In the old days when a survey crew consisted of three persons, usually male, training took place over years.


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A new rodman (note it would be a rod person today) would be the butt of jokes and did all the dirty work and heavy hauling. The transit man would guard the instrument, smoke, joke, and stand around and make fun of the rodman. The party chief would run the show and report progress to the office. The abilities and quality of the party chief varied widely and, if you had a bad chief, you learned little and worked the difficult sites, which resulted in meager raises.

Technology has pushed land surveying in new directions with one- or two-man crews. One person is still called a “crew” similar to our “dialing” a phone. I am concerned with college graduates being pushed out into the field with a robot or GPS receiver and working as if they were in a computer world. Land surveying is far more than coordinates and staking out to the plan. It also involves performing a lot of construction layout.


This Stinks ... Literally

My first place of employment in land surveying (four decades ago) had three or four offices, and at the main one where I worked there were eight crews, each with three persons and most equipped with a transit. The party chief I worked with most was the large traverse and topo man, and he instilled in me many great concepts about work and company policies.

In Delaware during the early ‘70s, we performed many topographic surveys of nearby mushroom farms in Kennett Square, Pa., a.k.a. “The Mushroom Capital of the World.” Working on a mushroom farm topo, however, gave you few bragging rights. The municipalities were just beginning to require stormwater management plans for those operations and our company was landing many contracts for the farms. Mushroom farms at that time utilized a lot of hay, preferably used hay from horse stalls complete with manure. They would make long rows six feet tall and add several other ingredients, then spray it all down with liquefied manure. Next, a machine would run down the rows and grind it all together, and leave it like a long tall wall of stinking mulch. Occasionally, these would be so naturally hot, they would ignite. Everything drained to a putrid pond, which supplied the manure spray water. Steam rose off the piles.

At lunch, we would walk into a local diner and everyone turned to look at us. Although we were all hippies, that was not it. We came to realize our clothes absorbed the stink from the fields we worked in. Local people knew that smell, but we were not the typical migrant workers who carried that identifying odor. From then on, we brought our lunches to work.

I asked my chief why we got stuck with all the bad work. His reply was insightful and worked well for me over the years in many ways — the explanation being that not complaining leads to the good jobs. He told me that some party chiefs complain all the time, so their complaining is meaningless and managers ignore it because it is expected. Also, when you take the work assigned and don’t fuss, managers like to work with you. They did not go out just bidding on stinking work. The office staff appreciated the teamwork this party chief showed by working hard and turning in superior results as cheerfully as possible. So when he did complain, the office staff always took it seriously, listened carefully and tried to find ways to help make the job go better.

The crew chief also pointed out that aside from the mushroom farms we were getting the best work that came into the company, and I had to agree. I don’t know who had taught him the skills of dealing with office management, but I am so glad I was his rodman and listened. One on one, he taught the transit man and I the fine points of traverse work and running boundary lines, setting up topo surveys, dealing with clients, finding errors and being part of the company.


Use the Time Wisely

Typically, when the party chief was drawing up his notes, the crew would clean the truck and equipment. Often, there was a lot of free time during which a rodman could get out the transit and practice setting it up quickly. The transit man could look over the shoulder of the party chief and learn. As time went by, each learned the job of the higher-up.

Eventually, the party chief would be promoted, get an office job inside, and need to be replaced. This would take at least two years, even with a very motivated person to move from rodman to transit man. Aside from survey crew work, I had the ability to walk around the site and see how things were actually built from when the stakes we set. It was always interesting and informative. I wish I still had that kind of free time to watch construction taking place.

Land surveying is a very unique profession, and land surveyors often know quite a bit about a wide variety of work and law. They come onto a site and are asked many questions. Frankly, I’ve learned a lot and could not tell you where or how. I believe that, as the years pass, we assimilate information, especially concerning land development. An experienced surveyor will be given layout work and naturally make mental checks to see if the plan “works” or if it is nonsensical. Does the poop flow downhill? How will the water drain off the site? Does the site grading look right?


Without an experienced party chief to watch, you will be your own teacher in the School of Hard Knocks.


It is important to see how contractors set up their lasers for pipe installation, then dig the trenches, lay the pipe and backfill. The digging of basements and basins is also worth watching. When you know where the machine will be running, you get a better idea of where to place offset stakes, benchmarks and control points so they are not destroyed. Without an experienced party chief to watch, you will be your own teacher in the School of Hard Knocks.

In writing this article, I hope to encourage all young land surveyors to make use of the time when you are delayed for some reason and must wait on a jobsite. Please, look around at the other professions and watch them work. In the old system, sage advice was given in real time and instruction was not limited to nails, pins and pipes. While waiting for the chief to figure cuts, the rodman and transit person would often watch the carpenters, plumbers, machine operators and the job superintendent work. Even the material suppliers were worth watching, since we would be setting control points and we’d need to have some sense of places that are fairly safe in which a hub and tack will last on a site.

Today, with a one-man crew, the individual needs to stop and smell the roses, look around and find a way to put in the years of observation. Watch the curb installers set up forms and stringlines while noting the accuracy with which they work. See how easily storm and sanitary contractors move inlets and manholes around. Most of all, ask questions so you understand the parameters of their jobs. When you see a problem and point it out diplomatically, the contractors or office staff may thank you for saving them money.


A Good Lesson Learned

Here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, there are some union workers. One of the more impressive workers I remember was a union laborer.

Although he was the least paid of the union workers, I learned his practical knowledge was a match for the job superintendent, and many of the other workers looked to him for direction. This was on a very large government contract for a defense project. This man worked nearly year-round and would always be the last man standing when seasonal layoffs began and the first one called back in the spring. If you are an informed experienced party chief, you will similarly be kept on when others are let go.

Experience and knowledge combined with a good work ethic will make you the superior employee. If you are forced into the field with limited training, it will be up to you to find ways to supplement your knowledge on the job. I have found the people working in other professions do not mind explaining what they do and why.

Lastly, have you ever seen one of those 3D pictures of the streets of a major city that the “One Call” people give out for free? You look at it one way and see the buildings, sidewalks and street. Turn the card slightly, and you see all the utilities underground.

As surveyors who prepare topographic survey plans or stakeout utilities, we must understand how the utilities got into the ground in the first place. Here in Philadelphia, we have some box culverts that are the width of the entire street, and these must exist along with gas, telephone and electric lines, to name a few. Although we do not install utilities, it’s critical for us to understand how they basically work and exist. We must know that pipes need a certain amount of cover and distance apart.

What you learn by watching will come into play when you move inside and begin design work. During the summer months, construction will be busy and provide lots of opportunity to see how things are built. Smelling the roses around you during any free time available on a site can be a valuable experience and an excellent teacher.