Business Angle: Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

For the past two years, my travels have taken me to numerous places across the country to speak with great surveyors. I’m always listening to their complaints (many), opinions (also many), and positive comments (not as many) on our profession. From all those comments, I’m addressing here the apparent lack of mentors and training that has led us to this current generation of “button pushers” in our field crews.

I will not bore you with paragraphs on how it was when I started in the field, with four-man crews, and we were there at least six months to a year before we were even allowed to carry the instruments. The crew member was mentored and taught by the instrument person and the party chief. It was, in the very true sense, an internship.

From comments I have heard around the country, that process doesn’t exist anymore. Not only that, but in-house training programs of any kind rarely exist, particularly in small firms. 

Today, the only requirement for an instrument operator appears to be knowledge of how to use the data collectors. The field crew members push buttons and gather data but have no idea what the data means, if it is right or wrong, or how it is developed.  This isn’t just me on a rant—this is what I have heard from my peers: 

  • “If I gave my crew two bearings, they couldn’t calculate the angle between them.”
  • “My crew had to go back to a project three times because they didn’t close the traverse and had very short legs in it.”

Not once have I heard someone say, “We had a problem, and this is what we are doing to eliminate it.” 

We licensees, as a whole, are not the teachers or mentors that our predecessors were.  Do you have a training or mentoring program in your company?

Well, folks, guess what—shame on us!

The problem is not just in field issues, but at the professional level, also.  I overheard an interesting conversation recently between an educator from a well respected surveying program and a company owner.  The owner was complaining that the students who came through the college program were not having success passing the professional part of the licensing exam.  The educator said, “Hey, wait a minute! 100% of our students pass the fundamentals part of the test after our program. Why aren’t you mentoring them to help them develop the knowledge and skills necessary to pass the professional part?” Interesting point.

Mentoring and training are commitments to your company and your profession. The tools are available through the state societies and at various locations online. The most underutilized of these tools is the Certified Survey Technician (CST) program offered by NSPS. It is a structured program consisting of office and field tracts, which would apply to virtually the entire staff of any company. However, according to NSPS, there are only 3,000 CST certified technicians in the country, with 16% of those being in Florida, Texas, and Maryland.

Although there is a cost to participate in the program, I believe the primary reason most firms don’t participate is that they won’t attach appropriate salary to the various CST levels; nor do they encourage their employees to participate.  

Wouldn’t it be a great advertising point if you could say that all your party chiefs had a PLS or were a Level 4 CST and that all your instrument people were Level 3s?  How about Level 3 CAD operators?  I would not be shocked in coming years if government agencies, on RFP and RFQ requests, require certain personnel to have CST status.

I spoke with many surveyors to research successful mentoring programs. I learned that one of the reasons tiny Maryland has the third-most CSTs in the country is the commitment of a major firm, Dewberry, to the program. The person who initiated the program at Dewberry is George Wigfield, PLS. George is the past president of the Maryland Society and retired as the head of surveying for Dewberry in Maryland. They were continually successful because of the chain of command and internal “food chain” of field members due to their in-house training using the CST program.

Another fine surveyor, Patricia Brooks, PLS, past president of the New York Society, has a much smaller firm and has a successful training program.  The firm has a week-starting project meeting on Monday with all the field staff and a Friday session summarizing, planning, mentoring, and adjusting equipment.

These surveyors have shown it can be done.

On the other end of the spectrum are most small companies with no training programs other than learning the data collector. I spoke with the president of a major firm with a century-long history who indicated, regrettably, that their internship program has disappeared over the years.  They, too, are now a “just get the data” group.
What do you do?  I suggest: 

  • Introducing field personnel to the plumb bob and tape.  (Do you really think your crews could measure a 150-foot distance on a 20% slope if it was the only thing left to do on a project and all the batteries were dead?)
  • Try giving field personnel very rudimentary surveying calculations.  How many of your field personnel know what (n-2)(180) is?
  • Discuss order of magnitude, that when staking a road centerline for clearing there is no such thing as “two hundredths left.”
  • Become committed to the CST program.

Why do I suggest these?  Fewer field trips with better data lead to more profit. Period.  
Of course, using the CST program would also be a fine enhancement for your firm.  You can learn about the program, its requirements, tests, and costs on the NSPS website:

We, as licensed surveyors, have an obligation to our personnel to mentor and guide them for personal improvement, not to mention the improvement of production and profit for the company.  Over the last few decades, we have dropped that ball.  Let’s pick it up again.

Bill Beardslee, PLS, PE, PP is the past-president of the New Jersey Society of Professional Land Surveyors and their 2006 Surveyor of the Year. 

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