As I was recently updating my contacts in the industry, I came to a sad realization: Many of my colleagues are gone. While this is true to some degree in both engineering and surveying, it seems that in surveying it is particularly evident. The surveying staff at most companies has been decimated. Gone are the heavy hitters, the people who knew people, the men and women who had significant experience and, with it, the six-figure salaries.

It seems that they have been replaced by quite able but much younger people. The folks with 25-35 years’ experience have disappeared. When I place calls to them, their protégés now answer the phone. These are folks who obtained their licenses five to 10 years ago. I hear they are working for about half the salary of their mentors, typically $45-60K per year. I also notice that they are not complaining, perhaps because they fulfill an important role, have growth paths in front of them and are, indeed, employed.

What will the higher-echelon folks do? A few of them have told me of their plans. One said he wanted to open his own surveying business; however, he has lost the ability to perform fieldwork. He hasn’t done any serious field surveying in years and is not up on the field software nor the equipment that, ironically, has been purchased under his watch. He is looking for a young, competent surveyor who can do the fieldwork for a start-up salary.

Another said he would continue to search for employment similar to what he had previously, a management position dealing in high-end surveying tasks (mostly client related), supervising field crews or being a “technical chief” to review surveys before they leave the company. This particular fellow has been unemployed for two years now and nothing is breaking loose.

Yet another person told me he is looking for a government position in the hopes that his qualifications will trump younger, less-qualified workers. He has been through some government interviews and in one case was told that he was the only person who answered all of the interview questions correctly. He did not get the position and has no idea why.

As the conference season has opened up for 2010, I have noticed that attendance is surprisingly decent. There are two reasons for this-one is that continuing education is offered, and the other is the potential for networking. While networking is a smart thing to do, it isn’t really panning out; there are few jobs to be had in surveying.

From my point of view, the situation is both tragic and healthy. But healthy for whom?

The profession will survive because I believe people rise to the occasion. I believe the younger, less-experienced people will perform their jobs satisfactorily, and the tasks will get done. The profession has not really skipped a beat as far as everyday work goes, and the boss is now paying less for the professional result. So, for the short term, jobs will get done and done correctly. However, there has to be a price that will be paid for the “brain drain” that has been occurring.

Or does there?

We have noticed an interesting trend in our training classes during the past year or so. Gone are the people with lackadaisical attitudes. Gone are the people who show up late, leave early or skip entire days altogether. Gone are the people who don’t understand the fundamentals of surveying and drafting. Gone are the people who hold up the class because they don’t have the fundamentals to be in the class in the first place. Gone are the people who don’t apply QA/QC to everything they do.

In fact the people attending our training these days are serious students with an eye toward productivity, automation and quality control. The more-experienced, time-wizened surveyor often leaned toward checking computations by hand. These less-experienced folks can perform multiple computations using the computer and are using one automated process to check another. As a last resort, they might turn to the calculator on their cell phones to perform a manual calculation.

Another difference is that the attendees to our training seem to have more formal education in surveying, while many of their experienced counterparts did not. This makes sense since many states are now requiring a college education in order to qualify for a license. We have been getting questions on double stereo-graphic geodetic projections, geodetic conversions and the like. We are being asked to consult on advanced grading and data prep issues, multiple surfaces, subsurface conditions, the effect of field equipment on 3D data, etc. As a result, the curriculum for our classes has escalated quite rapidly in the past one to two years.

So in short, our industry’s face is changing; personnel are moving in and out. Those exiting need to realize that the employment game is vastly altered from the one in which most of us grew our careers. To turn the situation around, you’ll have to keep up the networking and renew the relationships you had with clients. Bring those relationships to a new prospective employer. Get trained on the latest software and learn about the equipment in use in the field. Put your skills back together and ask yourself, “Would I hire me and, if so, can I afford me?”

What do you think? Please share your comments below.