Surveyors: An Identity Crisis

It seems that during my entire career as a proud professional land surveyor, surveyors have been waging an image battle. We often hear that we aren’t perceived by the public as—or paid on par with—other professionals, such as our next-of-kin, engineers, and even lawyers and doctors. I continually hear and read discussions that we aren’t even compensated as well as some of the trades, such as plumbers or electricians. Although I have never personally had much heartburn over these discussions, I can’t help but be aware of them and wonder why it’s true.

Based on my observations and opinion, the contributing factors are many: a complex, layered matrix of moving parts, some of which we control and others we allow to control us.

What We Are Not

We are not engineers, doctors, or lawyers. To compare ourselves to such does a delusional disservice to our profession.

Although things have changed in the past decade or so with a national component to our licensure process, historically the educational requirements, or even opportunities, are nowhere near what they are for these other professions. For example, I obtained my license 31 years ago based on more than six years of qualifying experience, with no degree in surveying at all. The same path is still possible today in California. That is true for many other states as well, although, as I said, that has changed in many states. (Whether or not that change has been beneficial to our overall professional ranks is the subject of an entirely different discussion and will not be addressed here.)

The reality is nobody except us understands what it is we do. I have spent my professional life working with engineers who don’t understand what we do, or how we do it, but they certainly complain that whatever it is, it costs too much. If engineers don’t get it, we have little hope that anyone else will.

Almost everyone can tell you what a doctor, lawyer, or engineer does, at least in general. Ask the man on the street what a surveyor does, and you will get “I have no clue,” or, “He’s the guy standing along the side of the road looking through a telescope,” or, “He knocks on doors and asks questions.” I contend that no matter how hard we try, collectively, we will never change that. At least not very much.

Lack of Cohesion

Even if we could, it seems we have extreme difficulty doing anything collectively. Sure, we have great leadership at the national level working hard on our behalf. But how many surveyors are even paying attention to those efforts? I believe I have heard more negative statements about state associations electing to include national membership fees with state level fees than I have positives about the benefits of the partnership to both organizations and the profession.

We can’t even seem to get state organizations aligned with regional associations to pull on the rope together. And we can’t get state-level organizations to function cohesively. We have a Young Surveyors Network and the rest of us. What? (Again, I am speaking from personal experience and opinion, so if there are model examples out there to the contrary, I would love to hear about them.)

So, we waste time complaining about whom we’re not treated like or paid equally to. We dilute the power we have collectively by either not being involved at all or by butting heads with others who are willing to be involved but don’t see it our way. Sounds an awful lot like politics to me. We all see how well that works.

Kings of Location?

Another major contributing factor to our ongoing identity crisis has been created by technology. We were once the Kings of Location. For the most part, the only thing left that’s still protected is boundary location. Other people are locating everything from wetlands to assets to infrastructure.

Remote sensing has exploded and taken a huge portion of our traditional work with it. Automated machine guidance has eroded the once-highly-profitable construction staking sector almost to extinction. GIS has become the mapping and data-repository platform of choice across almost all industries and professions, with very little of that data having been collected by the “Kings of Location.”

Bid Undercutting

Then we have the corner-cutters, moonlighters, and the unlicensed, undermining our value at every turn. You cut every penny out of your proposal, with the sharpest pencil you can find, and someone gets the job for a third of your amount. It happens every day. The playing field is as uneven as the surface of the Grand Canyon. Licensing boards have some authority to go after the unlicensed violators, but not your licensed peers, unless they clearly violate a law or rule. Proving incompetency or failing to meet minimum standards of practice can be challenging.

I suppose carpenters, plumbers, and electricians face the problem of bid undercutting, too. But my guess is that it is not so prevalent for those other “professions” we like to compare ourselves with. Does that make us more realistically a trade than a profession? I believe that has been another battle we have been fighting when competing for government-funded work where we are inappropriately (illegally?) selected on bid amounts, not on qualifications. A direct reflection of how our services are perceived.


