The Formation of Surveyors

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It is always interesting to watch fads come and go, hemlines go up and down, and "political correctness" morph from one ideal to another. The practice of surveying is not immune to this. We’ve heard for some time, mostly from outsider to the profession, but then parroted within, several things that deserve further scrutiny before endorsing.
1. There aren’t enough surveyors
2. Surveyors are growing old
3. Young people aren’t entering the profession
4. Surveying isn’t respected as a professional practice
5. Changing the name to something sounding high-tech-ish will improve perception
6. Undergraduate degree is needed to improve image
7. There aren’t enough Surveyor-PhDs to teach new college courses
8. Surveyors aren’t compensated well
9. High-tech tools are changing the profession
10."Diversity" as a goal outweighs aptitude and talent

Let’s take these one at a time, tying them together as we go.

1. There aren’t enough surveyors
OK. How many surveyors is enough? I think it is fair to say, generally, that the work of surveying is somehow getting done presently, with some places experiencing lulls and others clamor. Given that, let’s ask "how many surveyors do we have now?"
• NCEES estimates there are about 822,600 engineers in the U.S. and 54,000 surveyors for a ratio of 15.2:1 nationwide and locally the ratio is 19.3:1 with 823 surveyor licenses.
• The current number of attorneys is 1,270,000 for a ratio of 23.5. The Bar estimates about 18,500 in La. for a ratio of 22.5:1. So again it seems a fairly representative.
• There are about 970,000 active physicians in the U.S. for a ratio to surveyors of 17.9:1, a check in my state shows about 16,300 physicians for a ratio of 19.8:1.

That very quick look at statistics indicates a fairly consistent ratio for these four professions nationwide and in my own state: 17:1 for engineers, 23:1 for attorneys, and about 18.5:1 for Physicians. For convenience let’s use 20:1 for other professions compared to surveyors.

A couple of things become apparent. It doesn’t take as many surveyors to fulfill the public’s needs. Using other profession’s models for development of new professionals may not be appropriate. Another interesting thing gleaned from searching these data was that ALL of those more populous professions are lamenting the lack of new members and are asking, "How can we improve recruiting?"

Let’s bear in mind that in each case there is an accessory group whose business is directly dependent upon the number of new applicants: universities, associations, licensing agencies and the like. For surveying it is no different. NCEES wants more test takers. Associations and their managers desire more members with dues and functions to provide. Universities are a special case for surveyors. Undergraduate Universities’ bread & butter is matriculating new students. Most programs must produce 10 graduates a year to be considered viable. If successful in becoming licensed at 75% that would mean 75 additional surveyors per decade. If we assume a nominal career lasts 40 years, in one career each school would produce an additional 300 surveyors in that time.

We all know how very much more a surveyors needs to learn besides what is possible to teach in 4 years of school. A graduate program makes the 30 (typical) hours requirement attractive to those majoring in other fields, adds to the 300 new surveyors and at a much lower cost, and provides a stepping stone to form more PhDs.

More than a few of those reaching retirement age became licensed but practiced as very good technicians rather than exercising the professional aspects of a license. As they leave the practice they are replaced by others not requring a license, thereby skewing the estimates even more.

2. Surveyors are growing old
It beats the alternative, doesn’t it? Life is, after all, a terminal illness. I think several influences have converged to cause a statistical blip in the data.
• Most states opted for a bachelor’s degree prerequisite for licensure roughly between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. Those in line for licensure sped up applications before new requirement affected them. This was followed by a down turn in applications immediately following.
• The 1990s saw the broad adoption of GIS as computing power enabled combining statistical analysis & metadata to positional data. A good number of geographically talented folks opted to follow that technology in lieu of the professional route to surveying.

3. Young people aren’t entering the profession
This is a sister point to #2 above. Since the 1990s, computing boom, the environment of young people has changed drastically. As adolescents, it seems all answers are available on-line or, if not, it represents a failure. This converges with technological developments serving our field about which we fret.

We describe many of our field technicians and even a few licensees as buttonpushers, meaning they tend to believe an answer from a computing device over personal observations. It makes GIS more attractive to some because the answers appear so much more certain. One counter example to the statement is the development and enthusiastic growth of the F.I.G. Young Surveyors group in North America.

4. Surveying isn’t respected as a professional practice
The Greeks in 3rd century BC observed "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"– people differ in what they find beautiful. This begs a VERY important question. Do YOU respect your profession? Really respect it?

