This month’s story is a bit different from our usual surveyor interview. A program at Green Rock Correctional Center in Virginia, a state with a storied surveying history, is one of a kind and deserves some attention.  The course teaches offenders how to be surveyor assistants and successfully reenter society after their release.

The course combines the earliest surveyor tools, such as plum bobs and rods, with computer-aided drafting software, global positioning technology and total stations. With these tools, students define, measure and map boundaries of land, air and sea while aiding licensed surveyors. 

The course typically takes less than one year to complete. Instructor Christopher Golding’s high-achieving students advance to take a nationally-recognized test for survey technicians through the National Society of Professional Surveyors. Golding has graduated 141 students since the program began in 2008. The class is served by a three-member advisory board that gives technical advice on the curriculum.

“The market is coming out of the recession and starting to hit its stride. There is going to be a need for employees with this training,” said advisory board member Rich Armstrong, of Armstrong Land Surveying, Inc., in Gretna, Va.

“This program promotes the successful reentry of offenders to their communities and thus is in keeping with a primary initiative of the Virginia Department of Corrections,” said Morris Dews, the director of CTE programs for the Virginia Department of Corrections. “We know approximately 95 percent of all adults incarcerated in Virginia will one day return home.  Virginia has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation and programs like this are a reason why. We want our returning citizens to be responsible, resourceful contributors to their communities, and the men who can enter the surveying profession have much greater odds for success.”

POB interviewed instructor Golding about the program.

POB: How did the idea for the program come about?

Golding: The idea for the survey program actually came from the contractor building the Green Rock Correctional Center. They experienced a delay in getting the site layout work completed because the surveyors were backlogged. The then-warden worked with the career and technical director, Morris Dews, to set the parameters for the class. Once I was hired, I worked closely with Dews to develop the final curriculum for the class. We also received input from our advisory board made up of professional surveyors. My idea for the class was to combine my field experience with the survey classes I had taken in a college program and incorporate them into this vocational class.

I was apprehensive about how this class would work in a prison setting, but with the help of Dews and the security staff, we were able to develop a hands-on approach to giving the students the training they need.

POB: What is the impact on students and the community?

Golding: The answer goes way beyond surveying. I believe the surveying profession is one of high integrity and honesty. I teach my students that math doesn’t lie and the reputation of the quality of your work will follow quickly. There is also a highly competitive work ethic that exists in the surveying field, and productive workers are a key to the success of a surveying and engineering business.  I have observed that these principles are picked up by those students who have applied themselves and are determined to make a better life, whether they go into the surveying field or another field they enjoy. Students who participate in these programs are less likely to return to prison. This means fewer victims of crime; less spent on prosecution and incarceration.

POB: Is there a current need for survey technicians?

Golding: Yes, indeed. In my career I have seen the surveying profession lose many really good crew chiefs with the push for a four-year degree requirement for licensure. I have also seen the profession move to a more technically advanced workforce with one- and two-man crews in lieu of the traditional three-man crews to cover more worksites. Workers with the knowledge of construction sites/developments and the importance of getting structures in their proper location and elevation are in demand. This fact is pushing the industry toward more automation in site development equipment and software. We use data collectors, total stations and GPS together with Carlson Survey/Civil Suite and AutoCAD to teach the students the importance of coordinate files, their position relative to their desired location, and the difference between precision and accuracy and why those two are important.

When I started, the decision was made to use Carlson SurvCE data collectors. I had been using Carlson Survey software for years, but had only used TDS and SMI data collectors. I was sent to a Carlson training conference to learn the SurvCE program. I had also purchased two seats of Carlson Survey for the class. When I spoke with Bruce Carlson about the program we were building, he donated seats of his software to cover all of our classroom computers. We now participate in a very reasonable education subscription program that allows our class to receive the latest versions of the Carlson software programs. The Carlson Survey program has been a great aid in teaching the class because it intuitively “speaks the language” of surveyors and engineers. We have developed complete lesson plans designed around using the data collectors with the software to complete as-built surveys and construction layout projects. I also received a donation of the MicroSurvey software. We purchased TDS and Field Genius data collectors to expose them to a variety of equipment.

POB: Are you seeing more interest in surveying?

Golding: We have a waiting list of students trying to get into this program.  Outside that, I believe interest among high school graduates in becoming surveyors has declined; there is a need to find workers with a passion to join a historically noble profession.

POB: What is the future of the program and the profession?

Golding: I believe the surveying field will continue to become more technical and automated. However, the profession of land surveying is in need of field experienced surveyors. Boundary surveying is a maturation of experience gained in the field. We have an obligation to the evidence we find in the ground and recorded documents. I tell my students that knowledge of boundary work is acquired by time and experience. It is very difficult to recreate in a classroom setting. I believe it is vital for new workers in the survey field to take advantage of mentors they will work with in the industry. I am very grateful to the men and women that took an interest in me and have shared their knowledge.

Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story for a future issue, email Managing Editor Benita Mehta at