We’ve all heard the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. One has hold of a leg and proclaims elephants to be like trees. Another has his hands on the trunk and is sure elephants are like snakes. Another is inspecting an ivory tusk and knows elephants are like rocks. Each has his own perspective, and from that perspective he is right. The problem is that none can zoom out to see the larger picture. The surveying profession is much like this today.

We’ve all heard the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. One has hold of a leg and proclaims elephants to be like trees. Another has his hands on the trunk and is sure elephants are like snakes. Another is inspecting an ivory tusk and knows elephants are like rocks. Yet another is sure elephants are like broad leaves in the forest as a large ear brushes by his head.

Are the blind men wrong about the nature of elephants? Yes and no. Each has his own perspective, and from that perspective he is right. The problem is that none can zoom out to see the larger picture. The surveying profession is much like this today.

We all have our little niches. Some surveyors are boundary-only people. Others stick to construction staking or large engineering projects. We all have our perspective. But aren’t we missing the much larger and more important picture?

Surveyors are really good at the details. We have to be. We spend our days measuring, evaluating evidence and making tough decisions. We decide where and how much to research and search. We decide what evidence to hold or reject. We write highly technical reports about those decisions. We have to get good and close to our work; the close-up details matter.

But I believe that this getting good and close comes with a price. We get so close to the work we fail to see the larger picture. Like the blind men with the elephant, we fail to recognize things outside our daily routine.

Our profession is facing a couple of crises. Are we are too close to see them? In the next few years, surveying will change with or without our participation.

One. The initial skirmishes are beginning in the war to define surveying. That’s right, a question as simple as “What is surveying?” The answer to that question is closely linked with the obvious twin question: Who is legally authorized to provide “surveying” services?

Don’t believe me? All you have to do is look at the struggles in the Carolinas and California over data models and machine control.

Don’t believe me? What will you say when a “GIS” company hits your town with a large contract for locating water, sewer, and drain lines? What will you say when that contract also calls for the GIS company to locate the easements associated with those lines?

Don’t believe me? What about laser scanners? Is it “surveying” when someone scans an object and builds a mathematical model of that object? What if the object is a sculpture? What if the object is a bridge over an interstate highway?

What exactly is a geodesist? You’d better find out. Like it or not, that title may be in your future or in the future of your competition.

Is photogrammetry surveying? Does it fit the definition of surveying? If not, why not?

Two. Let’s set aside the question of what surveying is before our heads start hurting too much. Consider a different (and possibly more pressing) problem. Who will do all this “surveying” in the future? I’ve got news for you folks-we surveyors are starting to get a good bit of gray hair. That is, those of us lucky enough to still have our hair.

Here is a startling fact: Sixty-five percent of surveyors are over age 55 and 32% are over age 65. Is there a major influx of knowledgeable, youthful, willing people waiting to step in and take our place as we age out of the business? No. That means in a few short years, we face a serious shortage. Who will do all the work needing to be done? Better yet, who is working toward getting younger people interested in becoming surveyors? ACSM and some of the states have programs to help attract high school and college students into the profession. Are they successful? Not nearly successful enough. Frankly, if we count on the professional organizations to do all the work, we have lost the fight before it begins. This is a job that requires and effort from every PLS. Even with that, will we succeed in recruiting enough bright young minds to take over for us gray beards? Doubtful.

As a profession, we’d better wake up. It’s time we zoom out and see the big picture. If we don’t, we will be crushed by that animal that is like a snake-no, rock-no, leaf-in the forest.


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