Point of Beginning

How Do You Measure Up?

April 27, 2011


The economy continued to challenge many surveying and mapping professionals in 2010. Although income and employment appeared to stabilize, a number of firms still struggled with finding steady streams of work and getting paid in a timely manner. Companies using advanced technology and serving diverse markets generally fared better than those focused on more-traditional fields, but respondents from firms of all types and sizes noted price competition, cash flow and uncertain markets among their biggest challenges.

POB’s 2011 Salary & Benefits Study identified these and other trends based on information collected from nearly 500 respondents. The largest percentage of respondents (27 percent) were presidents, owners or partners in their firm. Others classified themselves as chief surveyors (22 percent), project managers/team leaders (17 percent), or party chiefs/crew chiefs (10 percent).

Higher education is playing an increasingly important role in the profession. The percentage of respondents indicating that they hold only a high school diploma continued to decline, with a 4 percent drop from 2009 to 19 percent. Those reporting an associate-level education rose 4 percent to 35 percent, and those indicating a bachelor’s degree were about even with last year at 38 percent. Master’s and doctorate-level education edged up slightly to 8 percent after holding steady at around 6 percent for the last several years.

Although nearly a third of the respondents (30 percent) worked for or ran firms employing two to nine people, others were distributed across the range of firm sizes, from solo practitioners to large firms employing 500 or more people. Following high attrition levels in 2008 and 2009, employment remained relatively steady overall in 2010, with most firms reporting either no change (38 percent) or only a slight decrease (33 percent). Individuals working for large firms (more than 250 employees) were more likely to report a decrease, while those working for small and midsized firms were more likely to report that employment stayed the same or increased slightly. This corresponds with the open-ended responses, which indicated that many small firms had already cut back extensively in the last several years and are trying to retain their existing staff.

A large number of respondents (40 percent) indicated they had 15 to 29 years of experience in the surveying and mapping professions. An additional 36 percent had more than 30 years of experience. Only 4 percent had been involved in these professions for less than five years. Most (79 percent) said that they were licensed, with RPLS, PLS, RLS, LS and the like the most commonly held license (88 percent). Other licenses included PE, LSIT/SIT and EIT. Nearly half of the respondents (48 percent) have held their licenses for more than 15 years, while 20 percent were licensed within the last five years.

Seventy-six percent of the firms represented in the study were in the private sector, while the remaining were in the public sector or “other.” A large percentage of respondents (43 percent) described their firm as both civil engineering and surveying. An additional 30 percent described their firm as surveying only, and 7 percent chose civil engineering as their primary business type. In the types of work performed, the most popular were boundary/cadastral/topographical surveys (82 percent), civil engineering (64 percent), engineering design surveys (63 percent), building/construction (61 percent), road/infrastructure/transportation (53 percent), and mortgage/title/ALTA surveys (52 percent). Interestingly, only 36 percent indicated GIS mapping as a service area (up just 1 percent from 2009), and only 10 percent selected imaging (about the same as in 2009), even though both of these were identified by respondents later in the study as major growth areas.

Although many firms still support continuing education, tight budgets are having an impact on their ability to cover these costs for employees. 70 percent of respondents indicated that their firms partially or fully paid for continuing education in 2010--an 8 percent drop from 2009. Other benefits were also lower, including health, dental and vision insurance (down 3 percent, 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively), retirement plans (down 5 percent) and the use of company vehicles (down 3 percent).

The average gross salary in 2010 was $67,969, with 35 percent of respondents making less than $70,000 and 43 percent making $70,000 or more. Nearly 15 percent of respondents--primarily with the title president/owner/partner or chief surveyor--indicated a 2010 salary of $100,000 or more. Most of those participating in the study said their 2010 salary was slightly higher (25 percent) or unchanged (39 percent) compared to their salary the previous year. Approximately 16 percent indicated that their salary was slightly lower, and 17 percent said their salary was much lower. For those reporting regional data, chief surveyors and presidents/owners/partners in California, Florida, Texas and along the East Coast were among the highest earners. Lower salary ranges ($50,000 or less) were more broadly distributed but with higher concentrations in the Midwest and South.

