Often it is said that surveying is the world’s second-oldest profession (we will let the anthropologists and pundits argue over what is the first), and our lineage is proudly displayed in many historical maps and documents in every corner of civilization.

Although sometimes intertwined with the mapmaking industry, the surveyor is uniquely tasked to establish boundaries of all kinds throughout existing and uncharted landscapes. It is because of this body of work and heritage that the surveyor has been highly regarded as an important developer of the civilized world.

In many places, such as Europe and Asia, the surveyor historically has been viewed at the same level as doctors and clergy. While that assessment may be debatable, there is no question that the surveyor maintains an important role in our world today.

In the U.S., during the celebration of the Fourth of July, our profession gets more notoriety because of three past presidents who spent a part of their pre-political careers as surveyors. So, one can look at the history of surveying, and waxing philosophically, see some romantic attachment to the “authority” the surveyor previously held. However, this high regard for the surveying profession is as important as ever in our ever-changing world. Technology has advanced in a manner that has guided the profession to new levels, yet we still seem to be falling behind in attracting the appropriate candidates to our beloved career. We can still change that situation, but we are going to need assistance.

Professional surveying societies have been in existence for several centuries. These associations and societies help to establish national and regional guidelines for standards and accuracies, provide advocacy in legislative situations, and promote the profession to the public. All these roles are important to the livelihood of the profession, but we are still seeing a continual downturn in numbers of surveyors and waning attraction of new interest in the profession. To help solve the problem of determining a path for the future of surveying, we need to identify how the profession has changed and how the societies representing surveyors worldwide need to change with it.

The History of Land Surveying

The primary function of the licensed surveyor has been historically to personally oversee and/or complete projects with a hands-on approach. Even if the surveyor did not perform the field operations, they directly communicated with the crew on a one-on-one basis to satisfy the request of the client.


All office aspects of the project, including research, computations, and drafting, were often completed by the licensed surveyor. Most firms were small, so the surveyor wore many more different hats than the multi-discipline companies today. The tools of the trade were much simpler; manual drafting, optical instruments, hand measurements, and written field notes were the basic operations of the surveyor. The central knowledge skills were typically boundary retracement and topographic measurement, and both applications were primarily learned as an on-the-job training exercise. Some specialized surveying applications required secondary schooling, but the need for those types of surveyors was not yet in demand. Surveying was seen more as a trade occupation rather than a profession, yet the services rendered for a client were, in most cases, a professional opinion.

Land Surveying Careers Today

The beginning of the technological revolution for surveying varies among the opinions of the profession. These advancements include the introduction of the theodolite, electronic distance measurement (EDM) devices, total stations, electronic data collection devices, static GPS, real-time kinematic (RTK) GPS, laser scanning, real-time networks for GNSS, remote sensing instruments, and autonomous vehicles for measuring devices. Included in this list should also be the advancement of the computer, drafting capability, memory and storage, and the software used to collect and manipulate the ever-increasing datasets from our projects. Technology has advanced to a place where previous on-the-job training is no longer sufficient. To apply the technology, the surveyor must amass enough education to properly develop the knowledge of boundary law and retracement. The techniques used to gather the data are now more complicated than the lawful analysis of boundary principals, but both are critical to the successful completion of a surveying project.

setting up GNSS antenna

Because of the technology shift, the survey technician role within the profession is more important than ever. Consider the role of an information technology (IT) individual and their oversight of a company’s network and software; their job does not require an MBA or Ph.D., yet the knowledge they wield keeps a company running smoothly. The survey technician performs a similar role and is charged with accurately collecting, processing, and presenting the data for other users. They are accountable to the licensed surveyor and company for the work they produce, so employing highly skilled individuals and compensating them appropriately is a big part of seeing that relationship work.

The topic of the future of surveying is not to solely focus on the importance of the survey technician, but to also highlight the decline of the number of professional surveyors. Like many career choices, surveying is seeing the same decline because values and life choices have changed among the generations. Over the past several decades, several states have increased the educational requirements for becoming a licensed surveyor.

