Bad Backsights: Spring Interrogatory

Image1There are always more questions than answers. This seems to be a universal law and it certainly holds true in my experience. Every question invariably leads to another. Not so with answers, those are always in short supply. As you can no doubt tell, I am sidling up to ask a few questions, but I don’t want to launch into them too abruptly. I’ll just ease into them by starting with a brief story. I recently came back from a trip to Nevada where, as a past-president of NALS, I had the privilege of participating in the 5-year strategic planning meeting. The discussions led to questions that, philosophically at least, no one had ready answers for. It seems every question asked could be addressed with a statistic, but are statistics really answers? I’m not so sure. After all, there’s a great little book with the revealing title of “How to Lie With Statistics” written back in 1954 by an author named Darrell Huff. It was true then and it’s true now.

The first question we strategic planners encountered came up as a result of discussing whether the statutory requirement for a 4-year degree in Land Surveying was causing what seems to be a shortage of professional land surveyors in Nevada. But is there truly a shortage of surveyors? We all feel one way or the other about this, but what is the truth? This deck can be cut several different ways, and in the end, it’s anecdotal observation versus cold statistics. NCEES provides figures that indicate the number of licenses in the US is not really going down. But, if you are licensed in five states, then you count as five licenses in these statistics, and unless you have a serious psychiatric disorder, you probably aren’t five different surveyors, so that statistic is suspect. Purely observationally, there are more job postings than applicants right now and I see us all engaging in strategic poaching of each other’s resources. Indicative of a shortage, perhaps? NCEES also says the number of first-time test takers is increasing, but is that rate keeping up with the steady decline of the baby boomer generation, as members thereof retire and pass away? That is a hard one to come to grips with, at least for me personally. As a card-carrying boomer (no—not that card…) from the last 3 years of the boomer births, my time is coming sooner than I would like. Do I have my replacement identified? Hmmmm.

Image2To really determine whether we have a current shortage of surveyors, a long-term shortage of surveyors, or a catastrophic situation calling for licensing engineering and GIS people to handle some of what used to be ours, we need to know where the profession is headed. So, the next question that came up, but no one was really prepared to dig into: what will the profession look like in 10 years, in 20 years? But to know that we need to understand or at least predict how much of our traditional list of job duties will be left to our successors. Are we headed toward regional and national cadastres where the coordinates for property corners are known, like much of Great Britain? Will machine guidance and grade setters completely replace us on the job site (as is almost the case now)? Will NCEES and the states springboard from their new test module paradigm and establish a two-tier license system whereby topographic work and bathymetric work and geodetic work can be done under a national license and the states’ licenses will be correspondingly reduced to applying only to boundary determination? Hell, will the profession be completely deregulated, as seems to be at least somewhat likely? Even Nostradamus wouldn’t touch these predictions.

What is the Future of Surveying?

Image3So, ask one question and five more slip into its wake. I don’t know the answers to any of them, but I do know that it is time we started discussing them. For the past twenty years or longer, we have all been so busy doing our work that we haven’t focused on the changes around us. Consequently, those changes happened mostly without our input. Some of them haven’t been exactly great for us. What do you think, is it time to speak up?

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.