The observation that the number of surveyors seems to be decreasing and the related speculation about the future of surveying have occupied our professional community for a dozen years or so.

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In 2005, Michael Duffy, PLS, authored a prescient article for the California Land Surveyors Association publication entitled “Where Have All the Surveyors Gone?” He concluded: “…when this state hits a point where the professional surveying services are not available to allow for the necessary growth and commerce of this state’s economy, someone besides surveyors will come up with a solution and it will not make any of us happy…”

Those who mistakenly think that this decline is mostly a result of the 2007-2012 recession should note that Duffy’s observations preceded the economic downturn and that those concerns continue to rise today. In 2014, the New York State Board of Licensure announced it was focusing on “the decline in the number of students in land surveying programs and the number of applicants for licensure.” Last December, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) created a task force on the future of surveying. A principal charge to that group is to ascertain “what NCEES can do to mitigate the low number of candidates seeking licensure as a professional surveyor.”

At this year’s spring conference of the Arkansas Society of Professional Surveyors, the national problem of “the disappearing surveyor” was the subject of a lively discussion. This really got my attention, because I had just attended a meeting of the Mississippi society, where a similar, though more dire situation within that jurisdiction had been described. In both settings, possible reasons for the decline were batted about — the economy, the changed content of licensure exams from experience to education based, and/or a general underappreciation of (and underpayment for) surveying services. The fact is other powerful causes are at play and it is the purpose of this article to expose and examine them.

Where Are We?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a fairly pleasing landscape for our profession’s future: 2012 median pay of $56,230 and projected 10-percent job growth over the next few years — not bad.

Additionally, NCEES figures show the number of licenses to have been fairly steady since 1997, varying between a low of 44,253 (2005) to a high of 56,074 (2008). However, the number of licenses has decreased for the last two years, from 55,991 to 53,968, or 3.6 percent.

With the invaluable help of the Board of Licensure, we assembled relevant data about surveying licensure in Arkansas for the last 15 years. Looking solely at in-state residents, we found that there has been a modest decrease in active licenses since the high reached in 2011. Then, we compared the numbers of licenses retired each year due to various reasons, primarily retirement or death. Two trends became evident from this data:

  • In the period 2000-2009, our state maintained a healthy rate of replacement: 116 licenses were retired and 153 new licenses were granted to residents.
  • However, in the period 2010-2014, the profession saw 61 licenses retired and only 51 new in-state licenses issued.

The surveying profession in Arkansas is no longer welcoming as many new practitioners as it sees depart. Our ranks are indeed thinning.

The “baby boom” generation, those people born in the period 1946-1964, is a huge bulge in U.S. population created by a peak in the birth rate following World War II. That large cohort of Americans is beginning to retire and, as one would expect, this reduction in the workforce began in 2011 — exactly 65 years after this great mass of future workers (including surveyors) began to be born. The birthrate has been much lower since the baby boom ended; if it were not for immigration, the population of the U.S. would be shrinking, as is the case in Europe and Japan.

The number of people entering the labor force is just not sufficient to replace those retiring and likely will not be for about 14 more years. If our goal is to keep the number of licensed surveyors constant, we must attract a larger proportion of the workforce than we do now. In its 2014 strategic plan, NCEES states on the topic of growth of licensure: “[the] demonstrated value of licensure will result in continued growth in the number of licensed engineers and land surveyors.” Aside from being a truly awe-inspiring example of wishful thinking, this reveals that NCEES apparently fails to grasp the problem.

The Arkansas data also revealed the average age of new licensees has remained amazingly constant at 35 for the period studied. This suggests that, despite the new paradigm in our registration laws and our national testing content which envisions applicants joining the profession after graduation from a college program and a couple of years of experience, the desired result has not yet been realized. Many of our new surveyors obviously have taken some detours along the way… and that route to licensure, based on experience and apprenticeship, is being closed in state after state. As a result, that pool of potential professional surveyors will no longer be available to the profession.

Is There a Problem?

Since there are population trends that will naturally decrease our numbers, we need to first decide if that is a problem, since in and of itself it indicates no fatal flaw in the profession. It may well be that technological advances, economic factors and population trends may make a smaller surveying profession inevitable. The decrease in licensees may worry NCEES, but it does not necessarily mean harm to the profession. We could remain focused on our core services to the larger community, support great academic programs, and enforce the highest standards for entry and flourish.

