Career Notes: Young Surveyor Makes History
Historically, Solo Notes has shared the stories and perspectives of go-it-alone surveyors; they usually either run the business and field ends completely solo, or they have a very small support staff. POB plans to continue shining a spotlight on those surveyors who have taken the big step to start their own small businesses, or are carrying on a family establishment launched generations before.
We want to expand our reach though, to not just cover the solo side of surveying, but all sides, including those who lead or work for larger firms or government entities. While we will continue to publish Solo Notes, we are adding a more broad version of the Q&A — Career Notes. It too aims to help the wider surveying community learn from how others work, with no limits as to the size of their operation.
In this first-ever Career Notes, we interview Cathleen Schmersal, PLS, who works with Michael Baker International, an engineering firm established in 1940. It is made up of more than 6,000 employees in 90 offices around the world. Schmersal is based in Irvine, Calif. She joined the company just over three and a half years ago, after graduating from Fresno State University with a bachelor’s degree in geomatic engineering. She received her professional land surveying license as recently as December 2016 and her time with Michael Baker leading up to the milestone played a significant role in helping her meet experiential requirements tied to the certification. “You have to have one year of office and one year of field before you can even apply to sit for the exam, so to get that within three years at a private company is very awesome because that doesn’t always happen in other cases,” she says.
At the age of 27, Schmersal is the youngest woman with Michael Baker to be licensed as a professional surveyor.
POB: What path did you take to end up where you are today?
SCHMERSAL: I’ve always liked the construction industry. My dad’s in it, my brothers, my uncles are in it, my mom worked at a landscaping business, so that’s always been an interest to me and I’ve always liked the outdoors. I went to San Diego State actually for civil engineering and then didn’t really want to do that. And my dad was using some surveying equipment to put in a neighbor’s sewage tank and I asked him what it was and he said, “surveying equipment.” So then I went back to Santa Rosa Junior College for a few years up north and there I got a flyer from Fresno State saying to come to their student conference and I went to a local surveyor; I just asked him and called him out of the blue and he kind of told me … that I should go to Fresno State. So, in short, I ended up going to Fresno State after two years at the junior college. It was a lot of fun ...
So really from surveying equipment with my dad and always loving the construction industry and building things; I wanted to be an architect at first, but then I realized it kind of takes a while to make some good money, so I didn’t do that. So I just went to a couple colleges, ended up at Fresno State and everybody there’s super encouraging and that conference at Fresno state, I think really makes a difference for students because you get the nerves out of the way. You get to talk to professionals and that’s how I got my internships and my job, by making connections there, and then I ended up here.
POB: What did you want to accomplish when you were first getting started?
SCHMERSAL: In Fresno State, the first goal was to get an internship in the summer and then I went back and helped them out in the winter. … Then, obviously graduate and get a job in southern California, and then get licensed. Then after being licensed, I want to be a project manager in some years’ time. Then, I want to get together with the California Land Surveyors Association and go to schools with another surveyor — whether it’s junior high, high school, junior college — and just promote the profession. … It would be nice to have somebody go in for surveying and come out as a surveyor and not change their major or something like that, or just get more people into the program, because it’s a very rewarding profession and job, and I love coming in to work every day.
POB: Which of those accomplishments have you achieved at this point?
SCHMERSAL: I’m not a project manager yet and I haven’t gone to schools to promote; I’ve just gone to the Fresno State conference to kind of lend some advice for what I feel benefitted me to do during school. I try to do that when I go to the conference there. ... That’s all I have done so far. I don’t know what holds too much in the future past that. … Obviously being licensed and being the youngest in the company is pretty awesome, and then there are a few projects I feel lucky to get the opportunity to do.
POB: What have you done that wasn’t on that list or may be a bit unexpected given where you thought you would go?
SCHMERSAL: I don’t know if it was the smartest thing to do, but I only interviewed with Michael Baker; I didn’t interview anywhere else because I didn’t really want to go anywhere else. So that was, like I said, maybe not the smartest move. But I’m lucky I got the job because I love it here. So that’s something I wouldn’t recommend to others, but that was something a little shocking.
Also, the scholarship support that you get with surveying, being in the surveying program, at least at Fresno State. … The professionals themselves have a few different organizations and through the CLSA chapters there’s so much financial support that that was a big shock to me. That’s another reason why I gravitated toward surveying, was that help. I got a scholarship and it helped me buy a laptop I needed for school, because you pretty much can’t function without a laptop at school anymore. That is what helped relieve some stress, definitely, while studying, going to school, was that financial support from the industry.
Also, I didn’t know that surveying was such a small world and I think that was a shock, but in a good way, because a lot of the professionals are so encouraging, even if you didn’t go work for them or you only see them once a year at these conferences. They’re so friendly and so helpful and you get to actually feel that they’re your friends, you’re not just colleagues. Even if you’re bidding against the same people on a different project, after that you’re still friends.
POB: What has been your most significant career lesson?
SCHMERSAL: Triple check everything. We’re human; we make mistakes. That’s probably the biggest thing, is triple check yourself and then, also, never be afraid to try something different ... I’m pretty out of the box anyway, but to not always be happy with a procedure the way we do it, always be looking for more efficient or more accurate or just a better way of doing things. That’s definitely something I learned here. The other is everybody’s always willing to help and I never get turned away, so I think that’s pretty awesome — and I ask a lot of questions.
POB: What advice would you offer someone who is still at the early stages of their career in surveying?
SCHMERSAL: I would become best friends with their teacher; seriously get to know them because a lot of times companies will contact them if they’re hiring. Get to know your peers because you could end up working with them later on or asking them a question. I’m friends with a bunch of people that I went to school with and you have that everlasting connection. It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s like a high school class, so that’s a really nice and lucky feeling. Definitely don’t ostracize yourself. Get involved, do all that. It will benefit you tenfold later on down the road.
Another I cannot say enough is to get an internship in the summer or in the winter if you can while you’re in school. I didn’t my first year at Fresno State because I was too nervous. I was like, “I don’t know anything. A company’s not going to bring me on.” But companies know that. They know what year you are, they know you basically have no real-world knowledge. If they’re willing to take you on, do it, because the experience there helps you so much in class, helps you so much once you graduate. Once you graduate, if you have no experience, then you’re kind of just book smart. … You just have one step in the door. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you can go out and start doing boundaries all by yourself. … If you get that experience, then you’re a little more confident. … Things start to click easier.
Cathleen Schmersal, PLS, works with Michael Baker International in Irvine, Calif. Her department serves public and private sector clients. They conduct topographic, ALTA and boundary surveys, and often utilize scanning and modeling techniques. She has worked with the engineering firm for more than three years and just received her professional surveying license in December 2016.
Career Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine that aims to help surveyors learn from how others work. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.