Solo Notes: Surveyor Knows When to Step Back
For Carl Correll, LS, surveying has always sort of been second nature. The son of a Licensed Surveyor and Professional Engineer, Charles S. Correll, he spent many weekends tagging along on jobs with his father as a child. He has been in this business for more than three decades now.
A 1993 graduate of the land surveying program at Glenville State College in West Virginia, Correll says he was also greatly impacted by Professor Charles R. Sypolt, PS. One of the more important things Correll has learned from experience is that it’s OK to turn down tasks that he doesn’t feel comfortable with. If safety, productivity or both are at stake, he says it isn’t worth getting into. “It’s not the size of the parcel,” he says. “There’ve been one-acre parcels I’ve turned down because it was on a rocky cliff over a river bank.”
If Correll determines a particular plot isn’t for him, he says he’s more than happy to pass it on to one of his “compatriots” in the field. “I don’t like ‘competitors,’” he says. “In my area especially, we’re all really good friends. We’re not bidding against each other. We’re really trying to get the job to the best group that can handle it.” The area he’s referring to includes greater Christiansburg, Va., where his business, Correll Land Surveying, is based. He generally takes on small-scale residential jobs, staying away from utility work and commercial projects.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Correll: I just love surveying. It can be the most interesting, the most frustrating, the greatest and worst job all at the same moment. The combination of history, math, art, law, science is just all compelling to me. That’s as simple as it is. I like interacting with the public, I like solving problems, I like helping people. Surveying is obviously a very specialized profession. Everybody’s swung a hammer with their dad or somebody building a deck, putting up a wall, doing something minor; not everybody has stood behind a transit or pulled a tape or a metal detector looking for a property corner. In those cases, I like to help out, and sometimes there’s a monetary reward.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
Correll: I’ve never done anything really, really spectacular. I’ve never worked at a nuclear plant. I guess the one thing was I worked for VDOT, the Virginia Department of Transportation, for a year from the fall of 2002 to the fall of 2003, and they had just built the Smart Road and the Wilson Creek Bridge, and it’s in association with Virginia Tech. I was a part of the VDOT survey crew that surveyed the height of the bridge. At 175 feet, it’s the highest bridge in Virginia. Considering that I’m from West Virginia and the New River Gorge Bridge, it’s very miniscule, but still it’s one of those things that was very interesting. There’s a smattering of interesting jobs that when you show up, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Every job is interesting in its own right, especially when you’ve got someone in awe of what you’re doing, and they just want the end result and they don’t realize why you’re down the street or across the backyard. So, sometimes, the interest is in having knowledge to be able to show somebody how to get to the end result.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Correll: I wish I had the ability to keep up with technology better, but I learned CAD nuts and bolts, old school from a former mentor, so I’ve not had a lot of training in that respect. Deciding what to purchase — I’m still kind of an old-school guy that if it’s working and fairly efficient, I’m not the type that needs to upgrade. Especially in a lot of this business environment, you’re never sure what the future’s going to bring, so I’m the type at least to build up a cache. If I’m going to buy it and then have to loan some money against it, I want to have the cash on hand and maybe split instead of financing all of it. And then another worry, when you work alone, is mistakes; that you don’t have anybody checking your work. You go back and look at a plat from two weeks or a year ago, and you just slap yourself in the head, ‘Why’d you miss that?’ Those have been some of my biggest challenges, although if I have a really big problem, luckily I’ve got a group of local surveyors that, if I had to, I could shoot them a PDF of a plat and have them look through it and kind of walk through what the situation is and have them tell me what their thoughts are.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Correll: Various websites and message boards. I’m still an old-school subscriber to POB, and the other magazines also, and online I participate in a lot of different ways. A group of us who were on one of the message boards are quite friendly on Facebook now as well, so sometimes you can just post something there and it’s much quicker than through email. You can kind of tell who’s alive and active. Just things like that. That’s just one way. The Internet, while there’s so much great about it, in surveying you used to get together and talk with the people in your community. That has gone away a whole lot. Membership in state societies is dwindling, I think, to an all-time low. But I’m still a very active participant in our regional one, the VAS (Virginia Association of Surveyors) Western Chapter. Those guys are the greatest. That’s still the old-school work, getting together and pressing the flesh is still a big deal. That’s how I stay on top of it — suggestions from other people who I know and trust, just a whole list of sources, because you can’t just trust a supplier or a manufacturer to tell you the ins and outs of it. They’re going to list the positives.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Correll: Get an education. While I’m not 100 percent on board with the states going to a four-year degree, definitely getting at least an associate’s degree in surveying or a very related field — say forestry or something like that, something with civil engineering technology — is definitely needed. If you’re going to require four-year degrees, you’ve got to make them worth paying. Of course, that’s another societal issue. If you’re going to do it, pick an area where there are not a lot of other surveyors. That’s just simple numbers right there. I think my area is right at the perfect tipping point with large-scale E&S firms — there’s three or four right here in my area. A lot of reason for that is Virginia Tech. A lot of civil engineers and such come out of there, and some of them go into surveying. But we have the middle-of-the-road shops, and I think I’m the only solo surveyor in my county. But, again, get an education, and I guess if you’re going to start your own shop, it would be good to have a niche. A new fellow did open up here recently. He’s a PE and LS, and he holds a Class A contractor’s license, and he likes to do beginning-to-end utility work. That, to me, is an interesting way that he did his business. I’ve been sending quite a bit of work his way, because he’s not in a brick-and-mortar sort of place that’s paying a lot of administrative staff, so we’re a little more on the same side as far as cost margins and things like that.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
Correll: Obviously, the hands-on or the GPS for the regular day-to-day surveyor, as well as better CAD software. There were good DOS programs back in the day, and I even know some people that still generate their cogo out of DOS programs and then draft in CAD. That’s fine if it’s something you’re happy with and it will get you to the end result. Electronic equipment is faster, lighter. All of that stuff is great. I’ve got a robotic I bought used and, although I do see myself upgrading, it will probably be to another piece of used equipment, but something that’s not 12 or 14 years old, something that’s three or four years old and comes out refurbished. All of that stuff, robotics and reflectorless, have all been added in the time that I’ve been surveying. I drug 200- and 300-foot chain with a 20-second transit with my father up through 1988. So, I’m right on that cusp of people who still drug chain. We’re always going to need the ground-level surveyors. I’ve seen some of the articles about people going out and taking a picture with their phone of a rebar and they’re going to have GPS coordinates on it. Well, what if that corner is a tree or under a grove of thick maples? I’ve gotten an email from somebody recently who touts their drone business for surveying, and I didn’t really see a place for a shovel and Schonstedt on there. You’re going to need the people who know how to dig out corners and what they’re digging for. The future’s going to be more accuracy, faster equipment, things like that. But you still have to have the people who know how to run it — not just simply button-pushers. You’ve got to know why you’re pushing the buttons and what you’re trying to get out of it.
Carl Correll, LS has been in the business of surveying for more than 30 years. He owns Correll Land Surveying, based in Christiansburg, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Associate Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.