Filling the Talent Gap in Surveying
There is little doubt within the surveying profession that the challenge is to bring in more new licensed professional land surveyors. The demographic numbers are clear – a majority of current professional land surveyors report 30 or more years of experience with the corresponding age band at or near traditional retirement age. Surveying isn’t the only profession to face this challenge, nor is it limited to the U.S. surveying profession. The complexity of training and licensing and the lack of public awareness of the profession combine to make it difficult to adopt some of the strategies employed by other professions to attract new talent. That doesn’t mean those strategies won’t work; it simply means they could need some adjustment to fit the needs of this profession.
Is the “crisis” real? An informal poll on the POB website asked, “Are you hiring?” and offered choices from “Yes, adding licensed surveyors” to “No hiring, and permanent staff reduction likely.” Though not scientific, the result as this is being written was that no one said they expected permanent staff reductions. Exactly 50 percent said they were hiring some mix of licensed/unlicensed and permanent/temporary workers. The largest single response (28 percent) was “I would if I could find qualified applicants.” That suggests they are in the hiring mode, but unable to fill positions and, when combined with those who gave more definite indications of hiring, means 78 percent of respondents would be hiring.
A formal study in Australia gives a clearer view, to the degree that results there might reflect similar experience and trends in the U.S. The fundamental descriptions and trends do parallel the U.S., even if exact numbers and some underlying drivers differ.
In its executive summary, “Determining the Future Demand, Supply and Skills Gap for Surveying and Geospatial Professionals” sets out some parameters. “Situations where measures of workforce demand exceed currently available supply are referred to as workforce gaps. … Where these gaps are unlikely to be filled by new supply at a national level from the education system, a capability deficit arises.”
With regard to workforce gaps the summary notes they create distinct challenges and pressures for the profession that may (at least partially) be resolved through the hire of new graduates. But, in saying that, the report’s authors recognize graduates cannot replicate the skills and productivity of a retiring surveyor with decades of experience.
Another part of the solution is productivity improvements, and a third is shifting employment from low- to high-demand regions. In the latter case, the U.S. has some distinct challenges. Provided a surveyor is willing to relocate, that surveyor would need to meet the licensing requirements in the new state.
The report describes a capability deficit as a “higher order challenge” with a more substantial long-term imbalance between workforce demand and supply that will not be easily or quickly resolved. This could be a result of too few graduates and it could reflect the fact there are too few resources willing to relocate from low-demand to high-demand regions or categories of the profession.
“Capability deficits are not directly observable,” the report continues. “Either workforce supply rises to meet the demand challenge (e.g. through an increase in unplanned work effort or productivity) or demand is constrained to the maximum level of available supply (e.g. activities requiring unavailable surveying skills are delayed) with consequent negative impacts on end-use sector activity and the broader economy.”
In other words, if we can’t meet the capability deficit, construction projects may experience delays. Picture the potential consequences of the major infrastructure spending President Donald J. Trump promised in his inaugural address coming up against a critical shortage of professional land surveyors.
One possible consequence the report does not appear to address is the possibility the shortage is met with regulatory changes that reduce the requirements for “sealed” surveys.
The Australian report notes that, even though it covers a 10-year period from 2018 to 2028, forecast impacts in the second half of that period are subject to underlying assumptions and a wide range of factors which could affect the actual outcome. Broader economic trends could drive a decrease in housing and commercial building starts, and then the shortage would appear less critical. On the other hand, the U.S. Congress could move on a major infrastructure bill which would drive a spike in demand for professional surveying and geospatial services. Then, the shortage could become even more critical than predicted.
New Talent From Old
The fact remains that the current corps of licensed professional land surveyors is aging. While this demographic trend sounds alarming, and it is, there is also a hidden resource that results. The popular term in among human resource professionals is “encore workers.” It is typically applied to retirees who chose to remain part of the active workforce, but in a different or reduced capacity.
Another component of the experienced workforce is those who are nearing retirement or delaying retirement. Often, these may be business owners who want to sell their business and/or move away from the pressures of running the business. One such professional land surveyor described his position: “I am almost at the age I could retire, and thanks to a successful business I could probably do it. However, I still enjoy the work and want to remain active, albeit without the day-to-day challenges of operating a business. I simply want to do the things that attracted me to the profession decades ago…challenging problems to solve, the latest technology to use, and clients to serve.”
