The new survey field and office personnel – have they changed in the past 50 years? I think “yes” and I think “no.” 

Ours is an unusual profession and can draw from many sources for labor. It’s regretful that I did not take photos of all the people I have worked with from the start of my career. Most of us older than 40 have witnessed a very mixed group. During the spring when construction started up, when someone was needed, word would be sent around the company looking for kids with summers off from college. Like birds, they migrated and would come in the spring just as construction started back up. Some would end up staying.

When our kids were in college, we had a good supply of eager summer workers. After that, we would ask friends “Do you know anyone looking for work?” Except for the children of our friends, the pool of potential employees was drying up. I turned to the local tech high schools as a source. I’ve hired four seniors in their CAD program to work part time. One still works for me after 22 years. 

I was disappointed when the instructor left their CAD program by retiring and was not replaced. Without the devoted instructor, that source of labor was gone. 

Government Contracts

Years ago, as a transit man, I was laid off during a housing depression. I tried to get a job surveying for the quarries in the Kansas City area of Missouri. In my interview, I was told that the quarry was shut down for the winter. My application would be kept on file. The personnel manager said to me in exasperation, “What is it with surveyors? So many have drinking problems and miss so much work?” Sitting there I pictured men’s faces that fit his description. I said nothing. In front of him sat a non-drinker, and non-smoker, but I understood where he was coming from. With a child on the way I needed a job and would have been his perfect hire, but I could not wait for winter’s end.

During the 70’s there was a lot of urban renewal work, usually aided by the federal government. The government wanted surveyors to have minority workers in their employ. My employer, Jerry, told me of his troubles in hiring someone fitting the minority requirement. Companies looking to get contracts began searching in the inept ways they had before the Internet. We were back to “asking around” or running ads in the Help Wanted section of the paper. On Sundays, that section was thick. My boss called other companies in the Kansas City area, but none of them had a qualified minority worker. 

One of the employees he hired that fit the requirement had no car. He would take the busses and get to the job at Warrensburg around 10 a.m. and had to leave at 3 p.m. They finished the project. It was a frustrating experience and he was exasperated to have to hire a specific person under those circumstances. When that contract was over, so was the minority employee’s job. He did not say the man was not good, just that he had no car or dependable transportation. 

My boss Jerry said, “[Minority workers] just don’t come in our door looking for work.” How refreshingly different it is today. 

Eventually Jerry hired a young man from Hawaii. He was nicknamed “Pineapple.” It would be a year before he needed to wear socks inside work boots, his feet were that hardened from walking barefoot on volcanic soil. When asked, “Do you have a minority?” Jerry said “Sure” and was told, “Make sure they are with you tomorrow.” Pineapple was part native Hawaiian and part Japanese ancestry. I only worked with him for a short time before he left, but I did see him tap a hub in the ground and drive it home with one strike of the sledgehammer. 

Varied Backgrounds

Pineapple grew up on a plantation situated on one of the small Hawaiian Islands. He said that if he were to get drunk, everyone knew it. His parents sent him off to a small Missouri bible college and, with no one looking over his shoulder, he lasted one semester before wild living kicked in. Then he found a position in land surveying. 

With the many online sources of potential employees, things have changed from a time when employers turned to the Want Ads. Using employment web sites, I have found many experienced and inexperienced people that were looking for work. Using social media, employers can search out background information on applicants. Smart people looking for work will clean up their posts on sites in preparation for being “checked out” by prospective employers. One can also search police reports through the various sites providing background checks.

I asked an employee I hired who had been working in social work, why she submitted her application to me for land surveying. She said she researched the job and saw it was lucrative. Having worked in land surveying many years, I do not recall any new employee using that term. 

Currently, there are many college students with degrees who can’t find jobs that match their education. A brilliant young man with an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering told me not one of his classmates knew what they would do after they graduated. He also said he had taken no CAD classes in college. I found that astounding for an engineering student.

Where once new hires were mostly high school graduates, we now have colleges with courses in land surveying, and graduates with various degrees looking for work to start paying back college loans. This can provide us with applicants from various backgrounds and experience and a wealth of knowledge in varied subjects, or perhaps better put “well rounded.”

I like to think that if a person did well in any reasonable undergraduate program, and then works in land surveying and finds they like land surveying, they can add the extra college cost and get a degree in land surveying and stick with the career. 

Because I know a lot of people doing social work here in Pennsylvania, I know they need to be better compensated. There are also many private school teachers earning far less than their public school counterparts do. If we teach our smart employees to perform field, CAD, and office work they can earn much more than the aforementioned professions.

I believe it’s much easier to teach smart people, however, there are many people who have far more horse sense and life experience who also are excellent candidates. I recall interviewing four high school CAD program seniors and only one who understood things were built “square with the world.” He had worked for his uncle who owned a masonry business. For some people, understanding the world is often rectangular is not an easy concept. They may be just as smart but without a degree. 

Trust and Beer 

I have a home office and perhaps the most important quality of an employee is trust. They have access to everything I own. I have found almost all of them trustworthy. Because some of our equipment is a one-person operation, we also need to know employees are at the job and working.

My old Missouri employer, Jerry, once told me what was possibly a surveyor’s “Rabbi story.” That is, a teaching story with a lesson. At that time, I was not aware how many things he was trying to teach me to make me a better employee. Because of his excellent character, he was also teaching me how to be a better man and surveyor. 

During the course of a working day, Jerry pointed out a tavern and told me a tale. “See that place? One of my crews was drinking in the afternoon and a builder called me to make fun of me for drinking in the afternoon.” The builder had seen one of the company trucks outside the tavern. They were all similar Chevy Suburbans, and all the same color – except that Jerry’s truck had air conditioning. 

After asking some more questions about where the tavern was, the time of day, Jerry figured out which crew it was and fired them all. 

Up to that time, I had worked with party chiefs that were hard working productive employees and some that barely did a thing. If they had been at a “beer garden” (Jerry’s term), I thought the crew chief bore the brunt of the blame.

I asked, “But if their party chief told them it was ok, what were they to do?”

Jerry said, “They work for me and are stealing from me when they goof off with their party chief. I expect them to come to me and let me know.” What a good lesson. 

There are good people out there. Fortunately, now we have some people with a degree in land surveying, but we also have eager young people that can make fine surveyors but have no college education. Let’s hope more good people connect with land surveying and make it a career.