An Open Letter to the New Surveyors of America

Recently, several students and recent surveying graduates have come to me about their failure to find meaningful jobs in their new chosen profession, surveying; they also expressed major concerns about certain practices they are finding in the "everyday" work world. One was my own grandson, who completed his BS in Survey Engineering in 3½ years, wanting to "get to work." After working for a few months, he was promptly terminated, along with all of the survey crews. He has done everything to find a new job.

I am writing this article in hopes that those students whom I have met at their schools or who know of me by using my books in their legal classes, will, after reading this diatribe, and if they are questioning why did they go into surveying, only to sit on the street and watch the cars go by, while trying to sell apples, will realize that no surveying generation has been without its stone walls and disillusions. I will probably make this a longer discussion than I anticipated, in that I have already created it in my mind several times and now I am trying to reduce words of the mind to paper. I empathize with the dilemma of young surveyors in not finding gainful surveying jobs and now many are asking, "Did I do the right thing going into surveying" or “Should I quit and go into a new profession?" My own grandson asked me the same question last week. Why go to school 4 years only to be the first fired after two months of working as a party chief. My answer was, "I don’t know."
I am a recession child having been born in 1930. I remember my father, who lost his neighborhood grocery having given out too much credit to friends (his first error). His hope was that I become a dentist, which I did not. In the same mail my grandson, having found a surveying job in another state, reported and was told that he would have to work until December, and then they would pay him, in December. He, like many of you, had no savings, having paid for school, and with numerous school loan, so, whom does he call. Me.

These young men and women asked several questions. I hope all of you realize I do not sit on a mountain top with all of the wisdom in the world and gaze at my navel , but I will give you my viewpoint, as I see it.

I recognize the problem, but although the problem may not be our fault, we seem to be the recipients of what the profession and other professions have become today. As I see it, we as surveyors have a problem of self identification: We do not know what we are. There is no universal definition of surveying. There are many roads a surveyor can travel, and we cannot go down them all. For me my choice was the legal path. As I see it, one of the big problems is the personality defects—if you could consider them that, I do not—that made us seek surveying. This has been our downfall. We usually have individuals who are seeking a profession that seems to draw the introverted personality, who loves solitude, remoteness and being a lover of the "outdoors" and not the drafting table. One who enjoys the opportunity to work with his hands as well as his mind, one who will not walk away from a problem without seeking or looking, and will not stop until he/she has developed a solution. I consider surveying a profession, but as some of you may have sadly found out there are some surveyors who are not professional. I see that today, when some surveyor will call and ask me to underbid another surveyor to get a job. I refuse to do that.
I do not know if you young people remember what a reporter for the defunct New York World once wrote when asked by a little girl, "Is there a Santa Claus?" His answer was "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, as long as children believe, regardless, of what others do and think, there will always be a Santa Clause. It isn’t what other people think and do, it is what you think and do."
I believe surveying is a profession because I’ve always tried to make it so. Unfortunately technology has developed much faster than the law. It is very difficult to understand why some businesses do that, but the fault may also be with that person who wants to do his/her own brain surgery with the ready availability of GPS units that can be bought by untrained people to do their own surveying projects. When things go wrong, and they will, they will seek you, the surveyor, to fix the problem, and you will, it is your nature. It isn’t that I am against technology. I can teach a monkey to turn angles but I cannot teach a monkey to analyze and tell me where the bust could be or how to distribute error, or how to analyze conflicting evidence. That is what the surveyor does.
Times are no worse than when the original GLO surveyors were paid $2.00 a mile for final lines and none for random. Look at the thousands of unknown surveyors who blazed thousands of miles of lines in a wilderness that had never been seen by the white man. Many of these men’s names are lost to history, but their efforts are still there, waiting to be found by you, the young surveyor. Every generation has their own wilderness. Ours is a wilderness of seeking "who we are" and can we "make the rent."