The licensure numbers did highlight some disturbing facts. Only four women have been licensed as surveyors in Arkansas in the last 15 years — and that tiny number is, in fact, a doubling of the number for the period 1980-2000. This seems to be another huge recruiting ground almost totally neglected. The raw numbers of board records did not identify the gender, race or ethnicity of licensees, because that information is not collected. I had to read through the list of licensee names and identify women on that basis.

We lack a solid count of the number of new African-American, Hispanic, First Nation or foreign-born professional surveyors for the same reason — no data. On the subjective basis of personal knowledge, I feel confident in stating there are only one Hispanic and one African-American professional surveyor licensed in Arkansas.

NCEES collects the data we used for our investigation for every state and jurisdiction, and could perform the same analysis. Unfortunately, it appears that crucial demographic data which would expose the profession’s failure to recruit women and minorities is not collected by that organization. Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau does collect and analyze this vital data. The following information is from a 2013 article, “Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” written by Liana Landivar, PhD, a Census Bureau demographer.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Technology — or STEM — workforce includes both engineers and surveyors. STEM is considered a vital segment of the economy with “high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs … that lead to discovery and new technology improving the U.S. economy and standard of living,” references Dr. Landivar. She follows this acknowledgement of STEM’s power with an assessment of its weakness, which is a pressing need for “increasing the STEM workforce … to reduce disparities in STEM employment by sex, race and Hispanic origin. Historically, women, blacks and Hispanics have been underrepresented in STEM employment.” The difference between representation in the total U.S. workforce and the STEM workforce is striking: for women, 48 v. 26 percent; for African-Americans, 11 v. 6 percent; and for Hispanics, 15 v. 7 percent.

Open the Door

This demographic bias toward segregation is likely to increase. Real dangers arise for a profession that becomes identified with a singular ethnic/gender group within a heterogeneous population. There are risks of irrelevance and anachronism for a profession cut off from the marketing insights and innovations that a wide spectrum of backgrounds and cultures among its members provides. When there are so many other challenges from technology and economic consolidation, we shouldn’t add demographic isolation.

What we are witnessing is the spectacle of surveyors, who have deliberately limited themselves to a shrinking demographic segment by their choices in recruiting, hiring and mentoring, wondering why their profession is beginning to wither away. My personal demographic group — Northwest European, male, from a rural or small-town background — has always been a minority of the total population, and its relative proportion of the U.S. population will continue to contract. Yet, when I look at my profession, what I see overwhelmingly are folks who are very similar to me; I see few women, fewer Hispanics and virtually no African-Americans.

This represents a lethal demographic current for our avocation. Bluntly, as long as we self-limit the groups we view as potential professional surveyors, we will decline as a profession along with our demographic base. Some colleague of mine might at this point share his view that women or “those people” just cannot make it as professional surveyors or lack the desire to join us. Save your breath! Over my 40-year career, I have worked in the field with women, African-Americans, First Nation tribe members and Hispanics, and found them as suitable as potential career surveyors as my white male peers (actually, some of the women were better).

We must widen the aim of our recruitment, but before that can succeed there must be a profound self-examination of attitudes by the white men who run our profession — academia, business and government agencies. Halfhearted lip service to “diversify” will be insufficient; there must be top-to-bottom soul searching and real change, or surveying will wither clueless and hopeless. It is no accident that our ranks are today so homogenously male and white. For generations, we have been in the thrall of a noxious, unacknowledged illusion that those who do not look like us cannot be surveyors.

In the May 2015 issue of POB, the editor shared a letter from Alyssa Salas, a 30-year-old Hispanic woman with a Bachelor’s in Architecture, who has been doing construction surveying and enjoying it. She’s now trying to expand her experience into offshore surveying and wants to connect with those in the workplace who would give her that opportunity. POB editor Mike Anderson sees this as proof that the future of surveying is in good hands. That is an admirable optimism, which I cannot completely share.

Our future will be determined not by the prodigies of technology, not even by the ebb and flow of populations, but by the acts of individual surveyors who either open the door to Salas and others in a generation of new colleagues, or who turn their back on their, and our, future.