Key themes that were evident in the open-ended portion of the study included the need to expand beyond traditional roles and pursue new markets; the need for increased education; continued frustration over the pricing strategies of competitors; the benefits of teaming and networking; and the struggle to adapt to rapidly changing technology.

GPS, GIS, robotic total stations and laser scanning/LiDAR were mentioned as the technologies having the biggest impact on the surveying profession. “Whether aerial, terrestrial or mobile, laser scanning has opened up opportunities never before conceived,” said one survey party chief. “Utilizing robotic total stations and GPS in RTK mode has helped us to maintain a competitive edge,” said a partner at another firm. “We have been recently utilizing mostly two-man crews, but now more than ever we have been utilizing one-man crews when possible.”

While many respondents noted the increased speed and efficiency afforded by the latest systems, there were also a few cautions. “Technology and speed are wonderful, but not using basic laws and rules … for tie-in versus knowing ‘which button to press’ on a piece of equipment is alarming,” said one company owner.

When asked about the single biggest challenge their firm faces, most respondents who participated in this portion of the study answered with price competition. “The bidding process is becoming so competitive that we are sometimes sacrificing some quality to get jobs,” noted one surveying supervisor. However, a party chief had a different perspective. “There is work out there; we just have to estimate better,” he said. “Robotic total stations and GPS [instruments] make for one-person crews, doing away with instrument techs and rod persons. With DTMs and TINs loadable into data collectors today, one person can do almost anything on a jobsite with little time put into it.”

Other challenges cited by participants included staying on top of new technology, timely payment of invoices, and identifying new business opportunities.

Several people noted that finding and training qualified people to better integrate new technologies and software remains a significant hurdle. It’s not surprising, then, that many participants identified increased education--both continuing education and four-year degrees--as being key to future success. “I learned the basics of surveying like most surveyors do at a younger age and even took a basic college course on surveying,” said one senior survey tech. “I knew how to run the software for the instruments I was using, but I didn’t know AutoCAD, MicroStation, ArcGIS or any of the other programs to manipulate the data once it came in from the field. These programs--especially ArcGIS--are things every surveyor should know.”

“Surveyors need to continually educate their personnel and not forget basics--ever,” said one company owner.

Higher levels of education appear to pay dividends in the number of business opportunities open to a firm. “My company has an abundance of (surveying) work because we have learned how to capitalize on our education and experiences,” said a company owner who commented separately. “This is such an exciting time to be a surveyor (a.k.a. geospatial engineer); the opportunities seem to be endless for us. The ones who have developed a greater ‘body of knowledge’ through education will adapt to the changes much faster.”

The need to diversify beyond traditional markets was also a recurring theme. “When I think of land surveying, I don’t just see boundary surveyors,” said one respondent. “I see construction surveyors, topographic surveyors, hydrographic surveyors, photogrammetrists, laser scanning/LIDAR specialists, GIS, utility surveyors. The list is endless, and no matter what title you give the job, it is still precision measuring and presentation of those measurements in a logical form either on paper or digitally. These jobs are all part of what we do, and the professional surveyor should be versed enough in each of those tasks to speak intelligently on them.”

“Use time when there is less work to gain knowledge and training,” said a respondent who identified himself as a field-to-finish surveyor. “Keep in touch with others from the same industry to find out how they are doing and maybe learn where else there are open doors for opportunities. Be a member of different associations and organizations. Be known to other professionals.”

“Keep learning new things every day,” said the president of one firm. “And never, never give up.”



• The 2011 Salary & Benefits Study was conducted by BNP Media’s Market Research department. It reflects figures compiled from 2010 and is an estimated representation of the working surveying and mapping population. It does not represent exact figures. Surveys were sent to 4,856 active, qualified Point of Beginning subscribers, which provided a usable base of 4,675 individuals. The results are based on a total of 446 usable returns. For more details about how the study was conducted or to request a complete copy, e-mail pobeditor@bnpmedia.com.

How do the trends described in this article compare to what you’re seeing at your firm? Share your comments at www.rpls.com.