Angle Points: How the Profession has Damaged Continuing Education

A 299Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Ever and anon, surveyors are constantly arguing about continuing education and the requirement for a degree before sitting for a license to practice the venerable art of land surveying. For reasons I have yet to comprehend, many surveyors oppose the pursuit of enhanced education and I have concluded it is either out of ignorance or apathy. My money’s on apathy as I can’t believe there are so many ignorant surveyors out there.

In defense of my position, it is a bit depressing to realize that I represent the standard profile for today’s land surveyor–I am a white male, 59 years of age. Where is the new blood and why aren’t more people qualified to become land surveyors? What did my generation do differently to produce so many land surveyors, ones that have remained in the profession? Put another way, what did subsequent generations of surveyors not do? Irrespective of what may or may not have happened, if we are to survive, we must consider what the next generation of surveyors needs to do.

Sadly, most of today’s applicants for licensure are simply unqualified. Sure they do a great job at measuring but they are pretty lousy surveyors. I admit they can find a lot of shiny things and sometimes they can figure out where it is and how high it is but do they know what it means? Do they understand the rules of evidence? What is a monument and how does it fit in the grand cadastre? Do these measuring people know how to read a deed or prepare a map? Do they recognize signs of adverse possession, prescriptive easements, unwritten rights or a boundary agreement? Are they able to communicate effectively?

Here’s where I fall into the "when I was your age" thing. When I was younger I was immersed in continuing education on a daily basis. I learned how to survey from some very talented individuals while on the job. A survey crew was typically composed of three people with a definite chain of command and qualifications. There was a rodman, a chainman and a crew chief and everyone took pride in their work; everyone had a definite set of responsibilities. Today, there is one person in the field and that person is measuring something and recording computer compiled measurements of things with a series of buttons and everything is stored on a data collector. There are no sketches, no notes, no nothing. No one is out there teaching them anything while basic economics prohibits the responsible charge surveyor to be in the field. How much can you learn from a circuit board and a satellite?

Several years ago when I interviewed a candidate for a crew chief position, I took him with me in rugged terrain where I had him run a chain and plum bob traverse with me, through a topographically diverse, heavily wooded site. I informed him that if we got a 1/20,000 closure, I would hire him. Mind you we had access to electronic equipment but I left it at the office. I wanted to see if he could survey. He passed and today, he is a partner in a large west coast surveying firm and he is a very competent surveyor.

When I began my career in New England, I spent a lot of time working in subzero weather in Maine and New Hampshire while in the summer, temperatures could exceed one-hundred degrees. I was taught how to pull a chain and correct for sag, temperature, and slope while still attaining a 1/20,000 closure. I was also taught how to maintain our field equipment and make calculations and adjustments in the field without electronic calculators. I understood what a measurement meant and what it took to measure accurately. Indeed, such a skill was one of the main attributes of a good surveyor; the ability to precisely locate things. With all due respect for people who measure today, what skills does it take to push a button and cough up a cupful of coordinates? My ten-year old granddaughter can run GPS and she can get better closures today than I ever dreamed of.

We also learned the seemingly lost art of evidence examination. We learned not only how to look for monuments, but we also learned what to look for. How many times have I seen modern measuring people produce a thumb drive full of coordinates, replete with their short abbreviated identification comments, for a "FD 3/4PDSK LS5432" and no indication as to what methods were used to locate it? When I ask for an explanation as to what control was used, such as was it a side shot, was there an adjustment for elevation, is it part of an accepted control scheme, they look at me with glazed eyes. "What don’t you understand, Mike? Here are the coordinates!" ("Idiot" under their breath)

Several years ago I worked with a firm on a survey in some rugged mountainous terrain. We were retracing some old government survey monuments and I had a lot of preexisting state plane coordinate values so I had some expectation as to the values I should have been getting. When we returned to the office to do some post-processing of the data (not an onsite evaluation like we used to do) the distances were off by several feet across a half mile.

I began to audit the data and I started asking a lot of questions and I got the same "Idiot" under-the-breath stares. "What don’t you understand Mike. Here are the coordinates!" I then posed a series of fundamental questions in an effort to figure out what happened and why their measurements were disagreeing with everyone else that had been through this area. My in-the-field, continuing education had taught me to look for patterns and I quickly figured out what was going on. Nonetheless, I asked about adjusting for relative elevation as we were in the 4,000 foot range. I asked about grid coordinates versus ground coordinates and scale factors. Throughout, the measuring people looked at me as if I was dense. After convincing them that I might have a clue about what I was talking about, I explained to them the principles of geodesy and spherical trigonometry. I explained to them that a measurement taken at 4,000 feet above sea level was not going to produce the same value as one at sea level and I also explained the principles behind scale factors and how a Transverse Mercator projection is created. It took a while before it started to make sense to them. My real challenge involved convincing them that although their coordinates were quite impressive, they weren’t measuring the same things and just like making an adjustment for temperature in the old days, they needed to make an adjustment. They were flabbergasted. Why wasn’t I impressed with anything measured to the nearest ten thousandth of a foot and why couldn’t they use them? After all, the numbers came out of a computer.

I asked to see the manual for their equipment and they weren’t sure where it was located. "The manual?" they asked. I queried them about the variable settings and were the values being displayed as ground or grid. Did they have to adjust for elevations and did they have a barometer or an idea how high they were above the grid or mean sea level? Their reply was, "Heck, it’s the way we always measure things." The more I probed, the more I learned what I already deduced. Most of their work was done along the ocean near sea level and only over small areas. They had never measured land over such vast distances and so high above sea level. It turns out they were always measuring at ground and never bothered to make any adjustments. Because they were always pretty close (while working at sea level), they thought they were always doing things correctly. Yeah, let’s go with that.

As noted above and years ago, every day in the field with an experienced chain person
and a seasoned crew chief was a day of continuing education. We always learned something and we knew how to measure and use our equipment. After all, that is how surveying evolved and that is why so much weight has historically been placed on the apprentice method of education. There was always someone in the field to teach you how to survey and to measure and you knew how to look for monuments and what to look for and you learned the weight of evidence. We dug holes in the ground and looked for old stakes.

Sadly, as soon as today’s measuring person learns how to push a button, he/she is turned loose to run around measuring stuff, all without any real training or education. We call them "surveyors" and if a "licensed" land surveyor is involved in this process, he/she can be found at a desk drafting things on a computer screen to figure out where someone’s boundary line is located. And of course, they must be right. After all, the line was measured to the nearest thousandth of a foot. "Idiot" under-the-breath.

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 299Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE