Professional Topography: Facing Forward

May 28, 2003
Surveying… is it a trade or a profession? Do you care?



Surveying… is it a trade or a profession? If you have a license to practice surveying, what does that mean? Can quality be legislated? Do you care? These and similar questions may help answer whether you are a professional or not. How you answer these questions may also make a difference. One-word answers could mean one thing and a paragraph another. Either way, being able to explain your answers (without spending hours in deep thought or doing research) will decide whether surveying becomes extinct or flourishes.

Being self-protective, here are my answers. I hope you will adopt my views if you don’t already have them. Just having particular views might make the difference.

Trade Or Profession

There are many opinions on what constitutes the differences between a trade and a profession. I like to think of a trade as an occupation where standard parts, standard techniques and standard diagnostics are used to solve standard problems to produce standard results. A profession, by contrast, is an occupation where problems are solved creatively using analytical techniques to discover the problems, understand the constraints and the solutions acceptable to the client. Building blocks of knowledge are applied during the entire process to assemble requirements, select tools, design processes, analyze results and complete the solution. In simplistic terms, a person in a trade delivers a widget that the customer ordered. A professional might deliver the same widget, but only after determining if it really solves the customer’s problems, and if necessary, designs and builds, or arranges to design and build, the widget (if it doesn’t already exist) to satisfy the customer.

License To Practice Surveying

Licenses are not, repeat not, for the purpose of restricting the number of people supplying a service. Sometimes they are thought of that way, and perhaps even used that way in some areas. But the public policy purpose, i.e. the benefit to society, is that clients are protected. Since harm could occur when a service or good is delivered incorrectly or inappropriately, the license requirement is to ensure that those holding licenses possess a minimum level of knowledge and skills to provide for a client. Issuance of a license creates an agreement between the government and the licensee that goods and services are to be delivered responsibly. That is, a license is not a license to do whatever one wants without regard for the client’s and public’s welfare. The license immediately creates a higher standard of quality of services and goods delivered by the licensee.

Legislating Quality

Mandatory continuing education credit requirements to renew licenses, minimum standards for surveys, licensing authority regulations concerning the ethics and business of surveying practice—these are all ways of “legislating” quality. There are some who would say that self-policing, as would be done by a strong profession (or trade), if done properly and with high awareness of the responsibility to the public, is a better approach. Sometimes, the group awareness of social responsibility as a profession (or trade) is not tightly held, and legislative or regulatory methods of controlling the behavior of the licensees is attempted. My view on legislating quality is that it is a necessary evil in our society. It occurs sometimes because less-than-desirable results are delivered by surveyors who don’t really understand what they deliver (particularly surveys involving boundary location). Sometimes legislation attempting to define or mandate quality exists because of horror stories regarding litigation that occurs because the client doesn’t understand what the surveyor’s product is.

Looking Ahead

For surveying to do more than just exist (and I think there is a possibility it may not), the characteristics of the individuals in the group practicing it need to be:
  • highly skilled in analytical methods (problems, solutions, data, business relationships)

  • highly skilled in communications (with clients, regulatory or governmental authorities, intra-business, with allied professionals)

  • deeply aware of their responsibility to the public, not just the client, and reflect that awareness in their actions as a group and as individuals

  • committed to thoughtful continuing dialog with all the stakeholders in the “surveying industry.”

This list, in my opinion, is imperfect. I am sure there are many philosophers among us who have thought about this at length and could make it more complete and applicable.

You will notice that I didn’t include things like knowledge and practical experience of trigonometry, physics, errors analysis or riparian rights. That is because that list (and there are many more) is implied if one is a surveyor. The key to whether we are a profession is not in the knowledge and skills we should have to get the basics of a survey done. Rather it is the knowledge, skills and abilities that round us out.

We often point proudly to some of our presidents who at some point practiced surveying. What we need to realize is that some of the characteristics that helped them to be presidents also helped them to be good surveyors.