A profession, according to many dictionaries, is a calling or vocation requiring specialized knowledge or skills, and often specialized academic preparation. Not in a dictionary but in various philosophic discussions about professions, you will find mention of other characteristics: growing fellowship; developing the state-of-the-art; contributing on a civic level; developing rules of professional ethics; investigating and responding to complaints from the public, and taking disciplinary action if necessary; monitoring the work of members to ensure high quality and maintaining good public regard; and sustaining membership in professional associations.

I would think that another characteristic of a profession is its interest, work and commitment to developing new members to ensure the profession's continuity. This column is written to discuss scenarios that could develop due to diminishing enrollment in the profession; that is, if you choose to use attainment of registration as a land surveyor as a measure of the number of practitioners. I haven't researched every state in the union, but from talking with people on registration boards, at institutions and at state surveying societies, it appears that it is nearly universal that the profession is losing more members through attrition (retirement, disability, death, change of career, etc.) than it is gaining through new registrants.

As we know, the activity of surveying is a vital contributor to the economy of this country. Thus, the decreasing number of surveyors could have an adverse impact on the economy. This is especially true if you include all types of surveying, such as engineering, topographic and planimetric mapping, construction stakeout, construction quality control, construction as-builts and so on-even though most of these activities don't appear on most states' lists of activities that only a registered land surveyor can do. But even property boundary surveying of one type or another is essential to most land development activity, and quite often is a compulsory step in the development process. It is this essential step in the land development process that will continue to require surveyors to accomplish it.

One plausible scenario for the future is that the jumps in productivity feasible with new technology are such that the ever-diminishing ranks of surveyors are able to keep up with the required time-consuming fieldwork. Another scenario is that surveyors will develop a pool of capable talent who will work independently in the field and in the office within the strictures of "professional supervision." With these organizational structures, the human effort to get the work done is matched with individual capabilities in such a way that the registered surveyor is still able to deliver competent, accurate and timely surveys to waiting clients. Yet another possible scenario is that the volume of work to be performed by surveyors declines due to the changes in the economic landscape, where development and construction cease being as important to the economic climate as they currently are.

However, the scenario I wish to dwell upon is one where the demand for survey work continues and eventually overwhelms the qualified human expertise and energy that is available to complete it. Because the drive for economic growth and wealth building will not wane, potential "solutions" may develop to deal with this surveying expertise shortage.

Perhaps legislators will be convinced by realtors that groups other than surveyors are also expert at property boundary location, and may grant licenses to these groups (or even hand them out due to the inevitable need to "grandfather" new surveyors). Perhaps attorneys will see this need and lobby to create a new set of statutes to create a new breed of paralegal "boundary practitioners" to do what only surveyors could do. People in neighboring states who see such developments occur, but despair of their legislators getting around to the same solutions, may begin agitating with their representatives in Congress to create national legislation, perhaps for a national "real property location license." Or maybe engineers and architects will be allowed to assume roles as land surveyors. I'm sure if you're following my drift that each of you can dream up your own secret (nightmare) solution to the concern about the supply of future surveying professionals.

Assuming this scenario is correct and demand for surveying work increases in the future, are the hypothetical solutions too far off? I don't think so. Think about the lack of understanding and foresight that brought about some of the first statutes regarding surveying registration in the 1950s. I don't think there were any schools that offered degrees in surveying or related disciplines, but the statutes didn't refer to any education (even a vo-tech school curriculum) as a requirement for being licensed as a surveyor except for a high school diploma! (Some states still only require a high school diploma to practice.) Yes, the experience aspect was and is important. But think about the other licensed groups: morticians, hair dressers, manicurists and massage therapists, for example, who are all required to have a combination of academic preparation as well as practical (usually mentored) experience. There was an apparent lack of understanding of this concept of requiring both education and experience in the 1950s, as shown in the land surveying registration legislation then enacted. Can we trust that there will be a better understanding of issues relating to the practice of land surveying today and in the future?

I don't mean to be a pessimist, but unless we anticipate the future and proactively recruit high school and college students while supporting the academic programs that are essential to the process of training a surveyor, we may only have the option of deciding whether or not to kiss this profession goodbye.

Wish to contribute to this discussion? Send your letter to the editor at brownl@bnpmedia.com.