Report on NCEES Symposium

A 2.444Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

On Friday, January 22, I had the distinct honor of participating in an NCEES symposium on the future of land surveying, a daylong session, driven by the underlying topic, the decline in applicants for the land surveying exam. My involvement was principally as a journalist, on behalf of The American Surveyor Magazine while similarly observing things as a participant, two distinct roles.

The vast majority of the contributors were like me; older men who have been in the profession for some time. Not surprisingly, our perspectives were tempered by our common experiences. There were a number of common thoughts and concerns. At one level, this was rather comforting while on the other, it was somewhat depressing as some of us may be part of the problem, an observation that is not directed at the participants but instead, at the profession as a whole. In short, something is wrong when we cannot attract the best and brightest society has to offer us. Where are all the IPadtoting, Google-proficient, constantly-wired youth of today? Why aren’t they interested in surveying? Perhaps, as bitter a pill as it is to swallow, their perspective may be more important than ours.

Setting aside the implications of this observation, three primary elements rose to the top of the discussion. The first and perhaps the most important was identifying what it is that we, as Professional Land Surveyors do. What distinguishes us from other professions if we indeed are a profession? At the national level, we are categorized as laborers; no professional recognition is afforded us. Everyone knows what an MD is but how many know what a PS is or a PLS or an RLS. Thus the problem.

Many of the members felt that the surveyor’s use and familiarity with things like electronic measuring devices, GPS, aerial mapping, and computer technology define the Land Surveyor and set us apart in society. Our familiarity with the geospatial world and the tools that define these sciences are, perhaps, what define us. How then does one explain our absence from the world of GIS?

Considerable discussion occurred relative to the image of the Land Surveyor and the things that could be done to improve our perceived persona. Interestingly, everyone seemed to agree that we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by orange vests. For better or worse, most agreed that the public’s perception of the Land Surveyor is defined by field crews, working on the side of the road, or by those who attend meetings clad in bright reflective safety vests, as if they are going to get run over at a planning commission meeting. Although everyone agrees that safety is important, perhaps our image should be afforded a similar level of prominence.

There was also considerable discussion about marketing and public relations, two business tools that are not used enough and for most, do not exist in the surveyor’s repertoire of business skills. Assuming, for a moment, that the profession would be bettered if it promoted itself, who is our intended audience? Of what value does promoting surveying as a business advance the interests of a government employee? Do we have common goals?

As part of this discussion, the symposium facilitator challenged us to hypothesize an elevator talk. If you were on an elevator and someone asked you what you did, how would you answer? Some of the responses were pithy, thirty second sound bites while others were far more complicated, using terms that did little to explain what it is that surveyors did, explanations that were largely ineffective. How would you explain what it is that a Land Surveyor does in your elevator talk?

This led to the topic of marketing and public relations which, again, may mean something different to a public sector Land Surveyors and private sector Land Surveyors. How do we brand a national image and what steps must we take to get there? More importantly, who are we marketing ourselves to? Is it the general public, our customers, our employees, or even ourselves?

What image do we want to project? Is it one of a business person, comfortably ensconced in the comfort of an office or is it that of a woman in the field, with a GPS receiver strapped to her back, gathering data? Why are there not more women in the surveying profession? Is image important to the field surveyor who has limited exposure and interaction with the public? If not, why not? It is unlikely that he/she will be involved in any business meetings in the course of a day’s work. Still, for some, they are unable to distinguish between the two activities; both are the same giving rise to the "orange vest syndrome."

Why cannot the field surveyor dress better? Perhaps he/she should leave the T-shirts at home and the torn pants in favor of a blouse or a button down shirt and clean slacks. Minor changes such as these could have a major impact on the public’s perception of Land Surveyors.

Everyone talked about the influence of the technologies we, and others rely on, concluding that we are not the sole masters of GPS, LIDAR, GIS, UAV, and BIM. As one astute member of the group noted, GPS, LIDAR, GIS are not areas of practice. They are nothing more than tools, albeit fancy ones. We cannot regulate tools.

As our historical services have been largely eliminated, replaced by bits, bytes, and satellites, what is being done to protect the profession? What are our licensing boards doing to protect the practice of land surveying? Are they more interested in enforcement or advancement? Once, map making was the exclusive dominion of the Land Surveyor but that is no longer true. "GIS Professionals" do more map-making in one day than many Land Surveyors do in an entire year. What happened and why did the profession let that get away from us? Worse, because of the proliferation of GIS mapmakers and the surveying community’s failure to embrace and tame GIS, significant pressure is being applied to the profession by GIS users who outnumber Land Surveyors by a hundred to one. They are seeking a path to licensure and professional status and the land surveying profession is the low hanging fruit.

In spite of these challenges, it is generally agreed that the determination of legal boundary lines is the one societal service that distinguishes the Professional Land Surveyor from other professions, regardless of the technologies used. If that is the case, how do we train today’s apprentice surveyors when they are running around with robotic instruments and fancy GPS equipment, neither of which teach anything about boundary line determination, the one thing most Land Surveyors look to with pride. Is this not the one thing we do best?

As we come full circle, we must determine why there has been such a precipitous decline in applicants for the land surveying examination. Perhaps, it is because most applicants are simply unqualified and unprepared for the exam. Combined with the proliferation of robotic tools and digitally derived coordinates, none of these individuals are learning how to survey. Indeed there is a big difference between gathering data and knowing how to survey.

Clearly, the next generation of surveyors are headed in the wrong direction and their infatuation with technology is crippling. These well intended folks are running around measuring things while learning nothing about land surveying. Perhaps that is why they are no longer taking the surveyor’s exam; they are simply not prepared.

Regardless of the reasons, and regardless whether you agree or not, the profession is in crisis. We must return to our roots and we must begin teaching the art of surveying again. This means we must also return to the field and apprentice. Surveying is not about fancy tools and shiny boxes with little keyboards. It is about the art and not the science.

It is possible the future of the profession rests on the shoulders of those who are asking important questions. Folks like those on this important committee who must be thanked for their devotion to the profession. The future of the profession rests equally on your shoulders.

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 2.444Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE