A Shortage of Surveyors?
Stakeholders grapple with how to attract young surveyors and just how many will be needed in the future.
Big steps are being taken to safeguard the future of surveying. For example, the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) established the Young Surveyors Network in 2006 in an effort to bring the youngest of surveyors together and foster increased support for the group. The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) recently launched its own Young Surveyors Network, based on the FIG model, which offers support to surveyors aged 35 years and under, students of surveying, or those surveyors within 10 years of graduating from a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
However, as the groups work to empower existing young surveyors, a much more basic challenge is gaining attention from members of the wider surveying community — getting more young surveyors into the profession to begin with.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ current population survey groups surveyors, cartographers and photogrammetrists together in its workforce age demographics report, making the available data non-specific to surveyors in particular. That noted, of the 65,000 working under those titles, just 9,000 are 34 or younger.
Jerry Carter, CEO of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), says this trend is evident in NCEES statistics. “We’ve seen a significant reduction in the number of candidates taking the licensure exams, and that’s been a trend for probably the last several years. … The numbers of people taking the exams are significantly down and the trend appears to be that that’s going to continue to be the case at least in the foreseeable future.”
There are several factors that contribute to the less-than-healthy stream of incoming surveyors, Carter says. One of them is technology. He says 20 years ago, when a typical survey crew consisted of around four people, the assistants to the actual surveyor had the opportunity to gain field experience, which allowed them to rise through the ranks and ultimately become licensed quite practically. “With the advancement of technology, in many cases, that crew of four has been reduced to one. You’ve got a person who’s using robotics to actually do the survey, so you significantly reduce the opportunity for some of the younger folks to gain field experience and just practical experience; also to give them the opportunity to find out what the field is about.”
“The profession...needs to market itself more in terms of what they do, how they do it, how they serve the public and what the opportunities are in the industry.”
Connected to that, Carter says another influence is the evolution of educational expectations for surveyors. With many state boards now requiring a four-year degree, more quickly gaining the field experience to pass the examinations, perhaps through the family business, is not enough.
Another key factor contributing to the rate of incoming surveyors is the profession’s awareness-spreading deficiency. He says sharing information about the role of surveyor’s is essential at a time when the general public doesn’t necessarily have a clear understanding of what a surveyor actually is.
“We did a man-on-the-street questionnaire a few years ago just asking people what they think of when they see a surveyor, and a couple of people said those are those people you see on the side of the road with those funny looking instruments, and that’s as far as they could get. So the profession certainly needs to market itself more in terms of what they do, how they do it, how they serve the public and what the opportunities are in the industry.”
With regard to the wellbeing of surveying as a whole, there are many issues to deal with. But not many are more important than the future of the profession, figuring out where the new generation is coming from and how to educate them, says Curtis Sumner, executive director of NSPS. “I guess before we start thinking about educating them, we have to start thinking about where we’re going to find them. So it’s a major public relations effort, I think, on the part of all of us — certainly NSPS.”
Sumner echoes Carter’s view that, historically, the surveying community hasn’t necessarily found the right mechanisms to attract interest and bring people in. But, he believes that if outreach is done right, gaining appeal from the public shouldn’t be hard. “Our challenge isn’t, ‘Is it an interesting profession,’” Sumner says. “Our challenge is, ‘How do we convey the message to the people we're trying to influence that it is an interesting and rewarding profession?’”
With this in mind, NSPS recently held its first-ever Public Relations Awards, which was developed to shine a spotlight on public relations campaigns being implemented from associations and individuals from across the surveying community.
“It was just generally PR projects, but in the process some really good ideas came out with regard to targeting the next generation,” says Lisa Van Horn, NSPS public relations committee chair, who spearheaded the initiative.
The Texas Society of Professional Surveyors took first place for its recruitment project that supplied school guidance counselors with posters and brochures promoting surveying as a career path. They read, “Sometimes the career chooses you. Looking for something different? Well, we’re looking for you. Find yourself in surveying.” Both promotional materials are covered mostly with pictures and feature words like “adventure” and “challenges.” They both include the link to a supplementary website, www.becomeatexassurveyor.com, that includes additional information about the history of land surveying, the benefits of the profession, colleges that offer surveying-related programs and resources for school counselors to help students get started.
The Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors, which took second place, took a similar approach to Texas, with a goal of informing as many Minnesota K-12 teachers and guidance counselors as possible about the benefits to students of exploring post-secondary education and careers related to land surveying. Their campaign includes a cover letter highlighting what surveyors do, a mini-poster handout, a press release, social media posts, updates to www.mnsurveyor.com, and attendance at conferences for school counselors and teachers.
“Our challenge is, ‘How do we convey the message to the people we're trying to influence that it is an interesting and rewarding profession?’”