Currently, the number of states that require a minimum of an associate degree or higher is 25. More states are looking to follow that lead and increase their requirement. However, some states that already have these rules are looking to repeal the statutes in order to lower the bar for entry as a licensed surveyor. Going forward, educational opportunities for surveying will be needed as different aspects of the profession require different expertise. Keeping both existing and new sources of surveying curriculum is key to the success of our profession in replenishing our ranks. While there are differing opinions to a degree requirement, most will agree that education in any form is the only way to keep surveyors regarded as professionals.

Another issue coming into focus is an effort to deregulate the surveying profession to not require licensure at all. There is a continued fight at state and national levels to push back on these deregulatory efforts being short-sighted with the potential to harm the public. A big part of the misplaced goal is the blurred line of licensing. Surveying, like other disciplines including engineering and architecture, is a profession and provides professional opinions and guidance. Occupational licensure, while being managed by the same state departments, oversees barbers, locksmiths, and others who provide a physical service. Deregulating any or all these licenses may provide an opportunity for some to get into a previously unreachable career.

The Future of Land Surveying Careers

Some say we need to prepare for the future of surveying that will be different than yesterday, when in fact, the future is already here. Are we prepared? Overall, the consensus says “no” but truthfully, we are not that far behind. But where do we go from here?

The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) has been working diligently for several years to catch up on the complacency of our normal lives. Very few people like change, especially surveyors, but change is inevitable. The complacency is not a knock on the profession or any association, but an acknowledgment that we could have been doing more to stay in front of the technology and the profession.

The future of surveying and NSPS starts with our Young Surveyors Network. From its humble beginnings as an offshoot of the FIG Young Surveyors, this group continues to grow and impress with a significant body of knowledge and skills throughout all members. As their membership grows, NSPS is incorporating ways to blend their skillsets and ideas into our everyday and strategic plans. If you are a surveyor under the age of 35 and not already part of the group, join today and be part of the future.

Workforce development has become a buzzword in many recruiting efforts, and surveying is no different. NSPS has been working on this effort for several years and is partnering with our state affiliates to make national and regional goals for these programs. By using existing educational programs and helping to establish more, we can work with potential employees and employers to create apprenticeship programs that marry formal education with on-the-job training.

NSPS has also been participating with the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) annual conferences to promote the profession to the 3500+ high school counselor registrants. We use this conference to plant the seeds for creating vocational surveying programs at the high school level. This is in addition to the regional efforts by surveyors to promote the Trig-Star program and competition which is used to expose high school math students to surveying.

The Certified Survey Technician (CST), created and produced by NSPS for over 30 years, is not only a tool for providing certification for technicians but is also used to promote the surveying profession to high school, college, and young adults. By utilizing the materials and testing, a technician can earn US Department of Labor-recognized certification of their profession to help maximize their employment and earnings potential. Employers can also use the certification for career path assistance, job promotions, and pre-qualifications for certain project types.

NSPS recognizes that to get our message to the younger generations, we must adapt as well. We moved most of our communications and promotions to social media and the Internet via the NSPS website. Besides the usual social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn), we began our podcast, “Surveyor Says!” in 2019, producing a wide range of episodes with a variety of topics. We are constantly on the lookout for topical subjects related to surveying and would welcome any ideas along with feedback.

setting a monument

Recruiting the Next Generation of Land Surveyors

At the beginning of 2020, the surveying profession was facing the normal challenges of similar professions worldwide: aging membership, lack of new interest in the profession, and an economic rollercoaster traveling throughout the international communities. In “normal” times, these challenges were a big hill to climb, yet we now face a different set of circumstances in the face of COVID-19 and racial unrest within our communities. The surveying profession is not immune to these new hurdles and must face them head-on with the rest of the world.

The future of surveying remains at the forefront of the NSPS list of advocacies. We recognize the challenges faced not just by surveyors but by many other professions and occupations. We also recognize that inclusion is a key component to creating diversity and we are ramping up our efforts to be more inclusive of all nationalities, races, and genders. Together, we can grow as a profession and a nation. The future of surveying is now, so we must embrace the challenges we face together. Please join us.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of POB.