When I graduated in 1952, my degree was in forestry, simply because it had more surveying. The civil engineer program had 1 course: I ended up with 11. I wanted to be a surveyor since I was 9 years old when I discovered the beauty and a fascination of maps and map making. This is a profession that calls the person and not vice-versa. It chooses you. It is like entering a religious order. You found out that you will place your profession above your wants and yes, at times, above your family. I was on a survey job in Arkansas when my father died. We were so remote that it took searchers two days to find us. This was long before cell phones and instant communication. I was surveying I-80 when my second daughter was born and my wife nearly died. I finally got to see them when my daughter was a week old. I told my wife that I would be there for the conception, but could not guarantee the "birthin." But that one job did do two things. I was able to name two triangulation stations after my two daughters.

I am no different than Andrew Ellicott, who while surveying the 31st parallel between Spain and the US, heard that his daughter Sally had died. In his field notes he said he cried he could not have kissed her. Who else can say that or could have done that? By the way, the government never paid him for that survey and he had to sell his instruments to pay his men.

Surveying is more than technology. It is a blood disease. If it gets in your blood you will never be able to cure it. You may choose to go on to another profession, which I did. I did not use law to replace surveying, I used law to enhance surveying. I have always said, GIS means "GET IT SURVEYED" You have to remember that LIDAR is a tool, and tools can be used by professionals as well as idiots and fools.

I saw a course on International Boundary Surveying at Durham University in England. The cost was more than $3,000 for 5 days, as well as rail, airfare, etc. I WANTED that. So I borrowed on my life insurance policy to pay for it. Like a mistress, which surveying can become, you will sacrifice to get what you want.
Recently I had a lot of dental work done, to the point I can now pick up radio stations on the metal in my teeth. I was telling the dentist, a close acquaintance, about it. He stated how lucky I was, at 79 looking forward to work. He stated he "Hated what he was doing. Every day was hell to him, getting up and looking downs people’s throats all day. In a sense of trying to relieve his problem I said, "At least you are not a proctologist." He then turned the drill up an extra 1M revs while laughing. He does not worry about $$$. He has a
beach cottage, a mountain cottage, and the ability to buy cottage cheese. But he hates his profession. I have one house, with a 30 mortgage that will be paid off when I am 97. I have memories of 61 years of surveying on, as my daughters call it "my trophy wall" with letters of thanks from all over the world, plus a scrap book with letters of thanks from students as well as grizzled surveyors who enjoy my books and how I have made a difference in their lives. These are the rewards of our profession. I know one must eat to exist, and as a surveyor you are too proud to ask for help, but all I can say must believe things will get better and they will. We must all keep a positive attitude.

I read a book that has made a difference in my life: Boundaries and Landmarks. Read the last paragraph and then make your decision. The last paragraph says: yet when it seems to me that a man of an active mind and high ideal the profession is singularly suited; for to the reasonable certainty of a modest income must be added the intellectual satisfaction of problems solved, a sense of knowledge and power increasing with the years, the respect of the community, the consciousness of responsibility met and work well done. It is a profession for men, who believe that a man is measured by his work, not by his purse, and to such I commend it.
Each of you must make your own decisions. Many years ago, I, too, asked the same questions. I was in the Alligash region in Maine as an instrument man on a survey crew, making 10 cents an hour. I had a degree, with honors, in Forestry and was offered a job in woodlands at 25 cents an hour. But the new job would have taken me away from what I have loved to do. I sat there, legs bleeding from the briar scratches and being the "Blue Plate Special" for the black flies, debating. But I stayed. And I did not regret the decision.

I don’t know if I helped you young surveyors, but as I sit here plunking this out, I write with tears in my eyes that good young vibrant intelligent educated professionals are driven to desperation to ask of me, a person, who in my opinion has never made it in the profession, "Mr. Robillard, is there a Santa Claus?" Your Santa Claus is there. Find him, but NEVER LOOK BACK.
All I can say is I found my Santa Claus and I have not regretted it. Make a decision, but using your mind and your heart ask yourself "Where do I want to go?" Then set your sight there with my blessings remember when you wake up in the morning fifty years from now will you say "Good morning God, and not "Good God, it’s morning, and another long day of drudgery ahead."

My prayers and best wishes are with each and every one you and your generation

Walt Robillard, RLS, FSMS, Esq.