIS-related data. Many surveyors are already providing these services. Although boundary and property line surveys will continue, they will not play the major role that they did historically

2.  Who will be the licensed surveyors of the future?

I hope we can all agree that the days of following someone around in the field without the need for any higher studies is gone. What system do we use to replace the exclusively field-trained surveyor? Remember that the only reason we license is to protect the public. However, we have to be able to license enough surveyors to do the work, and I do not believe the four-year college programs are graduating enough students to fill the need.

Some states are meeting their needs with programs that require a two- or four-year degree in related subjects along with 24 to 30 additional hours of specific surveying courses. Many of these courses are now available online and meet the needs of working people.

Remember two principles in surveying that are of the utmost importance. First, people in surveying should have a passion for the survey career. Second, they must be able to pass the national exam. I suspect that 60 percent of licensed surveyors today could not pass the NCEES exam. Clearly, education will play a larger role in the future. I believe that survey education standards will continue to be set on a state-by-state basis.

3.  How do we keep non-licensed people from doing our work?

Technicians are doing more and more of the work traditionally performed by surveyors. This includes construction stakeout with machine control and gathering data for geographic information systems. Additionally, many states are still not controlling aerial mapping data collected by non-licensed companies. This erosion of services is the single most important attack on the surveying profession, and it is not in the best interest of the public. Unless we act, the situation will only become more serious. Addressing this important issue will require changing state laws. A few states have already implemented changes with good success. Is this something your state should be working toward? Are there areas where you could get involved?

4.  What will we be surveying in the future?

I have had some people tell me that professional surveyors will not be needed in the future. I disagree. Technology will make it more cost effective to survey large parcels of land, and large land owners will take advantage of technology to get the boundaries of their land set, but we will always be surveying land.

I see great advances in using ground lasers for surveying all types of infrastructure, including roadways, bridges, dams, cell towers, shopping centers, building exteriors and building interiors for design and improvements. I also see the use of aerial laser for topographic DEMs, land use and land cover as well as planametric datasets for GIS. In most cases, the data will be collected by specialty companies providing these services; however, there might be some opportunities for surveying firms to serve these needs.

I also see surveyors providing research services to solve surveying problems and assist in court cases. Additionally, the surveyor will always be called upon to provide quality control on construction, and some companies will provide data for machine control. I think we will always have a role in flood elevations and water boundaries. Our roles will change, but there will always be a need for a professional surveyor.

5.  How do we find the work and market our services?

For the first time in history, surveyors will need to actively market their services. I believe most surveyors will work over larger geographical areas, and this will entail reaching new clients with technology. Every company will need a Web site that not only lists services but also helps prospective clients understand how your skill, training and technology can help them solve problems and save money. You may need to attend conventions to demonstrate your technology and services, and you may need to provide demonstrations at prospective clients’ offices or places of business. You will need to hire specialists who can help you develop Web site presentations and reach potential clients with technology. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary to stay in business.

A Customized Plan

To prosper in the future, you will need the correct number of staff and the right equipment. You’ll need to know the types of services you can be profitable providing and where to find clients. All of these items should come together in a plan.

Only you can write the appropriate plan for your company. Better get started--your future depends on it! 

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