Is today’s education system adequately preparing the surveying and mapping professionals of the future? Here’s a look at what’s needed, where we’re falling short and why it matters to today’s professionals.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, surveying offers a promising career. An estimated 31,000 new jobs were expected to be created for qualified surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying and mapping technicians between 2006 and 2016.1 This figure represents a 21 percent increase, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. While this projection was compiled before the economy took a nosedive, the report notes that “increasing demand for fast, accurate, and complete geographic information will be the main source of growth for these occupations”-and this demand continues to accelerate. New professionals will also be needed to replace workers who retire, which is a growing concern as the average age of surveyors approaches 60.

But here’s an interesting statistic: Between 2000 and 2005, fewer than 1,000 bachelor’s degrees were conferred in these fields-fewer than 200 each year.2 And while official figures aren’t available beyond 2005, it doesn’t appear that the trend has changed all that much. Milton E. Denny, PLS, a surveying course instructor in the College of Engineering at Auburn University in Alabama, estimates that there were fewer than 250 surveying graduates nationwide in 2008.

“We have two major problems,” he says. “One is the lack of educational opportunities-there just aren’t enough schools [offering degrees in this field]. The other is the lack of students, and this is due to a lack of funding [of] both the programs themselves and the efforts to recruit students into the programs.”

These problems aren’t new. So what can be done to close the gap-and does it even matter?

The Technology Conundrum

Some might argue that technology is making the issue irrelevant. Indeed, many of the tasks that once required highly trained and skilled surveyors are now handled by computers and other electronic systems, and new technologies are seemingly designed to operate with little human involvement. But it isn’t quite so simple. “Today’s total stations and GPS instruments are advanced computers with the capability to collect information that can be converted into multiple formats and attached to coordinate systems on the fly,” notes Stacey D. Lyle, PhD, RPLS, associate professor and program coordinator for geographic information science and geospatial surveying engineering at The Conrad Blucher Institute (CBI) for Surveying and Science, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (A&M-CC). “The problem is often that the individuals using the equipment don’t understand how to use it to its fullest advantage.”

According to Lyle, this situation leads to underutilized equipment and missed opportunities for firms that employ inadequately trained workers. For example, recent research by a graduate student at A&M-CC compared laser scan technology with GPS technology on a cross-section application for an erosion control engineering topographic survey. The student conducted and priced the project with both technologies. Under the control of a skilled user, the laser scanner produced a more in-depth topographic map with coverage areas that the GPS would have missed at its cross-section interval. However, the cost of the laser scan was higher. “The product of the laser scan had much more value, but it takes a knowledgeable person to help to convince a client of this fact,” Lyle says. “Additionally, the payoff might have been lower if the scan had been conducted by a field party person versus an RPLS.”

RTK networks provide another example. Lyle notes that while the cost of GPS has leveled off, the ability to use a rover GPS with a network connection to a series of base stations maintained by private and public networks has reduced the overall cost of a base/rover configuration. As a result, the use of GPS for surveying is becoming commonplace. “But network GPS experiences quirks in solutions and communication from time to time,” he says. “Users must be knowledgeable of how the system operates and solves solutions to achieve a better performance level.”

So, as technology advances, so do the education requirements. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that “opportunities will be best for surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists who have a bachelor’s degree and strong technical skills.” That brings us back to the first problem Denny mentioned: Why aren’t there more surveying degree programs?

Educational Resources

Larry G. Crowley, PhD, PE, associate professor of civil engineering at Auburn University, believes a lack of research funding is to blame-and that the public and private sector share the responsibility to change the situation. “Academic programs rely on research,” he says. “As more research funding from public and private sources is awarded to professors for projects in surveying and related fields, this will trickle down and stimulate the development of new academic programs in these areas.”

But simply creating new programs to educate students in the technologies and techniques isn’t enough. The programs must also empower students to develop solutions. “Many students and new graduates today lack critical thinking skills,” says Crowley. “They’re afraid to own the data and offer advice based on their interpretation. Yet that’s exactly what they need to do as professionals. There’s often a disconnect in translating academic learning to actual practice.”

Crowley believes that academic programs must strive to give students the confidence to make decisions-and instilling this confidence requires the involvement of individuals who are actively involved in the surveying profession. Partnerships and collaborations between educators and professionals are key.

Programs such as those at Auburn University and Texas A&M-CC seek to achieve this goal by recruiting professionals to serve as instructors, course advisors and other roles. For example, at Texas A&M-CC, professionals teach field camps-a move that ABET has applauded. Another example of professional involvement is the new geomatics initiative at theSchool of Civil and Construction Engineeringat Oregon State University (OSU). The school recently signed a memorandum of understanding with David Evans and Associates Inc. and Leica Geosystems Inc. that will give students ongoing access to industry experts and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of state-of-the-art geomatic equipment and software. “We believe that industry and manufacturers should share in the social responsibility to help educational institutions stay on top of new technologies, changing work flow methodology, and new techniques in capturing 3D geospatial data,” says Ken Mooyman, president and CEO of Leica Geosystems. The partnership is also expected to increase geomatics research efforts and lead to the creation of new courses and the hiring of additional faculty in these areas.

It’s a start. But more is still needed throughout the nation to ensure that enough qualified individuals are available to meet the increasing demand for geographic information and its applications.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Denny says. “Professional surveyors can plot their own future by becoming actively involved in outreach efforts that help recruit new professionals to the field and ensure they are adequately trained. We owe it to ourselves as a way to safeguard our profession.”

What do you think? Please post your comments below or send an e-mail to