With some land surveying services on pause around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, the advocacy and voice of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) are needed now more than ever to fight for the profession’s “essential” status. But who will listen? NSPS executive director Curtis Sumner has faith and answers to some of the most pressing questions facing the surveying profession today.

Absent money for college, Curtis Sumner entered the workforce instead. He started his first surveying job in 1966, a day after graduating high school, working on a crew for the Virginia Department of Highways. "We had about 13 people on our survey crew," he remembers. "Sometimes we would break up into two units and send people off to other jobs, but there were times when we all worked together." 

Although school before professional work was his first preferred career pathway, he relates his professional surveying experience to what many aspiring surveyors are faced with today. Although Sumner did go to school for a degree with a focus on professional surveying, there is no degree requirement for surveying in Virginia. A minimum of four years of "approved land surveying experience" is enough to sit for the state's Principles and Practice of Land Surveying and the Virginia-specific land surveying exam. 

However, states with degree requirements can be barriers to entry into professional surveying. Then again, states with next to no requirements can be barriers also.  

"The introduction of technologies that affect data gathering and data processing — not analysis because analysis is still analysis —have taken us to a point where you don’t need as many technicians to do a lot of work. So the interest level of getting people to come into the profession is a challenge now because it’s not as though there are lots of jobs out there waiting around," says Sumner, who now serves as a recruiter and advocate for professional land surveyors as the executive director of the National Society of Professional Land Surveyors. "That’s not to say there aren’t jobs but the number of people required is less. Some of those jobs we were doing (then) can now be done with fewer than five people. Sometimes one person."  

With land surveying services on pause across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, the advocacy and voice of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) is needed now more than ever. Not simply to prove that land surveying services are "essential," but to highlight how land surveying and geospatial professionals can be instruments in helping to eradicate the growing pandemic. Will governments listen? Sumner has faith, and POB has questions.

What are the current conversations that the National Society of Professional Surveyors is having around the future of the surveying profession?

I don’t know that this has always been a concern, it has certainly received more play over the last few years, but it has to do with licensure issues among the states.

There seems to have been more attention put toward this situation by the government throughout the country, sparked perhaps by the revolution of instruments that anybody can use. Anybody can use a scanner. Anybody can gather data now. People can fly a drone. So, some have looked at that from the perspective that licensure is prohibitive from keeping people to do certain things that they want to do. Because there is licensure to perform those activities, they see that as an encumbrance.

What is the main argument for changing this now?

Their argument is, those licenses made sense back in the day when everyday people didn’t know how to use the equipment. But they are totally missing the point. Licensure isn’t about equipment at all. Licensure is about judgement and experience, and how to deal with the intricate issues related to surveying. In particular, the land boundary side.

So we’ve seen a lot of things going on where there are quite a few efforts across the country to either downgrade those requirements or allow cross border practice on a much broader scale without having to go through the process of obtaining a license in a particular state if you already have one in another state. So that’s been on the minds of surveyors of course.

Most of this issue in terms of what can be done on cross borders and what can’t does in fact have to do with the land boundary side. That’s not to say that some of the other activities in surveying don’t have elements about them that are peculiar or specific to a given state. But, by in large, they are land boundary issues.

Historically, land boundary issues are inherently more complicated. Right?

And that has to do with public land states. All the ones where Thomas Jefferson implemented a rectangular system of dividing land. But it was not implemented on the East Coast where the original colonies were. So the methodology of analysis is different to some degree, but it is the way the data was developed that is different.

At any case, the old licensure structure has always been on a state-by-state basis because there are some intricacies in the way recordation is done and in the way land distribution is done, even in the states that have similar characteristics. But it has become a bit beyond that now. Now that we have all this cool electronic equipment, there are questions whether anybody should just be able to do this — without having the proper background, education experience and understanding of how the equipment you are using actually operates. Those kinds of things.

In a sense, loosening licensure restrictions.

Well, that is kind of the situation. They are trying to create some level of perceived equality and fair play and usage of new technologies, but there is a tendency to ignore the critical parts of why those laws exist. So that has become a big issue across the country.

Surveying is a professional service, it’s not a commodity. So in selecting a surveyor from our point of view, which we think it is the correct point of view, one should choose the surveyor who is best suited to do the job at hand. That means someone who is better qualified for the job. But you don’t know that if you are going to select your professional based on cost. So that’s why there is a federal law for the procurement of services such as surveying, mapping, engineering surveying, which says the government can’t do that. They have to go through the process.

It would be a due diligence type of thing.

But we both know that doesn’t always happen when it comes to selecting one surveyor over another for a project.

Because they don’t always know the difference. That’s not a negative toward anybody. That’s just the way it is. The point being, it's situational. So those are some of the kinds of things we at the NSPS are concerned with.

Another big issue is technology, the ease for purchase and the usage of it, even by professional surveyors. I don’t want to say it is revolutionizing the way we do things, but it certainly is making a difference.

One of the NSPS’ goals have been to make surveying services “essential” in each state to prevent layoffs and loss of income. What has been the overall response to this?

This was a pretty big effort for us in conjunction with our state societies to ensure that surveying activities, not necessarily every surveying activity, but some types of surveying activities could continue. And there is a couple of reasons for that. One is, oftentimes, surveyors are out either on their own or with one or two people. Even then, those one or two people aren’t anywhere near each other. They are communicating electronically but they are not near each other. Yet, they are gathering essential information that is going to be needed when the economy does click again. So I would say in most of the edicts put out in the states about businesses being closed, surveying in a lot of those situations was exempt.

In many ways you can say surveyors naturally practice social distancing. However, if the coronavirus becomes something we as a society have to live with, like the seasonal flu, can you see those restrictions relaxing to make it easier for the surveyor profession to continue?

The respective licensing boards can do that. They are the ones who set the criteria for licensure in any given state.

Yes, the technology is going to allow you to do a lot more with a lot less people. But I would be surprised if we saw any reverting back to lower levels of education. There are some states that don’t require a degree. But they are becoming more and more unique. Again, it is going to be based on what happens on a state-by-state basis and how what any particular state might do compares or contrasts with what some other state might do.

Is the loss of income and business during this pandemic a concern for how it can potentially cause smaller operations to close shop and never return to the profession?

It is our concern for everyone. And there are a lot of people out there who are making requests from the government for funding to help them get through the process. Because, it is one thing to go out and do the work. It is an entirely other thing to know when you are going to get paid for it. So, if you’re not getting paid for it, it doesn’t matter if you are still working. It is still going to be hard to stay in business.

What does the National Society of Professional Surveyors’ plan to attract that people to surveying again?  

Well, I think the reason more people aren’t attracted to it is that we historically — we being the surveying profession — have not done as good a job as we should have in helping young people see what a cool job it is. It has a lot of elements to it that appeal to some people that don’t appeal to others.

For me, I think one of the things that draws people into it is because people really have an interest in helping their fellow citizens. Historically, that outreach hasn’t been as good as it should have been. Now we find ourselves at a point and time where the average age of the licensed surveyor is probably in their 60s somewhere. Or close to it. And so that means we have trouble with our messengers as well as our message. That is a reason this young surveyors’ network that has come along over the last few years is so critical. Getting people engaged who are in college about to become a surveyor or new to surveying is very critical for us. Simply because the people who they are going to try to attract are going to be closer to their age.

So, that’s a big issue for us and solving that issue is something we continually work on. We think that this thing that is going on with the young surveyors is one of the best things that has come along in a long time. Just simply because we have a group of people who are engaging among themselves collectively and reaching out to the next generation.