Debate: Mandatory Continuing Education—For

The debate rages on over whether to require continuing education for surveyors. Curiously, I have never heard anyone deriding continuing education itself. Perhaps this is because education enjoys an implicit presumption of merit—like motherhood and patriotism—and thus is immune from charges of unacceptableness. When the education becomes mandatory, however, many surveyors balk at the idea. To be sure, the notion of government mandating additional obligations onto overworked surveyors is repugnant to some. Also, it is possible that a program could be so poorly implemented as to negate most of its potential benefits. However, to presume that the downsides outweigh the benefits without exploring both gives rise to suspicions that the value of education itself is questioned.

Continuing Education Protects the Public

Although continuing education should be important to surveyors because of a professional obligation to remain current in their approach to practice, mandatory continuing education has as its goal the protection of the public. This is an important distinction because it clarifies and focuses the underlying motivation of the requirement. If the public maintains an interest in ensuring that surveyors render acceptable service—and it must, or licensing itself is a sham—then the public may take steps to see that surveyors remain proficient. This is a motivation entirely apart from a professional’s obligation to stay current with developing trends.

Mandatory continuing education has had roller-coaster swings in popularity over the years. Originally conceived as a means to mitigate knowledge obsolescence in fast-changing fields such as medicine, its image suffered when some studies found that there were no measurable benefits resulting from attendance. Subsequently, heated debates arose over the prudence of requiring participation.

It is true that mandatory programs carry no guarantee of benefit. Of course, that can also be said of nearly everything else in life. The effectiveness of any educational program depends on the quality of the presentation, the relevance of the subject matter and the ability of the participants to understand the material. All professions potentially benefit from such activities.

For the surveying community, the exercise has peculiar value because we have peculiar needs. First, our practice is unlike that of most other professions in that most practitioners do not share a common educational foundation. Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence that even the 4-year "surveying" degrees do not adequately cover the subjects necessary for effective practice. In other words, the technical aspects of our work likely were learned by informal tutelage, and, as a result, could be deficient in not-so-subtle ways. Thus, a significant failsafe against error-prone conduct, formal education, is absent.

Second, surveyors tend to practice in situations where opportunities for doctrinal dialogue are limited. For example, most surveyors in responsible charge of surveys are in responsible charge of all surveys conducted by that organization. This indicates centralization of responsibility, which in turn indicates isolated professionals. As a result, chances for informal consultation with peer surveyors are infrequent. Such a situation would be tolerable if our formal educational foundations were generally sufficient, but that is not the case. Moreover, off-campus activities provide occasion to get out of the office and talk with other surveyors, enabling us to monitor the evolving standard of care. This is especially important once we reach that career stage when most of the learning curve has been overcome and we develop habits that, left unchecked, could last the whole career. Plato said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." We should take that to heart. Some of the most egregious standard-of-care violations result from surveyors using practices long outdated.

Practical Experience Aids in Learning

There are other benefits as well. Adult learners have the advantage of being able to weigh the material covered in light of substantial experience. During a period of initial education, such as in a 4-year degree program, students have limited ability to consider the relevance of the subject matter in light of real-world experience because they’ve had no chance to gain that experience. There is no question that experience clarifies and illumines the material, resulting in enrichment. That same experience allows the adult learner to explore with the instructor those areas that seem to conflict with common custom (as he or she understands it). As a result, the discussions can lead in new directions, to the benefit of all participating, and perhaps induce meaningful practice changes where necessary.

It is obvious that many surveyors routinely attend educational sessions and thus probably would notice little impact from a mandate to do so. If we can agree that continuing education is beneficial, what must we conclude about the half or more of the surveying population who do not regularly participate? Are we to conclude that their practice is as capable as those who attend? Probably not. In fact, the sole effect of mandating continuing education is to reach the large percentage of surveyors who rarely, if ever, continue their education—to the detriment of their clients. A few respond by asserting that compulsory education is valueless because the unwilling participants "tune out" during the session and are thus deprived of any benefit. I doubt it. As one interested observer noted, "If compulsory attendance is valueless, then better explanations are owed fourteen-year-old boys." Even though voluntary education is preferable, mandatory education is better than none. Although some may prefer to sleep in the back of the room, I suspect the vast majority will "make the best of it" and at least attempt to get their money’s worth out of the experience.

The benefits of continuing education are clear, especially given the current state of our profession. However, persistent arguments surface that appear to mitigate its necessity. Let’s explore them:

There is no evidence of a competency problem.

Some have pointed to the tiny number of complaints lodged against surveyors as evidence that surveyors do not need additional education. The problem with this logic is that it takes an informed consumer to realize that he or she has been harmed before a complaint will be filed. Almost without exception our clients have no idea how we go about our work and thus have no means to determine whether we have performed in a competent manner. Much of our work concerns abstractions such as measurements, rules of construction or error ellipses. Clients have no obligation to understand any of that. Most complaints, not surprisingly, concern not the raw competence of the surveyor, but the cost of the work or its timeliness. In fact, although no one has hard numbers on this sort of thing, I would venture that fewer than five percent of complaints center around a client-identified competence issue.

It is difficult to grasp the perspective of this without attaching numbers to the discussion. Assume that a certain state has 1,000 registered surveyors. A rough estimate of the number of surveys (of all kinds—retracements, topography, mortgage inspections and so forth) that each surveyor is responsible for (signs and seals) each year is 200. (This will vary from surveyor to surveyor, but 200 is probably a fair average.) That works out to be 200,000 surveys of all types being performed in that state yearly. Now, I’ve not heard of any state having more than 200 complaints against surveyors in a year (and most have far fewer), but let’s assume that this state averages 200 complaints per year. If the number of complaints were any measure of satisfaction, these numbers look pretty good; the percentage of surveys generatin
g complaints is 0.1. If only 5 percent of those complaints concerned competency, the percentage of total surveys drops to 0.005. No practicing surveyor would be fooled into believing that only 0.005 percent of surveys each year had a significant incompetence component. Indeed, if every complaint concerned incompetence, the percentage would still only be 0.1. Clearly, this is inconsistent with what we know through retracement. Therefore, the number of complaints cannot be used as an argument for or against anything. But don’t take my numbers for granted; use the real numbers from your state. You’ll probably conclude as I have done. This is not to imply that mandatory continuing education would instantly cure any incompetence problem, but if the surveyors most at risk for incompetent work are exposed to correct doctrine, perhaps for the first time, meaningful changes are possible.

Surveyors take the same types of courses again and again.

Some have objected that surveyors stay within their "comfort zone" when attending seminars, taking the same courses again and again instead of diversifying into new areas. From the perspective of the profession, this is not an encouraging sign. If we are to avoid being "boxed" into a narrow sphere of practice, we must actively seek out new areas of expertise—and seminars provide a convenient way to sample them.

But from the public’s perspective, staying within a comfort zone is a wonderful idea. Our comfort zone probably encompasses our area of practice. For instance, if we enjoy and are proficient at GPS surveying, two things are likely: first, we are employed in such an activity (or are seeking employment as such), and second, seminars we attend will be on the same subject. From the public’s position, this is perfect. Think of it: if the public is to be protected, it is important to have providers up to speed on their primary activities. Should they also want to be proficient in other facets of the practice, that would be marvelous, but the primary concern must be for them to be proficient in what they are offering to the public. Thus, the tendency to stay within the "comfort zone" when attending seminars is an ideal situation. Here is an instance where it is necessary to focus on the ultimate beneficiary of the requirement—the public—to grasp the distinction.

This is just a ploy to make money for the course providers.

This argument really has no merit. In fact, one could use it against any activity, no matter how essential. (For instance, fill in the blanks with any occupation: "requiring _________ is just a ploy to make money for ______ers.") Obviously, some activities are of such import that the community may require them. Examples are immunization shots for children, speed limits and license tags for automobiles, licensing for practicing certain occupations and so forth.

It costs too much.

This is an interesting contention. Obviously cost cannot be considered in the abstract because as such it is meaningless. (Is $25.00 expensive? For a paper clip, yes; for a computer, no.) Cost must be evaluated within the context of value. The value of continuing education is an enhancement of the practice itself. When considered as such, it becomes apparent that the time spent in honing one’s knowledge, plus the small amount to cover the costs of the presentation, is a small price to pay for the privilege of a deeper understanding of the theories associated with surveying. Also, if it were too expensive, how is it possible that so many surveyors have participated thus far?

At some point the arguments against mandatory education must be considered in light of the general human tendency to do no more than is absolutely necessary. If every surveyor routinely sought out educational opportunities, no requirement would be necessary; unfortunately, that is not the case. The time for mandatory continuing education has come. Many surveyors will see no impact from the requirement. We can only hope that many others will see an impact—and the public will gain as a result.

Copyright © 1999 By Joel M. Leininger, LS