Dugout Ranch, located 50 miles north of Monticello, Utah. Photo courtesy of Tyler Trujillo, PLS, of the BLM’s Utah State Office.

The 2007 field season is fast approaching and already in full swing in many areas of the country. College and university surveying and mapping students are preparing to begin their new summer jobs as productive members of survey crews, ready to impress the boss. Seasoned surveying technicians are looking forward to sharing the workload and passing some of those “not so fun but important” tasks on to the “college guy.” Party and office chiefs are preparing for long days in the field with even longer nights and weekends in the office.

Most party and office chiefs are already licensed professional land surveyors, or land surveyors-in-training who are preparing to take the professional land surveyors licensure examination in the fall. Many surveying technicians, however, are divided between making a life"'long career in land surveying and working toward the goal of professional licensure, or moving to another profession. How a person may go about acquiring the education and experience necessary for professional licensure contributes significantly to this decision.

There are a myriad of factors that influence a surveying technician’s decision to attend a surveying program to earn the credits that assist in expediting the licensing process. A few specific (non-personal) reasons include the cost of the education, the estimated compensation once a degree has been earned and the estimated salary increase from attaining professional licensure. However, a surveying technician who has decided to enroll in a surveying program may still face several challenges. Some surveying technicians are not able to enroll in a surveying program because it is prohibitively expensive, because long hours in the field make attending day or night classes difficult, or simply because there are no local schools offering the types of classes needed to qualify for the professional land surveyors exam. This dilemma leads to the consideration of alternative methods to gain the experience required for licensure.

Surveying oftentimes takes professionals and technicians to beautiful landscapes. Photo courtesy of Gregory Aten of the BLM’s California State Office.

The Dilemma from Downsizing

In “How Geomatics Professional Employment Characteristics Impact Four-Year Educational Programs,”1 Dr. James K. Crossfield, LS, from California State University, Fresno, explains how each year there are approximately five times as many people who leave the surveying profession nationwide compared to the number of people who enter the profession from four-year surveying programs. Further, Crossfield explains how improved technology has allowed surveying firms to reduce the ratio of licensed personnel to non-licensed personnel. Four-person and three-person crews consisting of a crew chief, instrument person, rodman and notekeeper are being replaced by two-person and one-person crews using robotic total stations and RTK GPS. This reduction in crew size, Crossfield points out, limits the opportunity for technicians to gain the necessary credentials required for licensure. This dynamic, in part, limits the future supply of land surveying professionals.

Crossfield’s article helps explain the quandary of the surveying technician. If the technician is not a graduate of a land surveying program, or if he is not engaged in an educational program that will allow him to earn his credentials for licensure from field experience, then the opportunities to become licensed are severely limited. Gone are the days when a person would gain experience by working his way from rodman to crew chief. Today, one- and two-person crews are often made up of experienced survey technicians overseen by an office or field chief. The person who runs a one- or two-person survey crew may ultimately become qualified to take the professional land surveyors licensure examination, but it will take considerably more time than if he combined his experience with a surveying degree. The decision to take this route often depends on potential income. Let’s take a look at this very relevant factor.

Table 1: Average wages for Level 07 Surveying Technicians and Level 11 Land Surveyors.
Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey, March 2007.

Surveyors and Technicians - Establishing a Common Reference

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the agency within the federal government responsible for collecting, processing, analyzing and disseminating data in the field of labor economics and statistics, houses a wealth of information about salaries and wages for more than 800 occupations. The BLS classifies wages in the private sector based on a model used in the public sector. The amount of responsibility and difficulty of the work required of an employee, combined with any educational and experience requirements, determine a person’s pay grade. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) establishes the criteria (education, experience, time in grade, etc.) used to classify positions throughout the federal government. The OPM classification standards assist in maintaining standard position descriptions for similar jobs throughout the United States. The BLS relies on the OPM standards for position classification.

The BLS classifies jobs in the private sector as “Levels” ranging from one to 15, which correspond to the General Schedule (GS) used by the federal government (higher GS levels relate to higher skill levels). A licensed professional land surveyor working for the federal government qualifies, via OPM standards, to be paid as a GS11 Land Surveyor. A person performing survey work who does not have the qualifications required of a GS11 Land Surveyor often qualifies as a Surveying Technician and is typically paid a wage as high as someone rated as a GS07. For this discussion, Land Surveyor and Surveying Technician wages in the private sector shall be referenced to Level 11 and Level 07, respectively.

A Level 11-rated land surveyor typically runs one or more field crews and is responsible for almost all aspects of a boundary survey. The Level 07-rated surveying technician is typically considered a principle assistant, and is usually responsible for seeing that the day-to-day assignments are completed in the field.

Table 1 shows nine census divisions covering the United States and the wage data for surveying technicians and land surveyors employed at Level 07 and Level 11, respectively. The two series of wages shown in the table, in basic terms, describe the differences between the wages earned in the private sector by the surveying technician and the licensed professional land surveyor.

The relative differences between the Level 07 and Level 11 wages vary between 28 and 44 percent, with the average difference nationwide being a little more than 33 percent. A surveying technician interested in becoming a licensed professional land surveyor could enjoy a potential annual salary increase between $20,000 to $36,000.

James Degenhardt of the BLM’s Eastern States Saint Charles, Mo., Project Office searches for a corner on Maple Island near the location where Lewis and Clark began their famous journey at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Wood Rivers.

Weighing the Potential

Based on the numbers in the table, it would appear that a person ready, willing and able to attend a surveying program and complete the path to licensure would find it a relatively easy decision to quit his job to achieve this goal. However, for a person currently employed in the surveying profession, the price of going to a college or university is more than just tuition, room and board, and books. The additional cost a person must consider is opportunity cost; how much money will he forego in wages while attending school? A surveying program that costs $15,000 to $20,000 per year, when combined with the loss of earning potential for nine or 10 months per year, may soon triple or quadruple in price. When multiplied over the course of four years, a student pays nearly $100,000 or more for an education.

The converse side to this argument is that an investment in education is one that can never be taken away, and for that reason, may be priceless. A more practical approach to this argument may be that over the course of a career, the money one invests in an education will be paid back countless times over because of the higher earning potential one has as a licensed professional land surveyor.

Larry Judd of the BLM’s New Mexico State Office takes shots on Frisco Peak in southern Utah. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Davis, cadastral survey technician for the BLM’s Utah State office.

The data in Table 1 demonstrates that, strictly speaking, Level 07 surveying technicians and Level 11 land surveyors earn an above average wage compared to others employed in the land surveying profession. But there is a considerable difference between the technician’s and the surveyor’s wages. A brief and simple cost-benefit analysis demonstrates the financial benefits of becoming a licensed professional land surveyor versus remaining employed as a surveying technician.

What Table 1 does not demonstrate are the challenges faced by those who must earn their degrees or attend classes part-time and take an approach to licensure via methods other than attending a two- or four-year surveying program. However, no matter how challenging the path to the objective is, there is a payoff when licensure is earned. Increased wages, greater responsibility and a dynamic working environment are some of the new opportunities a person may experience. Fortunately, almost anywhere a person chooses to work in the land surveying profession, a competitive wage can be earned.