Recently, I had an opportunity to visit with Elly Ball. Ball is the CEO of GetKidsintoSurvey, whose mission is to educate kids and the general public on the essentials of surveying.
“Over 85 percent of UK surveyors said they have problems recruiting, due to a lack of qualified [surveying] applicants,” said Ball. “In fact, as reported by the Telegraph in 2017, ‘The [surveying] skills shortage has now overtaken planning and regulation as the second biggest problem facing the industry.’”
The problem is not uniquely one in the UK.
POB Magazine reported a shortage of surveyors in the U.S.; and Curtis Sumner, executive director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors NSPS, recently observed that there seem to be fewer surveyors now—partly because many of them are in their 60s and approaching retirement. We also don’t seem to have a pipeline for new surveyors who are coming out of colleges and universities.
Karen Schuckman, assistant teaching professor of geography at Penn State University, provided insight.
“I don’t find that many of my students at PSU are targeting careers in surveying, because frankly, surveying is also marginally touched upon in our curriculum,” said Schuckman. “I think this is a problem, but it’s difficult to show the potential demand to justify the investment. Do I think that all students in a program like Penn State’s need to know the fundamentals of measurement science and positioning? Absolutely. But it’s a hard sell.”
Selling involves showing a clear-cut need for the skill—and demand among tuition-paying students.
Sumner and others who have been in the surveying profession concede that in today’s environment, “It’s difficult to know if we’ll need as many surveyors in the future as we did in the past, because of new technologies such as GPS and other automated data sharing and productivity tools—but at the same time, I believe there will be a shortage of skilled surveyors at some point.”
Where Surveying Training Is Needed
“In surveying, there is the importance of positional accuracy of imagery and elevation data. Surveyors must understand coordinate systems and datums, as well as industry (ASPRS) standards for positional accuracy reporting and assessment,” said Schuckman. “Admittedly, the ‘intrusion’ of do-it-yourself (DIY) mapping with drones into the surveying and mapping world has really changed the landscape—but very few aspiring drone mappers really understand the fundamentals of surveying and photogrammetry that allow them to produce the high-quality, high-accuracy products they think they are producing in a ‘black box’ of drone data processing.”
Sumner agrees that some of the fundamental building blocks required for best practice surveying are being missed in the application of new technologies.
“There is a tendency to depend more on the technology and the automation than on what you’re really seeing in the field,” he explained. “Why is this? Because in surveying there are really two different types of elements in play. They are precision measurement and accurate location.”
Sumner emphasizes that precision and accuracy do not mean the same thing.
“For example, you can measure something and ensure that the measurements are absolutely and flawlessly precise,” he said, “But then when you are out on the site, you might find two or three different rebar stakes that are denoting a corner of a property, but are one to two feet away from each other.”
Discrepancies like these can create disputes between landowners that precision can’t solve and that classroom training in geospatial technologies can’t address.
“Situations like this are where an experienced surveyor can impart practical knowledge,” said Sumner. “That knowledge becomes very important because the results of what and how you survey can have a real impact on people’s lives.”
Where Surveying Training Is Coming From
In the UK, Elly Ball’s “Get Kids into Survey” program is actively engaging young people in the nuts and bolts of surveying.
“Our goal is simple,” said Ball. “It is to educate and excite the next generation of surveyors through fun and educational content, material and media.”
Get Kids into Survey started in November 2017, when The Survey Association in the UK asked Ball for marketing material to give out at its annual meeting. At the time, Ball was working with several marketing campaigns with other clients, and she immediately wanted to create a fun kids’ poster that the surveyors could take home to their kids to teach them what dad/mom does at work.”
“We made some calls to various companies in the industry, asking for sponsorship so that we could fund the cost of the cartoonist and for printing,” said Ball. “Our original sponsors were Trimble, Leica, Topcon, TopoDOT and local UK surveying company Storm Geomatics. Once the first poster was out there, people wanted more. So we made more.”
Today, Get Kids into Survey focuses on providing educational material to kids aged 8-12, but it recently started collaborating with Alison Watson, an ex-land surveyor and founder of UK social business “Class of Your Own” (established in 2009).
In the past decade, Watson has created an innovative Design, Engineer, Construct suite of accredited learning programs, which also includes surveying. The programs are available to students age 11-18, and also are accompanied with a complete full teacher training program. DEC is supported by world leading companies, professional bodies and universities.
Carrying Surveying Skills Forward
In the U.S., colleges and universities have focused on training students in new geospatial skills and technologies that can be applied in myriad areas, but they have not emphasized surveying.
“What we find is that the rudiments of surveying are not being taught,” said Sumner. “In some cases, we also find that instructors themselves do not have practical experience as surveyors.” Sumner also believes that it isn’t just the schools’ responsibility to train new surveyors.
“There should be more influence on educators that is coming in from the professional surveying community,” he said. “In some respects, there has been a lack of diligence on our part in the past. We need more surveyors helping schools with actual labs so that new students of surveying can gain a practical on-the-ground experience, and we also need to do a better job of educating educators. If a guidance counselor, for example, doesn’t understand the discipline of surveying, the need for surveying in the real world and the skills involved, how can he or she present it as a career option to a student?”
Ball agrees that educators and the general public need to become more aware of surveying, and that the fundamentals of surveying shouldn’t be lost in surveyor training. She also says that it is important to upgrade core surveying skills with new areas of application.
“I think skill sets are needed across most industries nowadays that must be more versatile and flexible,” she said. “This is definitely the case with surveying. Surveying is on the verge of change in a big way. It is going to become much more accessible to people outside of industry with technology advancements and ease of use, for example, so we must be willing to change and adapt. That’s not to say we don’t need the same core skills in surveying as before, because we do. We just need some other skill sets too.”