Angle Points: Who Are You?

A 180Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Who are you? What do you do? How often are you confronted with these questions? Better yet, how about the answers? "You’re the guy who looks through the telescope thingy," or, my favorite, "My cousin is a landscaper."

How often does this happen to a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant? Why aren’t these professions confusing to the public? Everyone knows what a doctor does. Unquestionably, members of these distinguished professions are held in high regard and their activities are understood. Why is that? What is the distinction between the Land Surveyor and an accountant? One doesn’t need to probe too deep to realize that the distinction is quite rudimentary; it is training and education. There, I said it, Education." One needs to be well educated to become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. There are other reasons these professions are recognized by the public and although subtle, a few simple letters can make a lot of difference. These titling accoutrements, as it were, go hand in hand.

In Alaska, a Land Surveyor is called a Registered Professional Land Surveyor, while in California, there is a virtual smorgasbord of titles one can use including Professional Land Surveyor, Licensed Land Surveyor, Land Survey Engineer, Survey Engineer, Geodetic Engineer, Geomatics Engineer, or Geometronic Engineer. In Oregon, where geometronics is more fully embraced, it is an entire area of practice:

Geometronics is part of the Technical Services Branch, Traffic-Roadway Section, serving the project development and construction engineering businesses of the Oregon Department of Transportation. The Geometronics Unit includes five Groups–Survey Operations, Geodetic Control, Photogrammetry, Right of Way Engineering, and Maps and Plans.

Why is there not uniformity in who we call ourselves? Admittedly, California’s efforts are purely promotional and intended to appeal to tech-hungry students, there are many of us who do not call ourselves anything, at least not formally? Have you ever pondered the question as to how people perceive and address you? Do you care? If not, why not?

When a doctor prepares a report or signs a letter, he/she includes a simple notation to let the world know his/her qualifications simply by adding two letters–"MD." Television’s fictitious character Marcus Welby, MD advanced the image of medical profession in unprecedented ways just as Perry Mason, Esq. did for the legal profession. Is there any doubt as to what a CPA does?

When I publish any professional documents, I always include the title "PLS" at the end of my signature as in Michael J. Pallamary, PLS. When anyone responds to me, they always include the PLS and why shouldn’t they? My clients recognize the value and importance of a title or a license and they appreciate the effort it took to earn that recognition. At a more visceral level, it is a simple way to promote oneself and the profession; a profession I might add that has no uniform approach to public relations and one that is decidedly unclear of its future. Most Land Surveyors are content to be known simply as Bill Smith, "the surveyor" or Charlie McMillan, "the construction guy" as opposed to William Smith, PLS or Charles McMillan, PLS. The same apathetical approach can be said of attire. At the risk of a well-worn, but proven cliché, impressions are important and they count. When you are in the field, your "office," there is no reason you cannot wear a clean button collar shirt as opposed to a stained T-shirt and when you are in the office, a nice shirt and tie. How can one expect to be treated like a professional if you are unwilling to act like a professional and look like a professional?

As to our effectiveness in the public relations department, there is simply no question; we control our own destiny and if we are to survive, we must take a series of methodical steps together. To begin, we must add the "PLS" to our names and we must display pride in what we do. We must also be better educated if we are to be perceived as a profession. Darn I said it again–education. We need to lift ourselves up from and decide if we are a profession or an industry where, with each passing day, our services are being commoditized.

As tough a pill as it is to swallow, if your business model is based upon negotiating the number of stakes you can put in the ground in the course of the workday and if your bids are based upon a unit price model as is done in the construction industry, you are offering a commodity and as such, you possess the characteristics of an industry and not a profession. If you believe providing these fee-based, unit-cost services constitutes offering a professional service, it stands to reason that it is akin to negotiating the cost of heart surgery with your doctor. "Hey, Doc. The guy down the street at Urgent Care is going to put in half the number of stitches you’re proposing. I’m going to save a few bucks. Can you meet his number? My cousin needs an appendectomy. If I bring her along, can you cut us a deal?"

As noted above, I mentioned the much dreaded "E" word. It is a topic I touched on in a previous article and due to the limitations inherent with a small column, I was not able to include the entire article. It is available on line and it is an excerpt from a larger article called "Measurement is Dead–Long Live Measurement." When I first presented this concept to various individuals, it was deemed nothing short of blasphemous. Be that as it may and in the face of criticism, it warrants discussion. This is a new age and these are new times and they are a changing. Over the last 25 years, the role of the Land Surveyor has been supplanted on all fronts. Years ago, three or four person crews would spend days and weeks preparing topographic maps and establishing control networks. That labor intensive procedure has been replaced by electronic measurement, photogrammetry, GPS, and LiDAR and much to the chagrin of a confused industry, these are all devices that can be operated by a "Google-Guy." Such a person can sit at their computer and in between checking his/her Facebook page, they can scan a site and then upload the display and results to the Internet. In the latest edition of ArcNews (Fall 2012-Vol. 34, No. 3), it is noted:

There is a growing realization that by adding geographic location to business data and mapping it, organizations can dramatically enhance their insights and tabular data. Maps and spatial analytics provide a whole new context that is simply not possible with tables and charts. This context can almost immediately help users discover new understandings and more effectively communicate and collaborate using maps as a common language. . .This interest is reflected in the fact that spatial visualization is one of Deloitte’s top 10 technology priorities of 2012.

I remember when Land Surveyors prepared maps. It was the golden age of land surveying and began with Ptolemy, Mercator, Lewis and Clark, and eventually led to four person survey crews. Today, most maps are made by a college student with an iPad sitting at Starbucks. How much of your business is based upon map preparation? What about positioning? For many, a WAAS enabled, handheld GPS device is sufficient to capture coordinates, once the exclusive and mysterious domain of Land Surveyors. What datum? Push that button.

There are many challenges ahead and from my perspective, the biggest impediment to professional progress is the Land Surveyor him/herself. Our licensing laws are antiquated and state surveying organizatio
ns appear more intent on passing out plaques than advancing continuing education. And, traditional business models are not working. Anyone who expects to compete with modern Google-type technology using old tools and techniques will not survive. Maps are available everywhere and everyone is a mapmaker. As a testament to this dramatic change in technology and the evolution of technicians, last year I attended an ESRI user’s conference in their corporate headquarters. I noted that there were more than a thousand mapmakers and only one surveyor in attendance–me. The GIS community and industry is vibrant and innovative and resourceful while many surveyors complain about a lack of work and razor thin fee agreements. Sadly, because most Land Surveyors are institutionally entrenched, they are unwilling to take a look ahead.

Given the value of GIS derived data, how is it that it is not a licensed practiced profession? The infringement of GIS technicians on land surveying is nothing short of stunning and with each passing day, GIS is afforded more weight and value than is land surveying.

Unless we change, our days are numbered and if you believe in the profession, you need to begin investing in a new future. We need to resume control over the sciences and skills we have largely abandoned, all on our own I might add, and we need to redefine our profession. The professional needs a new pair of glasses and it needs to be educated. At a minimum, we need to start a national dialogue and we need to move forward in a new direction. Are you going to join me?

Michael Pallamary, PS, is the author of several books and numerous articles. He is a frequent lecturer at conferences and seminars and he teaches real property to attorneys and other members of the legal profession. He has been in the surveying profession since 1971.

A 180Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE