Turner: Surveyor's Footsteps
Surveyor's Footsteps

Take My Livelihood. Please!

Take my wife. Please! Is there an adult in America who does not know that ancient joke? I was considering some surveying investments for equipment, computers and software and thinking about how surveyors often give away their skills and technology just to land a project. A version of the aforementioned joke came to mind: “Take my life. Please!”

Years ago at a Maryland Surveyors Conference, I asked the editor of a surveying magazine what he thought of the new robotic instruments, which cost far more than a theodolite and SDR33. ”You can buy it now and make money, or buy it later and try to catch up,” he responded. Right now I’m on my third robotic instrument, and, were it not for the present non-economy, I would have purchased a fourth. They all work well, but each new gun is better than the last due to more options and higher accuracies.

It seems surveyors invest in our businesses and to some extent give away the technology to people who don’t even understand what they are getting for free. Crews went from four or more persons, but then crews went down to three with the coming of the EDM theodolites and data collectors. At some point in my career, my employer realized I could get as much done with just myself and one decent person so the crew became two. That lasted until robots took the job away from the transit person—although I know some outfits that still use two people. We put people out of work and saved some of what we would have paid as wages, but I think we shared the savings with our clients rather than pocketing the profits. Some people are not surveying today because we wanted our clients to save money. Moreover, we compete against ourselves, and the general public keeps the real profit.

We sell our lives an hour at a time. What are our lives worth? Do you need to purchase an expensive robot or GPS equipment just to have a job? Today I think surveyors do. I remember an old-timer seeing me with an EDM and SDR33, and he asked if I rented them for the project. He was still taping away until he died. 


On a recent rural topographic survey, three carpenters on their lunch break were admiring my robot. “Most of the time I get more done with one person than with two,” I told them. “If you have two people working, they may talk two hours of the day like I am talking with you right now. One will say, ‘Look at those chickens,’ and the conversation goes on.” They laughed at my chicken comment as they had been working near the chickens and no doubt talked about them already.

I believe that working by myself, I do earn back my investment and make money. Because I work for myself, I keep whatever the taxman does not take first. I do miss the camaraderie and the opportunity to train an employee right in the field. My robot does not take smoke breaks, whine to go home early even on a Friday afternoon, tire out, write down incorrect numbers or go on vacation. It lacks many other problematic behaviors. The wisdom of the editor proved sage.

Recently, I had a business dilemma. A surveyor called and told me his client had purchased a 40-acre tract and had in hand a topographic survey I prepared a decade ago. He asked if he could have a CAD copy. I like the firm because they have been helpful to me in the past, and I really wanted to give them the computer copy. Unfortunately for their client, I was so busy that I did not get around to looking up the computer file and e-mailing them the plan. When I realized my forgetfulness, I started to think about the request.

In Pennsylvania, surveyors have 12 years of liability on our work, so this former work was still a potential risk for me. I had been asked to bid on the job by a landscape architect 10 years ago. The architect told me that her client was cheap and was going to construct a barn and some fences. It was doubtful she could persuade the owner to spend the money for my services knowing what I charged for work on her other projects. After some thinking, I came up with as lean a bid as possible with limitations on how many acres of the tract I would actually survey. As usual, I got into the boundary, and it was a much better survey than what I had stated I would do. The extra time protected my interests. My real investment was in the work the landscape architect would provide me in the future and the work she had offered me in the past. We had a very good working relationship.


Fast forward 10 years. My client no longer owned the property, and the landscape architect had passed away. Except for the liability, I had nothing left in the project except potential risk. Now I was asked again to give away my work to a person I had never met. That was a problem for me. It did not settle well. I also considered that someone who can buy 40 acres for a horse’s prancing pleasure could surely afford to pay for a survey. So my initial hesitation turned into weeks of delay, and I forgot to call the other surveyor.

Where did that leave the other surveyor? He would scan my drawing and trace it in his CAD system. He would have to go out into the field and check the topo knowing some things had changed. He should have gone out and checked the boundary rather than risking acceptance of my work just to save his client from spending money that could have been used to buy new equestrian apparel, an upgraded Audi, better vacations and other spending. This would mean whatever his initial cost estimate might be, the new surveyor would have to make more money. Even though it did not put money in my pocket, I am glad for him. There are times when I prepare a topographic survey plan, and my client asks me to give a CAD copy to the other professionals working on their project–which I will do. This was a different case. Had I been hired to update the topographic survey, I would have been glad to do the work.

 So, in hindsight, my procrastination made money for another surveyor. I hope he was not upset with me or felt I was ignoring him. If he did not charge for field checking my work and updating the changed areas, then I guess he was just saying, “Take my livelihood. Please!” 

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