Guest Column: Why Licensure Requirements Need to be Revamped
Since publication of my last article “Never Stepped Foot in the Field?” in the August 2015 issue of POB, there have been so many emails, phone calls and text messages — too many to count and reply to each one. They’ve been from almost every state in the U.S. and from all levels of the surveying profession, both newly registered and very senior surveyors, as well as students, field personnel, office technicians, Professional Engineers, GIS professionals and university professors. This issue is not new, and this issue isn’t going away.
In order to clarify the position expressed in the earlier article and explain why the current system isn’t acceptable, the outline below shows why there is a need to change the direction we surveyors took over the last many years regarding the education and experience requirements. In any case, we cannot simply let other people decide our fate; we must let our representatives know what is and what isn’t working for our profession and how we need to change in order to perform our professional responsibility to the public.
A Brief History
Some 20-30 years ago, surveyors faced an ever-growing problem of poorly-trained and in some cases poorly-educated surveyors. This led to some surveyors who weren’t always protecting the public interest and it allowed for some surveyors to have less than adequate ethics. These are facts — ones surveyors of the day took very seriously and came to the decision that more education was the best way to solve the growing problem.
The four-year degree plan was realized; this plan would “solve” the problem. A degree would mean surveyors would be educated, professional, consistent and have ethics, right? Well, the plan seemed good, but a few facts were overlooked. There were almost no four-year land surveying programs then, and fewer today, and the need for experience was undervalued. Maybe our professional leaders assumed degrees in related fields would suffice, and they didn’t realize you can’t replace experience.
I recently read an article published in the California Surveyor, Fall of 2003 Issue 138, written by Phil Danskin of Sonoma, Calif. In his article, Mr. Danskin did a good study trying to determine how many graduates a year were receiving their degrees in surveying. The results are shocking — in the entire United States, there were approximately 125 per year. Rightfully, he predicted that over time fewer and fewer graduates would hold a degree in land surveying. “My prediction (assuming my numbers are correct) is as time goes by … the number of licensees will dwindle to 2.5 per year, or less, if we embrace the ABET four-year degree!” he states. “When such occurs, to the point that our profession can’t service the consumer, then another profession will take up the slack for the consumer.”
I fail to see where he is wrong, except we may have a few more than 2.5 per year graduating, but not many.
Instead of dealing with the anecdotal evidence, let’s review the current system of education in Texas as an example of what we have in many states. Currently, there appears to be only two programs offering a four-year surveying-related program in Texas. One is at the University of Texas Tyler, which consists of a 2+2 program. The components are a two-year program in surveying at the community college level and then a transfer to the UT Business and Technology Department. The other is Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Geographic Information Science and Geospatial Surveying Engineering. According to Dr. Gary Jeffress, Professor of Geographic Information Science and Director of Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science, the four-year program began in 1995 and, over the last 20 years, has graduated 203 graduates. Of those, 86, or 42 percent, have gained their license as a Professional Land Surveyor; of those, it’s undetermined how many actually practice cadastral surveying.
The numbers speak for themselves — one of the only two universities, graduating four graduates who ultimately become licensed a year, is simply not an adequate number of surveyors. Moreover, according to the latest examination results posted May 29, 2015 by the Texas Board of Professional Surveying, 30 examinees passed the examination, which is given twice a year. If the only two programs in the state are graduating four to eight future licensed surveyors a year, this would indicate a substantial number of individuals with degrees other than in surveying are passing the examination and becoming surveyors.
The question is, what qualifies as academics for land surveyors? More importantly, where can one find an academic solution to the required educational requirements for our profession? As previously discussed, there are very few, if any, real cadastral surveying programs available in the United States; most focus on ancillary fields to land surveying. More and more of the graduates today are coming from community colleges with an associate’s degree or certificate in land survey/mapping, then moving on to a four-year program and obtaining an unrelated degree just so they can meet the degree requirement. The fact we are having these educated and willing future surveyors spend an additional two years and countless dollars obtaining a four-year degree in an unrelated field seems an exercise in futility. They may have a degree, but not an education in land surveying.
The fact surveyors must work in some very harsh environments with varying levels of difficulty would lead one to believe someone with little or no experience working in the outdoors and holding a degree in mathematics or biology may find it impossible to traverse a creek or mountain range looking for old set stones. In addition, how are these future surveyors going to supervise, train or review the work of field parties when they’ve never been trained or experienced for themselves?
A severe issue facing us today is there is little to no requirements for field experience and all the focus is on academics, and the examinations are only testing legal principles, some mathematics and theory. We have somehow done a complete reversal between the need for experience and education to be qualified. Working in the field is the greatest opportunity we have to learn the nuances of our profession. As Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
As we are all aware, surveying is a combination of field and office work, neither being more important than the other, both requiring a different set of skills. For generations, surveyors have passed along their wisdom and knowledge to those working for them, the invaluable knowledge passed along by the “old guys” being the cornerstone of our educations. Some things are simply not teachable; they must be experienced to comprehend. We are losing the experienced people in our profession; the rodman learned from the instrument man, the instrument man learned from the party chief, and the party chief learned from the surveyor. With each level comes more responsibility and accountability. We rely heavily on the experienced crew to find and report the evidence. When crew members are invested in the profession and working towards licensure themselves, they not only want to do a better job, they do a better job. With a terminal career path, what are the realistic expectations? We are setting ourselves up for failure when we do not validate the need for the years in the field, where the hard work and very important part of surveying takes place.
The unintended consequences of the four-year degree requirement have had substantially negative effects on our profession. We have allowed education to replace experience for all practical purposes. Given the volume of responses to my earlier article, almost everyone agreed the current system is failing to provide the quality and quantity of qualified surveyors needed. A four-year degree requirement does not necessarily allow for the best and brightest to become surveyors; we are using the degree requirement as a crutch, a false measuring stick. The true measure of a great surveyor is the willingness to report all the facts as found, no matter the outcome. It is time for us to recognize the facts and change the current rules.
We should continue to develop educational programs and build interest in primary-school youth, and then someday we may have a formal educational system that complements the experience component of our profession, not replaces it. Until then, we must face reality and focus on using the system we have to achieve licensure, through mentorships, community colleges, the National Society of Professional Surveyors’ Certified Surveying Technician program, symposiums, more steps in the examination process, board specializations, and any other means to educate and license future surveyors.
We have addressed and continue to address many of the ethical issues in our profession, including requiring ethics and rules awareness each year for license renewal. We have more robust enforcement of rules through the state boards, and we have a society focused on continued education and professionalism. These are all needed and welcomed additions to our profession.
However, we must not ignore the plain simple fact in front of all of us — the need to find and retain motivated, trainable, reliable, ethical and, yes, professional individuals who want to gain the necessary experience and education to be a cadastral surveyor.
Contact your local representatives in your state’s association and work through the legislative process to change the existing rules for licensure in your state. The original goal was have better surveyors; surely we can achieve that goal through other means.