Seeking Respect—Surveying's Societal Value

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Some lament the fact that many young people are pursuing career paths outside the realm of math and science these days. Prof. Gary Jeffress, Ph.D., chair of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s GIS Department and director of its Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science, has a slightly different lament about two career paths inside that realm: land surveying and geographic information systems (GIS). He has seen how passionate students become when they learn about that kind of work–but the rewards of those careers remain a well-kept secret as far as the general public is concerned.

Jeffress, himself a Registered Professional Land Surveyor (RPLS) in Texas, is an unapologetic advocate for the land surveying profession. Jeffress was educated as a surveyor in Sydney, Australia and made his way into academia while working as a researcher in the School of Surveying at the University of New South Wales.

After completing his Ph.D. in Surveying Engineering at the University of Maine, Jeffress took a position at the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science to lead a committee of faculty, surveyors and GIS professionals to design a fouryear degree program with a focus on professional surveying and GIS. The degree took advantage of the increasing interest in GIS and was named a Bachelor of Science in Geographic Information Science, with students graduating with an emphasis in either Geomatics (Land Surveying) or GIS. The program has been accredited by ABET–which advances innovation in applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology education–since its inception.

"A lot of students come here for GIS thinking that mapping and computers are pretty cool, but when we show them what land surveyors do, they just fall in love with it," he said. "They can work indoors, outdoors, they can work in business, the government–there are a lot of options."

These days, long-term stability has taken on increased importance when many evaluate a career. "One of the beauties about surveying is that you can upload the data to the cloud, but somebody has to be here on the ground, gathering the data," he said. "You can’t export that work to India."

The university has offered the Geographic Information Science program since 1995 and has graduated close to 200 students with bachelors or master’s degrees in that time. Of these, 64 have become RPLSs. The decision to title the program Geographic Information Science was done to attract more people into the program and the decision has been fairly successful. Even though the majority of students are drawn to the GIS name, about 75 percent of graduates pursue careers in land or hydrographic surveying, he said.

GIS studies at the university are highly computer programming-oriented, putting graduates in high demand, Jeffress noted. The core curriculum also focuses heavily on math, computer science and physics. The GIS and surveying programs fall under the university’s School of Engineering & Computing Sciences. Jeffress recalled that when the program was established, the university did not offer engineering studies, where surveying usually fits. Back then, the programs were offered through the College of Science and Technology, which was a natural fit because the program was housed within the Department of Computer Sciences.

"That was actually a very good fit for surveying and GIS because everything we do now is digital and it’s all softwaredriven," Jeffress said. "We graduate students in the GIS component who have a good background in Computer Science and also understand the software and the quality of spatial data that is contained in a GIS, from survey measurements or photogrammetry, remote sensing or hydrographic surveying." Many graduates have worked for telecommunications companies, local governments and state governments.

Real-World Research
Jeffress’ advocacy of the surveying and GIS professions is reflected by the department’s involvement in the National Geodetic Survey Height Modernization Program. Modernizing orthometric heights is of critical importance on the Gulf Coast, which has experienced periodic flooding from hurricane storm surges throughout Texas’ history, Jeffress pointed out.

On a smaller scale, 10 students taking Plane Spatial Measurement II at the university spent an entire day in a GPS surveying practicum in spring 2013 and partitioned the roughly 200-acre Freund family ranch in rural Jim Wells County. The parcel was inherited by two sons, who get their own plots of roughly 100 acres each.

The original survey, executed in 1875, had some missing information, not surprising given the relatively inaccurate equipment providing the measurements and the cheap land described by the unscientific metes and bounds surveying system used so long ago. For two days prior to the practicum, Jeffress and Oscar Cantu, software product marketing manager for Topcon Positioning Systems, evaluated deed records information from one of the sons, Tom Freund, P.G., of Freund Environmental Consulting. They identified missing information and conducted their own GNSS survey of the site. Their survey would be compared with the students’ survey. Jeffress planned to sign the plat once the students finished their work.

Jeffress stressed that developing a survey when the original one contains gaps in information is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Prior to the practicum, each student had plotted out the existing deeds, the adjoining deed properties and the roads in an AutoCAD file "working sketch."

The class was divided into two groups and each group conducted a survey of all relevant occupations and right-of-way monumentation. Each student then used the results of the survey to define the locations of the adjoining road right of way, the boundaries of the Freund property and a 200-acre parcel to the northeast.

Cantu brought two Topcon 226-channel HiPer SR receivers and a Tesla RTK handheld controller that was used as a network RTK rover in conjunction with a PG-A1 antenna. The HiPer SRs also had Tesla cross-over controllers, which are designed to withstand jobsite conditions, mounted on the same poles. No base station was needed because the Texas Department of Transportation’s Virtual Reference Station (VRS) network handled stationary signal reception.

Jeffress said that his department relies heavily on financial and training assistance from technology vendors, exemplified by Cantu’s volunteering of time and the Topcon Positioning Systems Educational Partners Program. The program, which normally is implemented through Topcon’s dealer network, provides financial support and training for educational institutions. More than 300 educational institutions in the United States and Canada are involved in the program. With the rapid development of hardware and software, vendors serve a vital role in keeping academic programs up to date while putting their brands in front of future decision makers in the surveying profession, Jeffress said.

This day would also provide Jeffress and the class with their first exposure to cloud computing using real-time survey measurement data, which gives individual surveyors access to a powerful, work group-specific data storage system from anywhere without the need for significant IT infrastructure staffing for local system maintenance. On this day, students would upload their data to Topcon Positioning Systems’ MAGNET cloud-based enterprise solution and cloud-enabled family of software applications. The system was developed to allow multi
ple work groups to quickly share access to project data, check the current status of ongoing work, take advantage of inter-company chat communication, and manage projects over vast distances in real time.