The public tends to adopt the attitude presented to them by those they respect as socially influential. That tendency can be overridden by a personal experience with the subject of an attitude. A popular musician who impolitely treats a waiter, taxi driver, or fan will lose high esteem he once held. Likewise a scruffy day-laborer, someone in a "hoody" or even a used-car salesman, by acts of genuine courtesy, lose the low esteem assigned to them. Respect (like charity) starts at home. Respect for self is not just correctness of final product. It is respects for presentation of self and product in public. It is respect for and mentoring of subordinates and colleagues. It is respect for communication with client. It is self-respect for the profession. Respect from others cannot be expected before those things are habitual.

5. Changing the name to something sounding high-techish will improve perception
Again, in that decade of disruption from the mid-1990s, there was felt a great need to develop 4 year bachelor’s degree programs around the country. That involved a large but little recognized paradigm shift to attract new professionals into surveying.

Historically, surveying is not a glamorous profession in the eyes of adolescents. Oh, to be an aeronautical engineer or a brain surgeon or CEO or savior of endangered species or play in the Super Bowl, those are desirable careers in the eyes of a teenager.

With the states legislating a prerequisite bachelor’s degree for surveying, schools responded by trying to create programs for candidates to attend. They had little understanding or respect for surveying. With so few needed few in academia experienced much contact with surveying. They feared that selling a "Surveying" degree to teens and their parents would lack necessary pizazz for recruiting. Many tried to gild the lily by calling Surveying, Geomatics. (Geomatics is, in fact, recognized as a subset of Surveying1) This had the unfortunate effect of further harming the respect and esteem for Surveying.

6. Undergraduate degree is needed to improve image
(See #4 and #5 above.) Unfortunately, the primary viable reason for requiring a college degree is the estimate that such a graduate will be able to speak, write and cypher at what was formerly a high school level. A degree requirement coupled with a residency period after tentative licensure, under a responsible mentor would be truly "professional."

7. There aren’t enough SurveyorPhDs to teach new college courses
True enough. (See #1 above.) How expensive is it to support an undergraduate program versus a graduate program? Without going into the minutia, an undergraduate program should have 3 PhDs, classroom space, sophisticated computing technologies sufficient for whole class populations, up-to-date field equipment for labs. Is it no wonder the higherups want a minimum number of graduates? A master’s degrees program can get by with one PhD, ignore classroom space, enough equipment to support only a few students and produce a much more reasonable number of new qualified graduates. Besides, most states require 30 hours in surveying, so why not apply it to an advanced degree and draw from a more mature source of interested candidates?

8. Surveyors aren’t compensated well
How many people think they are? Most of that discontent lies at the feet of the national government’s employing inflation as a tool of governance. However, statistics don’t bear out the claim on a comparative basis2. (Table 1)

An additional consideration is the number of clients and the amount of liability, therefore the demands upon one’s time and cost of insurance should be subtracted where appropriate.

9. High-tech tools are changing the profession
If you consider a surveyor to be merely a technician, then this is absolutely correct. If a technology changes, or is introduced that makes obsolete another, then the technicians familiar with the older on must adapt to continue working in the field.

A professional, on the other hand is asked to gather evidence and give opinions or advice. He must be familiar with the tools used to collect the evidence and their operation, particularly their foibles and errors. However, the responsibility of the professional remains the same.

Most of the changes experienced by surveying professionals in practice originate outside of the surveyor-client relationship. Agencies of government, insurance and financial institutions have added requirements to the "official" form of many communications from a surveyor to his client, almost all are justified because of a capability of some new technology.

Surveyors have, since the dawn of recorded history, used any and every tool (technology) that was helpful. Geometry taught that a 3-4-5 triangle was a right triangle, a crucial tool when combined with a knotted rope to turn right angles. Philosophy gave us logic & law by which we can develop our conclusions. Binocular vision and geometry led to photogrammetry, resections, plane table maps, and, when combined with glue and cardboard, 3-D maps for bombing runs. Physics gave coefficients of expansion and refraction which led to Invar tapes, and telescoped on survey instruments. Math gave algebra and the calculus, combined with computers gave us Least-Squares analysis. Electronics and Moore’s Law puts much of our tool box in the palm of one’s hand.

10. "Diversity" as a goal outweighs aptitude and talent
We live in a strange time when pre-ordained results are considered more important than the means by which they are derived. This is a bit like the button-pusher who "knows" the distance is 100.00 ft. and rejects the monument that falls 99.98 ft.

Diversity for its own sake is foible, a failure of intellect. We are and ought to be open to anyone with the curiosity and talent and persistence to qualify to practice Surveying. Judging our success by anything other than the quality of the practitioners and their products is a grave error.

In fact, one might say we want no diversity in surveying. We want ONLY excellent surveyors!

Tony Cavell is a Louisiana surveyor who works at the LSU Center for Geoinformatics, and was recently installed as President of the National Society of Professional Surveyors.

1. See RICS

A 5.268Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE