The Passage of Rites

What are our teaching obligations to the next generation of surveyors? Once, the education of future surveyors was an important function of surveying firms since there were few alternatives for learning. Real situations were thrust upon subordinates for their dispatch, with detailed debriefings and critiques. Have we abandoned the practice of semi-formal, in-house training? Somehow, over time, we have allowed the importance of semi-formal apprenticeship to fade.

When I was in the Marine Corps, on the job training had a poor connotation—perhaps deservedly so. Instead of rigorous, organized training, more often than not the "tutelage" merely consisted of following along behind those who were more experienced. Not surprisingly, the trainees derived little benefit from it. The practice resembles the training in most surveying firms today.

Some might argue that four-year degrees make on the job training obsolete. There is a difference, of course, between training and education. Ideally, education teaches one how to think, how to reason. Training teaches one how to perform tasks. (Both are required for effective practice.) Historically, the college degree was not expected to prepare students for the specifics of a profession. It was expected to expose the student to the great themes central to Western Civilization, and to impart such knowledge and skills that educated persons were expected to possess. Of course, four-year degrees can also serve as an introduction to the many facets of a profession, and in so doing can shorten the technical learning curve. But they cannot replace training.

Post-Baccalaureate Education

While it is important not to downplay the value of a baccalaureate degree, other professions supplement it with additional education. Lawyers cannot become licensed without attending law school after college; doctors must be graduated from medical school and then serve an internship before becoming licensed to practice. Would-be clergy have seminary to look forward to after college. We should primarily view the college degree, then, as a step toward preparation for a specific profession, not schooling in the nuts-and-bolts of the profession itself. I’ve not heard of any proposals for graduate-level surveying schools, but perhaps enforced post-baccalaureate apprenticeship serves a similar purpose.

Thus, despite the desirability of a four-year degree, one probably would be ill-prepared in relying solely upon it for expertise in any complex field. It is instructive to note that most registration laws require a specified period of experience even after formal education. This is as it should be. It is impossible to synthesize the seasoning and leavening that occurs during several years of immersion in the practice.

Alternatively, candidates for licensure in most states can qualify for examination by having a specified amount of acceptable experience in lieu of a four-year degree. Of course, the experience-only candidate misses the forced exposure to the great themes of Western Civilization and other skills normally expected in an "educated person," most notably written and oral communications skills. Yet there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples of first-rate, professional surveyors who lack a four-year degree. It must be concluded, then, that experience can be an effective route to licensure.

What is acceptable experience?

But not just any experience will do. There is a difference between 12 years of experience and 12 times one year of experience. Many people are "pigeon-holed" into repetitive tasks early in their career and never get the broad experience necessary as preparation for licensure. Others avoid responsibility because of an environment hostile to making mistakes. Seasoned judgment does not appear instantly upon licensure. It is a trait borne of experience—real experience in varied situations, not just time on the payroll.

Providing real-world experience is not always easy. Who among us has not listened with gritting teeth to a subordinate’s first interaction with a client? Since conversations can potentially lead anywhere, and might set the tone for all further interaction between the firm and that client, potentially high stakes are at risk—if not financial, certainly of image. Unfortunately, the only way to become proficient at client interaction is through repeated interaction with clients.

Doctors place a great emphasis on semi-formal training. Witness the weekly staff meetings with interns where the larger staff reviews cases for their comments and suggestions on diagnosis or treatment. Practices such as this are in sharp contrast to the training in most surveying firms. Doubtless, such training could be expensive, but perhaps it need not be.

One firm occasionally has "boundary lunches" where, over lunch, one member describes a recent boundary analysis, warts and all, for the others’ review and critique. (Since there are very few retracements where every line is beyond any doubt, seeing how weak lines are dealt with is important for everyone.) This has proven beneficial for both experienced and novice participants. Other firms routinely hold formal sessions on rainy days. Sessions such as these provide an opportunity to impart the rites of the profession. These rites (not in the sense of ceremonies, but in the sense of methods and techniques) are the practical manifestation of our practice, and are therefore essential skills for licensees.

There is an old adage that your subordinates will eventually become either your partners or your competitors. In each case, scrimping on their experience while under your care will prove damaging to someone—in all probability, you. If they become your partners, they will not uphold the high standards you embrace, for they will be bereft of the skills necessary to do so. If they become your competitors, they will drive down costs in the area, because higher quality usually requires more resources than does lower quality.

The time spent in compulsory training, then, should be viewed not as a rite of passage, but as the passage of rites. The future competency of our profession depends upon it.

Copyright © 1997 By Joel M. Leininger, LS