Low public visibility
The surveying profession faces a challenging dichotomy that will likely have negative consequences for redevelopment of the nation’s outdated infrastructure when the economy returns to substantial growth, Jeffress indicated. On one hand, the profession is either unknown or not thought of as very rewarding. On the other, critical surveyor labor shortages are looming very soon. Jeffress is familiar with the situation in Texas. In 1999, he served as president of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors and was dismayed that meeting attendees were older men. Since then he has tracked the demography of the profession and determined that in 2012, the median age of an RPLS in Texas was 57 years. Significantly, 22.8 percent were 65 years and older, compared with 10.8 percent under 40.

"And it’s not just in Texas; it’s that way in the whole United States and even in other countries–throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand, there’s a shortage of surveyors," he said. "So there’s a big demand for our graduates. The trouble is, we’re not getting them on the front end because kids coming out of high school don’t even know what surveying is. We have a very low profile in the public mind. One of the reasons for that is that we don’t actually serve the public; most of our clients are other professionals or administrators or government."

Those who get educated, trained and licensed are doing well, though, Jeffress pointed out. "What we are seeing is, because of the shortage of surveyors, supply and demand has taken over and all of our graduates are getting pretty good salaries," he said. "It’s been a big concern of mine because the economy has slowed since about 2008, but surveyors have been employed the whole time, mainly because of the oil and gas industries, and because Texas hasn’t been hit as hard as many other states in the real estate market. But what I’m really concerned about is when the economy takes off, they’re going to be fighting over our graduates."

Not capitalizing on value
A major telltale sign indicating the low stature of land surveying is compensation, graduates’ high entry-level salaries notwithstanding, Jeffress contended. Surveyors add tremendous value to real estate, but they do not capitalize on that value. Say the Freund property was surveyed by a professional firm in the old days. It would have taken the surveyors several days to survey the property and they would have stayed in a nearby hotel. The fee would have been charged to include the time and hotel stay.

"Because they can do this in a day now, surveyors are charging for their time and it lowers the value of the survey," Jeffress said. "But the value of the survey is higher now because the value of the real estate has gone up around here in the past 10 years. What surveyors should be doing is charging an ad valorem fee based on the value of the property. I always suggest that a good starting figure would be 1 to 3 percent. When real estate agents sell a property, they receive a fee of 6 percent and they have no liability. We have all of this liability and we degrade the value of our services because we charge by the hour rather than according to the value of the property."

Partitioning the Freund property is a classic case of land surveyors adding value to real estate, Jeffress pointed out. "What surveyors do is help society increase its wealth by helping people build wealth into real estate by changing its function," he said. "And over time, it increases in value. It increases in value because as the population grows, real estate is always in demand. If you look at the value of real estate over time, there’s a steady increase. Real estate is the single largest tangible asset that any society has and the biggest form of debt is mortgages.

"We create all of this value that we don’t capitalize on," Jeffress concluded. "We would if we charged an ad valorem fee. If we did, it would be much easier to attract young people into our program."

Don Talend of Write Results Inc., West Dundee, IL, is a print and digital content producer specializing in covering geospatial topics.

Surveying practicum lets students get real

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi students participating in the surveying practicum in Jim Wells County were excited about the opportunity to participate in the development of an official, rather than simulated, land survey.

Clint Ward of Portland, TX recently retired from the U.S. Army and returned to school under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. Ward was in the last semester of his Geospatial Surveying Engineering Master of Science studies and was supplementing the more GIS-oriented core courses with more surveying-oriented undergraduate courses for his electives. He said he will likely pursue a career in hydrographic surveying. He also plans to use his surveying education on a ranch he owns near Childress, in north-central Texas.

On this day, he got plenty of exposure to land surveying. "This is giving us more of a real-world experience vs. theory," he said. "Most of the time people don’t know how to walk fencelines or find markers."

For aspiring GIS analyst Paul van Oldenmark, who enrolled at the university to get his master’s degree after completing his undergraduate GIS studies in South Africa, the day was a great opportunity to do some onthe-ground surveying for a different perspective from what he gets at a computer screen. Before enrolling, he worked at Esri’s Midrand, South Africa facility. After the spring semester, he would be nearly halfway through the program, with one more year of classes and a master’s thesis remaining. Van Oldenmark would like to work in disaster management but knows that his career path may change.

"There is quite a bit of valuable stuff you can take out of this, especially for me because my background’s in GIS," he said. "I’m the kind of guy who sits behind a computer and going outside is not one of my strong suits. It’s always good to learn related skills, though."

Surveying: A Legal Matter

Prof. Gary Jeffress, Ph.D., chair of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s GIS Department and director of its Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science, contends that the value of land surveying is reflected in its legal implications. As a result, his surveying and GIS courses stress the legal aspects to his students. Jeffress recently listed various facts illustrating the importance of land surveying to society:
• Most surveying ends up in legal documents–deeds and plats.
• Surveying adds value to real estate, which is extremely valuable.
• Land has always been a critical component of any economic activity.
• The first professional licenses issued in Texas were issued to surveyors–before licenses for law or medicine.
• The surveying licensing system exists to protect the public in terms of the value of real estate.
• Although anyone can buy a GPS receiver, the general public does not know the legal aspects of collecting spatial evidence, both in the records and on the ground, which underlies boundary definitions.
• Contrary to what the general public might assume, most attorneys don’t understand these boundary location legal aspects, either, and rely on land surveyors to educate them.
• If land surveyors didn’t do their jobs correctly, more boundary disputes would result and the value of real estate would decrease. This is what occurs
in developing countries and it impacts their economic development.
• There is a very strong correlation between the expertise of the surveying profession and the value of real estate.

A 6.495Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE