Being a Reference for Survey Exam Candidates

This entry is part 12 of 59 in the series Field Notes

Why you should take the opportunity seriously.

If you spend time reading almost anything regarding the state of our profession and the growing concerns regarding the viability thereof, you will often see several factors mentioned:

  • the inability to attract young people despite our high-tech, three-dimensional suite of deliverables,
  • the erosion/loss of traditional surveyor tasks, in both the office and field,
  • the lack of mentoring opportunities given the technology-driven workflows;
  • the implementation of degree requirements in many states to sit for the state-specific examination, and
  • the lack of ample numbers of ABET-accredited institutions available to meet the degree requirements plus the loss of programs due to lack of sufficient enrollment (see bullet No. 1).

The subject of this article may seem to be yet another factor that could be placed on this list, but I do not believe that is the case. I hope you won’t either after reading it.

Exam Requirements

If you have followed my Field Notes installments for any length of time (thank you, by the way), you will likely know that 100% of my life as a surveyor has been in California. I must admit to not spending detailed hours researching the specific requirements of the other 49 states and outside of our borders, but what’s true in California is likely applicable to a high percentage of other states.

In California, there are different ways to compile the education and experience required for acceptance to sit for the state-specific professional land surveyor examination. We do not have a mandatory degree requirement, so it is still possible to attain the exam-acceptance requirements based entirely on experience. I am a very strong advocate for retaining that path, as I am a beneficiary of it, albeit more than 30 years ago. And because college isn’t for everyone.

Regardless of whether an applicant has a degree to combine with experience or is applying based solely on experience, part of the application process is obtaining references (a minimum of four) from licensed professionals (PLS or pre-1982 PEs in California) to validate engagement records (experience and duration the applicant has cited). Another reason for references is to provide an evaluation of the character of the applicant regarding his or her acceptability as a licensed professional.

I can speak to this role from the side of being asked to serve as a reference many times (the first one is a proud moment), but I can also provide a different perspective, which I will speak to shortly.

Regardless of degree possession, an applicant must have a minimum of one year of “responsible field training” and one year of “responsible office training” as defined by the Board of Registration, which must have been gained under the direct supervision of someone authorized to practice land surveying, aka “References.”

Reference for Experience

It is one thing to be willing to serve as a reference for experience that was gained early in the applicant’s journey because that is much more broad and general to meet the requirements to sit. Essentially, you are attesting to the amount of time they are claiming under your supervision and that they performed the tasks they claimed they did, at the level they claimed. Fairly clear cut, but you still need to make sure they haven’t embellished either the time, experience, or both.

It is another thing to be a reference for that critical “responsible” experience. It means you need to understand the definition of “responsible” in this context, then apply it to the engagement record of the applicant. This is perhaps a bit more challenging than general experience and certainly more critical to the applicant’s worthiness of being allowed to sit for the examination, in my opinion.

When serving as a reference attesting to engagement records, personal feelings about the applicant are irrelevant. Your personal pride of having risen to the ranks of being a reference should drive you to take it very seriously, not applying a rubber stamp to get another reference notch on your belt. If the meat isn’t there and you know it, don’t falsely attest to the engagement record regardless of how much you would like to see the applicant succeed. Do the right thing!

Same goes for certifying to the applicant’s professional integrity and their ability and fitness to receive a license. In California, there can be consequences if it can be proven that a reference intentionally did not do the right thing.

Okay, now to the other side of the story.

Reference for Competency

For several years I was involved in the grading of the state-specific examination and also served on the examination-development team. The California examination has a long history of a passing rate of under 30%, with single digit rates a few times. This set of statistics shows only the past few years, which were after the change to the computer-based, multiple choice format in 2012, but still in the low 20% range.

Before the switch in 2012, it was not unusual for the final cut score for an examination to be set near the 50% mark, after careful evaluation of how the examination itself performed. Yes, that meant you only had to get half the points to pass and be deemed minimally competent to practice.

I told more than one candidate on my staff, “Just remember, all you need is a good solid F to pass.” But I contest that these numbers, especially the passing rate, were greatly skewed in the negative direction in part by references.

My experiences were not wholly with all problems answered by all applicants (there was a grading team for each problem), but still representative of the examinee pool. I believe that likely half, or more, should have never been allowed to sit for the exam.

Perhaps they just didn’t study? Maybe they didn’t care? Maybe they had a bad day? Or more likely, they just didn’t have the knowledge and experience required to take the examination? If that is true, or even “not caring” was true, that falls on the references, not the applicants.

My gut feeling after spending three days grading hundreds of examination booklets each year was that if only the ones who were truly qualified and ready were allowed in, the passing rate would be much closer to 50%, perhaps higher.

It certainly made me take my reference role even more seriously. Hopefully you will too, and always have been. It’s not a matter of keeping the newbies out of the “Good Ole Boys” club. It’s a matter of being part of the licensing process, part of the succession planning of our profession. Don’t just assume the test will weed them out. If they aren’t ready or aren’t of the character, step up and say so.

But if they are, offer your time to help them prepare, provide reference materials, suggest examination taking tactics, and take them out for a meal after learning of their success, which you were an integral part of.

Do the right thing, no matter what it is.

Field NotesThis article appeared in xyHt‘s e-newsletter, Field Notes. We email it once a month, and it covers a variety of land surveying topics in a conversational tone. You’re welcome to subscribe to the e-newsletter here. (You’ll also receive the twice-monthly Pangaea newsletter with your subscription.)

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