Geo Week News

March 27, 2014

What is to become of the Land Surveyor?

What is to become of the Land Surveyor? In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I am one. However, it’s been years since I worked on a project that required me to use my stamp. I can unequivocally state that this is one problem of many that are keeping surveyors up at night. The long and the short of it is that without some major changes in state laws, surveyor mentality, and marketing I think that the profession will die out. In fact, I’d argue that it is already dying in many states. I was at the Tennessee Association of Professional Surveyors conference last week and it was the first time in a while that I was one of the younger people in the room. My opinion is definitely not shared by all surveyors. I’ve met plenty that are quick to tell me that the state licensing programs were created to solve problems that will begin again if we abandon the system. I don’t necessarily disagree, I’m just not sure that there is enough work that requires the use of a licensed surveyor to make it worth the effort for a lot of us.

Various states are trying different things to keep surveyors in the position of esteem and marketability that they possessed in the 1960’s and 70’s. Some are now requiring a college degree in order to sit for the test, others are looking at apprenticeship programs or more stringent continuing education programs to reduce the number of licensed surveyors in the hopes that a supply side shortage will drive wages back up. Are they just looking to get rich? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the goal is simply to maintain the avocation as a profession in which a person can earn a middle to upper middle class living. The situation is similar to that with teachers here in the US. In many states the pay is simply not in line with the required education, the level of responsibility, the potential liability, and the amount of paperwork required by the various licensing boards. While arguments can be made that teachers are in this position through no fault of their own while surveyors are here due to their unwillingness to embrace change, the reality is that many of us had nothing to do with the survey boards’ decisions to not embrace GPS and GIS 20 to 30 years ago.

However, we will be responsible for how these boards react to laser scanning, mobile LiDAR, UASs, crowd sourcing, and so on.

The one thing that we surveyors seem to be able to agree upon is that anything that requires a legal description, courthouse documentation, and property boundaries is ours and ours alone (excepting states that allow licensed engineers to do the same). The problem that I have is that that alone is not enough work to support a company. I know of owner/operators that are making a living doing this but they are typically working out of their home or have an office with less than 5 employees. Of course, today a licensed surveyor with a smartphone, laptop and a robotic total station can replace what was a secretary and a three person survey crew in years past. While this is an improvement to the surveyor’s bottom line it also has a downside. Many of us learned how to survey by working on those survey crews and if there is one complaint that you hear over and over again from older surveyors it’s that the younger generation are great “button pushers” but they don’t understand the art of surveying; the legal and historical aspects of the profession. The reality is while I have my license, if I had to choose between being a great “button pusher” that could perform very accurate measurements and a licensed land surveyor that was still collecting data one point at a time, I’d be pushing buttons. There is less liability, and a lot more work.

So, what is the answer? I’m really not sure. Perhaps new standards are needed. The original standards were set up for the convenience of the general public. You see this argument used a lot when surveyors denigrate GIS people. “They are not accurate enough”, “It’s too crude”. The reality is that they are not as accurate because they do not have to be. The client is not asking for sub-centimeter accuracy, they want hundreds of assets per person per day. Just because I can be more accurate doesn’t mean that streamlining my workflow so that I can lower the cost with a lower accuracy survey is below me.  

In reality, I am performing “surveys” every week that are way more accurate than the standards set up by the survey boards. Laser scanning cut its teeth on engineering grade mapping, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to teach a licensed surveyor how to accurately run a control network in a plant environment because his typical workflow was not accurate enough for scanning. Perhaps something akin to an ALTA survey for engineering systems or BIM creation could be adopted as a simpler solution to writing out specifics in each and every contract. There has to be an advantage to the client for using a licensed surveyor or he/she will not bother to do so.

I do know that surveyors and their boards need to embrace newer technologies at a better rate than they have historically. I’ve opined many times that we are becoming IT specialist. Until we surveyors and our representative licensing boards can find a way to redefine the licensed surveyor in this paradigm as opposed to the amount of dirt on his boots or his connections with the local Register of Deeds I will continue to consider myself to be a member of a dying profession.


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