The Myth of Mobility for Professional Land Surveyors

For a long time, I thought land surveyors enjoyed the same mobility as engineers and architects. After all, state licensing boards created NCEES in 1920 to draft model laws and rules that states could adopt to facilitate uniformity—and ultimately support mobility—for engineering and land surveying professionals. While serving as NCEES President in 2013, I had an epiphany—surveyors are required to reprove minimum competence in every state.

It’s ironic that the 14 hours of NCEES exams (fundamentals of surveying exam and professional land surveying exam) are portable amongst the states but passing a state specific exam in no way demonstrates competency of statutory, regulatory, and judicial research in any other jurisdiction.

States assert their state-specific exam is needed to ensure competency to practice. The exams include topics unique to that state, but they also include public land survey system (for those states that are predominantly public land survey system) or metes and bounds (for predominately colonial states). The public land survey system and metes and bounds are included in the national exam, but many states feel the number of questions are inadequate to determine competency. Often the state exams are closed book. When asked, practicing professionals acknowledge that in their daily practice they do not practice from memory and often refer to statutes and regulations or references and guidebooks. This is especially true today, when all the information needed is at their fingertips.

If minimal competency is the bar to get over, and a person has passed the NCEES land surveyor exams, how many different state exams must an applicant pass to be deemed minimally competent?

For example, the western states are predominantly public land survey system. If a land surveyor is licensed in Arizona and took the Arizona state exam, must that person also take the Nevada specific exam? If a land surveyor is licensed in Arizona and Nevada, must that person also take the New Mexico specific exam? If a land surveyor is ever to be deemed competent, must that person take each and every state exam?

At best, it appears to be an unnecessary barrier to have an applicant take a state-specific exam in every state. At worst, it looks a lot like protectionism.

As a land surveyor, you might appreciate that it is challenging for other land surveyors to get licensed to practice in your state. But the reality is, you too are impacted. As an experienced land surveyor who has never been disciplined, you may find yourself in a situation where you need to seek licensure in another state. Think back to the great recession in 2008, or maybe even the current COVID situation. If you need to relocate due to a situation outside your control, and quickly get back to work to support your family, could you afford the application cost, the cost and time to take the state-specific exam, and lost time needed to prepare for the exam? What if you needed to be licensed in another state before you decided to relocate your family to that state? Without a license in that state, your employability is reduced.

Considering the bigger picture, unnecessary barriers to licensure restrict the number of surveyors in your state. If you make it challenging for others to get licensed, it limits the number of land surveyors, limits competition, and can often slow down community development and project delivery. On the surface, you might think this is a good thing—more work for you. The reality is, when project delivery is slowed, it also slows the economy of your community and creates less revenue for more survey work. Rather than suffering a slowed economy, communities will often look to resolve the situation creatively, in ways that do not benefit you.

A national solution may not be viable, but a regional solution is possible. For example, states located in the western US are predominately public land survey system, and those states could agree that surveyors licensed by a sister state are competent without further testing of survey knowledge, skills, and abilities. Like engineers, a short take-home exam on ethics and state laws, could be required just to ensure the applicant is familiar with the laws and rules specific to that state. After all, isn’t that what is most important—knowing that state’s laws and rules for professional practice?

Granted, this is an oversimplification—some states require degrees, and some might have unique requirements that need to be met. But the degree issue can be mitigated as well as any other unique requirement.

As licensing stands today, there is no mobility for professional land surveyors in the US. We can change that if we choose to. It will require a mental shift for land surveyors and regulators. It will take a willingness to critically evaluate the licensing process and determine what barriers are needed for public protection.

A regional approach is a reasonable solution to the professional land surveyor mobility dilemma. A regional approach doesn’t even need regional agreement. All that is needed is for one brave state to decide enough is enough and make the decision to change—and more importantly land surveyors in that state must encourage and support the change. A state could accept that a professional land surveyor in good standing in a sister state is competent and be willing to license that person by comity/endorsement—without that state requiring the professional land surveyor to take its state-specific exam on land survey knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Who will be that first brave state to lead the way? Will you, a licensed land surveyor in that state, encourage and support your state to lead the way?

Patty Mamola, PE, is a Nevada licensed civil engineer. She served nine years on the Nevada State Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. She is a past-president of NCEES (2013-2014), the first woman in the organization’s 100 year history to be elected to that position. She currently serves as chair of the APEC Engineers Agreement, one of the mobility agreements of the International Engineering Alliance.