Time for paraprofessionals?

Some professions, many professions actually, use the term paraprofessional to designate aides who help the professionals with their work. Surveyors refer to aides sometimes, especially in government positions. But mostly it is the "crew" or the "rodman" or "instrument person" or "draftsperson" and so on. I'll first say that a person isn't a professional just by calling him or herself a professional. But the seriousness of the work surveyors do, and the significance of the information they provide-if properly understood by the recipients and the provider-does justify it as professional work. So why not encourage that understanding by referring to our staff, without whom we wouldn't be able to get the work done, as paraprofessionals?

Only because of its external indicators does surveying fall in that awkward place between profession and trade. What I mean is that the image I suspect that comes to most people's minds when they think of a surveyor is someone dressed for the outdoors, a rugged individual peering through some kind of an instrument on a tripod. There might be other images, but they all tend to reinforce the impression that it is an occupation very much en-gaged with physical labor. We know that surveying requires much more exercising of the gray cells than the muscles in one's body. Dictionary definitions for profession refer to a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation. A dictionary description of a professional refers to a person engaged in one of the learned professions where conforming to technical or ethical standards is a requisite. With these standards, there is no question that the surveyor's work falls into the realm of a profession.

But even a dictionary definition isn't enough to make surveying a profession. And this column isn't about a recipe for making it a profession. It is about doing something to help us all remember that we are engaged in work that could be judged as professional. When it is a property boundary survey or an issue relating to one (it doesn't matter), the surveyor is rendering a professional opinion about the condition of the boundaries, stating ambiguities and conflicts if they exist. What a boundary survey is definitely not is a set of expert measurements and possibly a beautifully drawn plat or map. If that were all, then it definitely would be more along the lines of a trade. The statements (and many times they are only implied) that cause people to rely on the information provided by the surveyor (what people do by relying on the surveyor's statements) are what makes the surveyor's occupation a profession.

When it is not property boundary surveying, one can take the approach that one's job is to simply make the measurements called for by the client. On the other hand, one can take the approach that the client has hired the surveyor to ensure that professional opinions about the work will be rendered, often at his or her initiative. A simple hypothetical ex-ample illustrates this point: a client can ask the surveyor to ensure that a manhole invert is a certain distance below the invert of another manhole. If the job is approached as a trade, the surveyor can use the simple principles of leveling to make the measurement and report the result. If approached as a professional, the surveyor will attempt to understand why the client wants this information. In doing so, he or she may discover that the direction of flow between the manholes, if the "correct" (in the mind of the client) difference in elevation exists, is in the wrong direction (i.e. not in the direction intended by the client). Detecting this error by ensuring a comprehensive and integrated approach to the client-professional relationship allows a much greater value to be placed on the information delivered by the surveyor than the simple cost of labor of running a line of levels between the manholes. (In a similar way that a doctor doesn't charge for an office visit or an operation by the hour.)

Placing a greater emphasis on the service provided by the professional surveyor that is the result of an integrated approach to solving problems allows him or her to then pursue the matter of ensuring that the staff is similarly equipped and primed to function in this way. By calling him or her a paraprofessional, a greater emphasis can be placed on the qualifications (general education, experience, specialized subject knowledge) surveyors should possess. The approach to surveying using paraprofessionals then means that the professional in charge needs to be able to properly communicate the project being tackled to the team members, clearly describe end results that each will produce in terms that are clearly defined and understood, and lay out processes that the team will follow. Just as with the measurement part of a surveyor's job (only a small but very visible part of the brainpower exercised to get the job finished), attention to detail, understanding the goals and following proper procedures for all aspects of the work can ensure that a professional result-professional information that may include opinions-and other professional work product will be delivered.

It is my opinion that placing more emphasis on making sure that our aides and assistants are treated as paraprofessionals will go a long way toward raising the external (and internal) view that we are professionals. It can give importance to the concept that we have a body of knowledge that we must all be experts on-our paraprofessionals to a lesser degree in some areas, perhaps. It opens the door to including a specific body of knowledge to be gained by formal education and experience as a condition of paraprofessional status. It makes the demand for an educated workforce into a chain reaction that reinforces the current surveying education system and reinvigorates a student body that today is a tiny fraction of what it needs to be if it is to replenish losses due to attrition. Opening the doors to paraprofessionals around us also makes it imperative that we be more disciplined and orderly in how we plan our work, publish our data and other information, and communicate among ourselves, with our teams, with our clients and other stakeholders.