His description works for a retiree who wants to remain active (the encore worker) or someone who wants to “downshift” in the later part of their career as they approach retirement. The clear benefits are experience and, potentially, less sensitivity on compensation. Consider that the retiree may come back to the workforce with healthcare benefits taken care of and may be drawing a full or partial pension.
For businesses with some younger workers, surveyors in training, or apprentices, there is the additional value of adding a mentor within the ranks. Our experienced surveyor tells us, “I started surveying about 45 years ago. A short while later I became involved in managing. Surveying and managing are practical arts that involve learning by doing. The obvious problems are often not the most important. The important problems are often obscured by the flurry of activity. As a manager I had to learn how to watch and listen for the subtle phenomenon.” That mentorship could extend up as well as down.
A good mentor with an eye for the developing needs in the profession as well as a sense of conventional (even traditional) methods can be invaluable in helping to bridge the gap between generations. “[The demographic shift] is also altering the composition of skill sets within the workforce. Each generation has slightly different skill sets, and there are challenges in translating and transferring experiences. Surveying is a practical art, and it involves a lot of tacit knowledge. This is why surveyors have historically favored apprenticeship. Much of this type of know-how looks a bit mundane alongside a shiny digital gadget. For example, learning how to dig in the dirt for a corner monument appears to be of less importance than understanding how to operate a GNSS receiver, yet the shovel produces the most relevant evidence we are seeking. Interpersonal skills may be even more challenging to explain,” says our surveyor.
Our experienced surveyor has clearly laid out some of the most common challenges. First may be the requisite skills, but following closely are the interpersonal and communications skills that not only help to build a team effort in the field but also connect the business to its market. Once again, this may be an example where showing is better than telling.
To illustrate his point, our senior surveyor described a situation where an ownership change put a younger surveyor in charge of a group that included some older surveyors. “The younger surveyor did not think the older surveyor did much. I knew this was not the case. The older surveyor was simply very good at what he did. He made it look easy and effortless. The younger surveyor and the older surveyor were at different points on the continuum of mastery. The gap in their level of expertise contributed to the misunderstanding.”
This is another case for up-and-down mentorship. An experienced manager might look at the results and determine that the older surveyor is producing at or above expectation with much less effort than his less-experienced counterparts. The opportunity is to encourage the experienced surveyor to share the knowledge that allows him to work faster and more efficiently and thus benefit the entire team.
Technology Is Part of the Answer
Researchers, observers, and commentators note that technology has played a part in helping the land surveying profession respond to the human resource challenge. While some lament the development of the one-person and two-person crews, technology has clearly enabled the reduction in the size of field crews. One salary can buy high-end technology that will support a single field surveyor and work for a number of years without demanding healthcare or other benefits. Similarly, advanced technologies can improve the productivity of current field crews, allowing shorter time in the field and the potential to increase the number of jobs that can be completed.
Field work is not the only area that benefits from advances in technology. Post production work on a project that was started with proper survey practices can move faster through a combination of better systems, cloud-enabled applications, cloud storage, and a workforce that is more attuned to the enabling technologies.
Does this suggest more stratification in the survey and mapping workforce? It might. With fewer licensed surveyors, it is more efficient to concentrate their efforts where their skills and license are needed and entrust the other parts of the job to a different type of technician.
And then there is outsourcing. This is a touchy area, but where need meets capability, there is often room to hire very specific talents on an as-needed basis vs. maintaining that talent on staff. Do you want your highest skill level – the licensed surveyor – grinding through data management tasks? Do you need a certified remote pilot in your shop who will only fly an unmanned aerial vehicle on a small percentage of the jobs you are doing? The list could go on from there, but the argument for sub-contracting for certain specialties or for some repetitive tasks could boost the productivity of your shop and might increase the quality of the deliverable.
If all of this sounds complicated, it is nothing compared to the challenge of loading the pipeline at the front end to get more licensed professional surveyors coming out of the education system. That’s a subject for another discussion, one which is well underway with the Future of Surveying Forum, Get Kids into Survey, the National Society of Professional Surveyors, and nearly every other group related to the profession. It’s one that needs the support of licensed professional surveyors at the local, regional, and national levels. Teaching and promoting the profession might also be one of those “encore” jobs retiring surveyors could choose if they want to remain connected to the profession they love.
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