Right-sized? Taking the Surveying Profession to the Future

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series December 2016

Verb -Gerund or present participle: right-sizing. As in reducing the size of (a company or organization) by eliminating staff positions, specifically when business conditions necessitate such a reduction

Editor’s note: We asked esteemed Nevada surveyor and editor of the Nevada Traverse (journal of land surveying in Nevada) Carl C. de Baca to weigh in on the dynamics of staffing/workforce for surveying in the 21st century and what the professional associations can or should do in response.

The drop-in numbers of US surveyors, the dearth of young survey technicians, the slow decline in the nation’s college programs related to Surveying and Geomatics: is that us right-sizing?

There are several factors to consider. Due to technology, more work can be done by fewer people. Due to numerous factors–including reluctance to look outside our comfort zones at new ways to work, new services to offer, new fields to explore–more of the work we have in the past thought of as “ours” is now being done by others. Is this another aspect of right-sizing?

I reluctantly concede that the demand for “classical” surveying may be in decline. But it isn’t declining as rapidly as the supply of qualified surveyors. How else to explain the revival of a movement to educate engineers with 30-plus credit hours to create surveyors, as though from a test tube? But I digress. I also concede that one-person crews are the new norm and that companies are increasingly getting their office technicians from educational backgrounds rather than by mentoring former field technicians. That’s just simple reality and on most days, I can recognize and process reality.

But this wholesale change in the way we populate our ranks (or don’t), can’t be a good thing, especially if we aren’t in charge of it.

While I am finally ready to concede the inevitability of right-sizing the surveying profession, it appears to be happening without any sort of framework or impetus from us – the whole process seems doomed from the start. Yet this, patently obvious from where I stand, is by no means universally felt. Last week I attended a local chapter meeting and when discussing this issue, a fellow surveyor asserted that there are already enough Licensed Surveyors around and he doesn’t see the need to produce more. Perhaps that first point is an accurate statement, at this exact moment in time. It captures the zeitgeist of a rising local economy nicely. It also summarizes our biggest weakness as a profession:

“I’ll worry about me, you can worry about you.”

This is a second cousin (or closer) to “whatever they’ll do the survey for, I’ll do it for less.” Both are strong indicators that we often rank nurturing the profession somewhat lower than staying busy. I note that the average age in that room was approaching 60, and I ask: “What are going to do in five years… in ten?”

Reorganisation for NSPS was only the first step.

The difficult but critical job that NSPS must continue to undertake is to divine the future with enough clarity to devise a strategy to get the Surveying Profession there and get it there with its relevance intact. We are, by any common-sense measure, the lead geospatial organization. That is because we are by those same measures, the lead geospatial profession. On the surveyor’s desk, or more accurately in his computer, all the different geospatial strands come together. That’s something to stand for.

Let’s provide substantive educational opportunities for our members, help make our college programs the best they can be, and find a way to recruit new blood into those programs. Let’s ensure that our committees are organized to meet all challenges head-on. Let’s set clearly defined goals and hold our committee chairs responsible for achieving them. Let’s take our communication between members and directors, between directors and members, up a notch–no, make that several notches. And let’s overhaul public outreach, especially youth outreach. TrigStar is not nearly enough. Other programs we do not currently support show promise and should be explored. Above all, let’s continue to channel the commitment and energy we showed when we conceived and completed the reorganization just a few short years ago. After all, that reorganization was only the first step.

“I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.”

-Peter Singer in the introduction to his new book Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter.

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