Words Matter: A Primer for Geospatial Professionals

Do you see anything wrong with the following sentence?: The surveying industry is composed of vendors who enter the field through an apprenticeship and bid on projects, and whose products are commodities delivered to their customers.

It is my hope that you recognize there is a lot wrong with the sentence above and that you don’t use the terms in that sentence in that type of context. Why? Because the old adage is true: Be careful of the words you use, just in case you have to eat them later.

Let’s take a look at each offending word, how it is misused and how to correct it.

Surveying. There is nothing wrong with that term at all. Surveying is an honored profession that provides essential services to users, particularly with regard to boundaries of the land. However, today’s market is much broader. Surveying licensure includes more than boundary work, with states such as Florida now bestowing a license for a PSM or professional surveyor and mapper. While the term surveying is perfectly fine, when speaking of the broader profession, I prefer geospatial, which includes surveying, mapping, GIS, hydrography, LiDAR, geodesy and many other spatially referenced activities.

Industry. Surveying or geospatial work is not an industry; it is a profession. There is a significant difference. Regulations of the U.S. Department of Labor define a learned professional employee as one who is compensated on a salary or fee basis at a rate not less than $455 per week ($23,660 annual salary); the employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge, defined as work that is predominantly intellectual in character and that requires the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment; the advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and the advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. Surveying and geospatial work fits this definition.

Vendor. Have you ever looked up the word “vendor” in a dictionary? If you do, you will find that many people misuse the word. A vendor is one who vends; to vend is to “sell especially as a hawker or peddler (and) to sell by means of vending machines.” Even with web-based geospatial data, I don’t know anyone in the profession who sells maps through vending machines or from a cart, like hot dogs on a city sidewalk.

Apprenticeship. The term “apprentice” connotes a laborer or union tradesman, not a pre-professional. The experience one must have to sit for a licensing exam is an “internship,” not an apprenticeship. The U.S. Department of Labor removed “land surveyor” and “photogrammetrist” from its list of apprenticeable occupations during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Have you ever heard your doctor or attorney talk about when he or she was an apprentice? The Labor Department’s recently released competency model for the geospatial field indicates that “most of these occupations require a four-year bachelor’s degree.” Again, the Labor Department finds that fields of science or learning include law, medicine, theology, accounting, actuarial computation, engineering, architecture, teaching, various types of physical, chemical and biological sciences, pharmacy and other occupations that have a recognized professional status and are distinguishable from the mechanical arts or skilled trades where the knowledge could be of a fairly advanced type but is not in a field of science or learning. Apprenticeable occupations include manufacturing, plumbing, carpentry, pipefitting, housekeeping, construction, landscaping, and other types of mechanical arts or skilled trades. Surveying is not learned through an apprenticeship.