Career Notes: Surveyor's Career Started With Confidence
Jeffrey C. Allen, PLS describes himself as something of a blank slate when he started surveying. He was looking for direction, curious, and “easily impressed” when he started his surveying career. Allen is president and owner of Allen Geomatics P.C. in Advance, North Carolina. His company specializes in boundary surveys, topographic, and stake-out work. Typical clients include developers, contractors, engineers, and property owners – the latter Allen describes as “one-timers.” He recently became a certified FEMA Floodplain Surveyor as well.
By his own account, he was drawn to the notion of working with numbers and being outdoors in a physically demanding job. Allen says he is independent and confident about being in control, which fit with his observation that while he saw others who depended on large-scale employers, he wanted to find a job he could do on his own if necessary.
Allen says he was good at the math concepts. He felt that for the first time, he excelled at something academically, and he liked it. “CAD was a pretty new tool and was taught in a separate curriculum. So, in addition to learning temperature corrections and measuring with steel tapes, we also had to learn proper lettering skills.”
With 26 years of surveying experience (21 years as a PLS), Allen is concerned for the lack of secession planning for the profession. That said, he sees a strong future for the right candidates.
What’s the right candidate? “This profession is ripe for graduates with Geomatics/Surveying degrees. Detail oriented, healthy OCD traits are helpful in surveying, in my opinion. Also, a love for problem solving, math and legal concepts, and physical fitness,” he adds.
While Allen, like many surveyors, struggles to answer the question of where we will find the next generation of surveyors, he is quick to observe, “I have been inexplicably blessed with honest, hard-working employees. They have come from some unlikely relationships or just pure luck. They all had previous experience. My head draftswoman took drafting in high school and tech school (house plans and mechanical), then worked in the log home industry drawing plans, which led to a job with a surveyor who added to her skills by drawing survey maps. My crew supervisor was three years into a civil engineering degree when life threw him a curveball and he dropped college to start working the related field of surveying. My senior crew chief had 10 or more years in the construction industry and had spent some time on survey crews, doing highway work.
“We don’t have a company manual or a long list of black/white rules. We treat each other with trust and honesty, from the bottom to the top to the bottom of the organization.”
POB: What path did you take to end up where you are today?
Allen: Several months after graduating high school, I decided that land surveying seemed like an interesting career. I was drawn to the notion of working with numbers and being outside and having a physically demanding job. I knew nothing else about it.
The local community college offered a Land Surveying Technology degree. My first day in class, I did not know what a plumb bob was. I didn’t know that minutes and seconds were parts of a degree. I was a blank slate, full of curiosity and easily impressed, which I believe fueled my enthusiasm for the curriculum. I was learning things most people had never heard of or considered. I was also the only student out of 25 or so that hadn’t already been exposed to surveying. Most students were at least a couple years older, had been working for small surveying firms or DOT, or had four-year degrees that just hadn’t led to employment.
I was good at the math concepts and I liked it. I excelled for the first time at anything academically.
My first job was for a local surveying firm where the owner was a previous teacher at the community college and frequently hired students. He allowed us to come in after classes and catch up with the field crews, wherever they were around town. Sometimes we stayed in the office and filed maps, or did some minor drafting work.
Upon graduation, I was hired there full-time. There were several licensed surveyors that were crew chiefs and I learned a tremendous amount from them. We had to learn how to do the deed research on the way to the jobsite and how to coordinate the legal description by punching the bearings and distances into an HP calculator. Construction staking points were computed on the hood of the truck. Almost every aspect of our now-normal daily tasks were approached differently then.
With the first employer, my first significant project was a 1,400-acre golf course development. I honed construction staking and computation skills for about two years. Once I felt stagnant with that, I took a job as the only employee of a boundary surveyor.
I was allowed to do deed research, set up jobs, do the fieldwork, and draw the maps. CAD was very new and most surveyors didn’t use AutoCAD. It was still DOS based, and knowing typed commands was crucial. We still supplemented our maps with ‘Leroy’ devices. Rural boundaries were biggest part of that period, which lasted a little over a year.
The third stop was with a surveying company that ran two crews and performed a good mix of boundary/construction surveying. I was hired as a CAD tech and was responsible for producing maps and helping with field crew data management. I worked there for a little over a year and I don’t think I ever worked one single day in the field.
I had passed the FS (then SIT) exam and had one round of the FS exam under my belt, having passed the NCEES portion on the first try and taken the state portion for the second time. This is when I was offered the opportunity as a PLS (still waiting on my test results at the time of the offer) to start a branch office for the first company.
Rejoining the company where I spent my rookie years was rewarding in many ways. I felt I had matured professionally to be treated as a peer with my original crew chiefs (mentors). I ran that branch office for 12 years before starting my own company during the 2008 recession.
I really think I started out before anyone knew or believed we were in a recession. The fact that most established surveyors weren’t trying to find work allowed me to be successful in knocking on every door I could find. I was hungry. They were tired. I do my best to remember that feeling, not becoming complacent, not wanting to be the tired one, while another is hungry. Sort of a keep-your-foot-on-the-gas mentality.
POB: What did you want to accomplish when you were first getting started?
Allen: Most adults in my life during childhood had jobs that were dependent on large-scale employers (manufacturing). I always knew that I wanted to learn a skill that could sustain me and my future family and that I could do on my own, if necessary. I’ve always been independent and confident being in control. So I would say, [my goal was] learning every aspect of a small surveying operation so that I could put my name on the door. I wanted to work in rural and urban settings; learn CAD and how to chop line; deal with wise old farmers and clever attorneys; learn how chains were used and how GPS works; how to write a contract or do a handshake agreement. . . and collect the check.
POB: What have you done that wasn’t on that list or may be a bit unexpected given where you thought you would go?
Allen: I’ve learned how to educate most people on the importance of our roles in their lives. Sadly, I’ve also realized how misunderstood and disrespected our profession is perceived.
POB: What has been your most significant career lesson?
Allen: Pay attention to details. Over-communicate in every situation, with clients, team members, etc. Don’t do technical work where the data matters most when you’re tired or late at night. Computational errors can be costly.
POB: What advice would you offer someone who is still at the early stages of their career in surveying?
Allen: Education is key! Keep learning! There are so many good sources of information. Take advantage of them all. Your knowledge and skills are worth so much more than you probably realize. Advice for anyone… “Always keep integrity at the heart of your actions.”
Jeffrey C. Allen, PLS is president and owner of Allen Geomatics P.C. in Advance, North Carolina. His company specializes in boundary surveys, topographic, and stake-out work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Editor Perry A. Trunick at email@example.com.