From there, NSPS was inspired to do something similar. So the society will have a presence at the American School Counselor Association 2016 conference in New Orleans. “They have about 2,000 people who come through there on average,” Van Horn says. “Our president, one of our young surveyors from the area and an instructor from one of the colleges down there are going to be there for that show and actually in a booth, and they’re going to be doing a nine-minute presentation to guidance counselors on what land surveying is.”
There were a number of other public relations initiatives entered into the contest focused on youth, like that of the Professional Land Surveyors of Colorado, which involved a Boy Scout Council Camporee in September 2015. A tent was provided and decorated with the association’s flag, and hands-on equipment demonstrations took place over the course of what the group deems GPS Day. The group was able to directly engage more than 200 people in discussions and exercises of land surveying. The children had the opportunity to use technologies the surveyors put to work every day. Differential leveling was performed, a robotic total station was set up, RTK GPS was used, pin finding with metal locators was carried out, and a demonstration of how to set up a tripod over a point was included.
Not every form of outreach geared toward the future of surveying was focused on kindergarten through college-aged individuals though. Van Horn says the North Dakota Society of Professional Land Surveyors’ Survey Day at the Mall during National Survey Week in March 2015 was open to all ages and backgrounds. The group set up stations for the public to view and participate in at a shopping mall in Bismarck, N.D., where they shared information with shoppers on what land surveyors do and what tools they use.
She says her main goal in organizing the Public Relations Awards and displaying the entries on the NSPS website is to learn from what others across the surveying community are doing to spread awareness. “The idea was we thought everybody was doing something, but we didn’t know what everybody was doing. So by inviting everybody to share their projects with the PR Awards, we got to find out all the different types of projects people were doing. … A lot of people can come up with the ideas, but they don’t always say anything. But somebody may say, ‘Hey, getting to the guidance counselors is a great idea,’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the states started doing that now.”
Prioritization of addressing the potential shortage of future surveyors is critical, Carter says. He estimates that the average age of the current population of surveyors is somewhere between 58 and 60 years, which means there will soon be a large marketplace void for young people to fill once the existing group retires. He says it is important that stakeholders in the profession exercise as much influence and effort as they can to educate young people about the opportunities and make them more aware of the surveying profession in general to hopefully entice them into it.
The way Sumner sees it, if such actions are not taken, the work surveyors do will still somehow occur because what they do provides basic information for so many property and infrastructure matters. The problem is that another group may not carry out the responsibilities with the same level of competence or stewardship. “From the surveyor’s perspective and benefit to the public perspective, the surveyor wants to ensure that the next generation coming along has the same dedication to that goal as do the practitioners today. … That’s our mission — to perpetuate the profession in its current iteration of protecting the public interest and not just as a mathematical exercise.”
If people don’t know who surveyors are, Van Horn says, attracting newcomers isn’t possible. The outreach and awareness should not be limited to youth though, she says. “If the child comes home and says, ‘I’m interested in being a land surveyor,’ and the parent says, ‘I have no idea what that is. I think you need to go to be an engineer,’ they steer them in a different direction. So it’s not just the child that we need to hit, it’s also the adults. We really need to have the entire public know just how important land surveyors are.”
One way that existing surveyors can play a part is to mentor those who have an interest in the profession, Carter says. Beyond that, Sumner suggests becoming more involved with the local community in general, not just by informing people about the profession, but by having a presence and forming relationships that can foster a broader network of people who actually know a surveyor.
Time of Transition
In 2015, NCEES organized a meeting of professional surveying stakeholders, including POB, to further the thought process around recruitment and build a set of comprehensive ideas that might turn into actions. The group that met will hold a second meeting in the Baton Rouge, La. area in early June. This time NSPS is leading the assembly.
Effectively addressing the challenge of bringing in a healthy stream of next-generation surveyors is no walk in the park, Carter says, even with a diverse set of players in the profession talking it through over the course of a day or two. “It takes a lot of thought. Otherwise somebody would have already put forth a plan and moved forward.”
With the technological advancements that have altered the surveying process comes another very important question about the incoming group of surveying professionals, Sumner says; that is whether or not the apparent shortage of incoming surveyors is a shortage at all. “We’re approaching it now as though we see a big dilemma because we don’t see in the pipeline nearly enough to fill the roles considering the average age and when those people are going to go out,” he says.
With the way technology has decreased the size of field crews, Sumner points out that it isn’t exactly clear how many surveyors will actually be needed for the future and how they may end up coordinating their efforts with other geospatial professionals to get the job done. In the end, there may not be the same demand for licensed surveyors as there has been historically and there may not be a dilemma at all.
Looking ahead, Carter says he has mixed feelings about the future of surveying as a profession because he sees this as a time of transition. “I think what people think about in terms of traditional surveying now is not going to be the case in the future.”
That isn’t to say he doesn’t have positive expectations.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to need surveyors unless somebody changes property law requirement when you get ready to buy a house. I think the profession’s going to have to adjust and we’re just going to have to figure out where we can find that new source of people to fulfill it.”