Bad Backsights: The Topic that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Part One of the Modern State of Survey Recruiting

How are things in your neck of the woods? Got plenty of work? Got plenty of staff to help with that work? Out west we have a recruiting problem, all across the spectrum. There are not enough survey technicians, land surveyor interns, new licensed surveyors or project managing licensed surveyors to go around. If your outfit is like ours, you are probably carrying a couple of unfilled positions—flying in the missing man formation, as it were. You tell yourself you are hiring ‘strategically’ and as such, you are waiting for the right person to come along.

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Meanwhile, everyone with a presence on LinkedIn is being contacted by your competitors, who are trying to lure members of your staff away to fill positions they have. Recruiters are working overtime to fill numerous positions. Professional Surveying has become, through mismanagement of our long-term future and a coinciding demographic death spiral, a commodity in short supply. How this happened is a topic for discussion in Part Two. Right now, I just want to riff on the most obvious, and painful aspect of this situation.

Because of this shortage of Survey staff, which is quite profound in some areas, the salaries commensurate with these open positions have become significantly higher over the past year or two. I’m the last guy who would ever object to such an outcome because I have felt for years that our ranks are underappreciated and underpaid. Perhaps you agree. So, what’s the problem? You are.

Let’s say you have a person on your staff that got their license a year ago and has been in responsible charge of many aspects of their work over the course of that year. She doesn’t have all that many years on the job, but her work is stellar. Let’s say the raise you gave her when she showed you the results of her LS Exam was somewhat modest based on her relative lack of overall experience. I think that’s a risky strategy in a seller’s market. Chances are she has been seeing the ads on and may have been friend-requested on LinkedIn by someone at a company in your geographic region. She knows, or soon will, that if she left your firm for one of those available positions, she would receive an instant fifteen to twenty percent increase in salary.

Perhaps you want to hold the line with respect to her salary so as to avoid impacting your profit margin, or raising your rates. I’ll bet the overall uncertainty of the national economy and the severe impacts of inflation have you hoping to maintain the status quo until the outlook is clearer. Wrong answer—the salary paradigm has shifted. You need to recognize this predicament as a double-edged sword that can cut you in two ways. First, if you don’t make a move to match that potential salary, she goes and you lose a valuable and loyal employee, along with whatever institutional knowledge and good client relations she had developed. And second, the same exact forces that took her elsewhere will now act on you. Start running an ad, hiring a recruiter and look… three months have gone by and you have had no applicants. Finally, you have to resort to the same tactics as the competition and dangle a higher wage. Ahh, finally the candidates come calling. You are successful at last! But now you are paying your new employee twenty-five percent more than his predecessor made. That’s a little thing I call a lose-lose situation.

Head this off at the pass. Understand fair market value for their services and pay your key people.

Hide and Go Seek
Part Two of the Modern State of Survey Recruiting

Okay, so it’s time for the other half of the discussion on the shortage of surveyors and the surging salary rates for the ones that are still hanging around. In Part One, I opined on the salaries going up, up, up lately and the fact that good old fashioned retention has to keep pace with aggressive recruitment or you will lose key members of your staff. That is a debate for the ages—this age anyway.

This time out, I will reflect on why we are where we are. First, the demographic death spiral that I may have mentioned in a moment of levity. It’s real and it’s really not very funny. Unnamed sources (which means “I did not completely make this up”) say that the average age of a licensed land surveyor in 2022, is 57 (some reports say 60). That correlates closely with the last of the baby boomers (b. 1964). The ‘boomer’ generation (which I must confess includes me) was large and in charge. But like contestants in a tequila drinking contest, we’re fading fast, and more recent generations are neither as well populated as us nor as interested in following in our footsteps. On a related note, the latest NCEES statistics indicate that the average age of a first time LS examinee is 39. The average age of an LSI examinee is 34.5. That should give you pause to reflect…

Back to the point: we haven’t helped matters any. Every time there was choice to make going forward, we chose wrong. While we were busy getting our work done, we let GIS slip out of our hands, we didn’t focus our professional organizations on outreach, we never got round to attending career days at our high schools, we didn’t actively hire young people and expose them to surveying. In short, we didn’t promote our profession. And then on top of all that, we oversaw, or perhaps just stood by while others oversaw, a nearly universal requirement for a bachelor’s degree in Land Surveying. It sounded good in theory but it’s a rare program indeed that produces more than dozen graduates a year, so the numbers needed for replacement just aren’t there. And unfortunately, the young promising field and office technicians who would be part of that next generation of licensed practitioners are frozen out if they don’t have a degree.

Worst of all is that this is not news. Surveyors have been discussing and debating these trends for a decade or more. The situation is not getting better on its own. Firms are actively luring employees away from each other in a selfish desire to fill immediate needs. Hiring staff is becoming more impersonal. We used to look at a candidate and imagine them as a licensee, some day. Now we just see ‘Assistant Surveyor IV’… period. Friends are poaching staff from each other with underhanded social media contacts. (Don’t tell your boss but I’d love to take you to lunch next week…) It would be kind of funny if it weren’t so sad.

If you’ve stuck it out with this diatribe so far, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Tell me something I don’t know.” Okay, how about this: it doesn’t have to be this way. We can pull ourselves out of this mess. It will take an investment of time on your behalf. Attend your chapter meetings, get the meetings focused on outreach, visit a high school or junior college, hire some part time students as interns, hire veterans to work both in the field and in the office and steer these new employees to one of many junior colleges offering Survey classes or to one of the several online Bachelor’s programs. Look for opportunities to publicly show your profession in a good light. I didn’t say it would be easy but if you don’t do it, much of our profession will end up absorbed by others and whatever is remaining will be as difficult to spot as a Yeti in a blizzard.

About the Author

Carl C. de Baca, PS

Carl Baca, PLS, is a Nevada and California licensed land surveyor. He served as President of the Nevada Association of Land Surveyors, and has served on the Board of Governors and Board of Directors of the National Society of Professional Surveyors. He owned a business serving the mining industry for 11 years.