Then we have the widely disparate topic of continuing education and what constitutes it. I personally strive to learn every day, but I doubt I could claim any of that learning as “continuing education” in the formal sense.

What Is Our Future, or Are We History?

Do I have solutions for these issues? Honestly, I don’t. Except to say that I long ago accepted that part of being a professional land surveyor was educating people, especially clients, about what we do and the value we provide to the success of their project, and doing so in a confident, articulate manner. Then proving it.

And, I have worn a coat and tie while doing it. I wanted people I interacted with to think of a surveyor as something other than that guy with dirty clothes and boots on the side of the road looking through a telescope. I wanted them to see us an integral, important part of the team, not an evil necessity.

I jokingly blame the “Three Surveyors and Another Guy” for all this. But the esteemed role that land surveyors once played in the settling and development of this country—creating a lofty image in the public’s eye (how many old photos of survey crews have you seen where all members were finely dressed?)—is a long-bygone era. We cannot cling to that history, even though we are bound to retrace it. If we cannot cohesively figure out who we are, we may be just that … history.

Look for more from xyHt on the current state of surveying identity, both domestically and abroad, coming soon.

This 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.)

Field Notes

Surveyors: An Identity Crisis” Comments

  1. Bobby Tuck PE, RLS, CP, MBA, PMP

    This was a great article and I agree with the author. Surveyors have hurt themselves by now acting or looking professional. We are truly professional and should act that way. I put some of my professional credentials after my name because I have worked hard to be the professional that I am. I am near retirement but I continue to take nearly 75 hours of continuing education each year so I can justly be called a professional.

  2. Scott
    Thank you for the great article
    I am an old guy PLS 5209 and understand
    exactly what you are talking about – glad
    someone else feels as I do – I still do survey work
    mostly Elev. Cert. — I am getting tired of being
    treated like “go set down old man” — I use to wear a suit and tie also
    I feel no respect from the younger generation
    of surveyors — Thank You Again
    Evan K. Winn PLS 5209

  3. Great article! My sentiments exactly. Lack of cohesion is a big one with me. Not so much with the organizations but peer to peer. One surveyor holding record over a another’s monuments, with no attempt to justify the decision. Thanks again you hit the nail on the head with all points of discussion. Jon Proud L.S.

  4. While I appreciate you bringing up these topics I must disagree with many of your statements. Some of my business is consulting Lawyers about Real Property Law. While I understand math well enough to be an Engineer, there are very few Engineers who understand what I do and as far as Doctors, it takes more integrity to be a Land Surveyor because I am not an advocate of my clients! I have a higher duty to the Public than that. Land Surveyors who lack, education, training and acumen that are destroying this profession. Disparaging and denigrating education and formal training is a mistake and you are delusional if you think a Professional Land Surveyor is in the same league as a Carpenter or a Plumber.

  5. Mr. Bowles,

    Thank you very much for substantiating my assertion that very few understand what it is that we do, including engineers.

    With regards to your other remarks concerning what I stated (or didn’t state) about education and formal training, or my opinion regarding the equivalence of professional land surveyors to carpenters or plumbers, well, thank you for reading and taking time to post your comments.

    I always much appreciate all readers who take the time to post comments and/or email me about an article. Stimulating dialogue is often one of my objectives when authoring my Field Notes installments.

  6. Finally someone, especially a land surveyor, gets it! Great article and very pertinent given today’s world Scott. As you know, I’ve surveyed for more than half my life and it’s totally in my blood. But I firmly believe that many of the common attributes that make land surveyors great, also are major contributing causes that are halting the evolution of the profession. We need to not only open our eyes, but also act. Thank you.

  7. Mr. Martin,

    I read your recent article “Surveyors: An Identity Crises” with interest. I would like to respond with my own observations on the public perception of the land surveying profession without going into any details, examples or anecdotes.

    First, any type of outdoor work is subtlety regarded as low class. Land surveying clearly fits this category.

    Secondly, often times for whatever reasons, people are opposed to land development. Land surveyors symbolize and represent to these people what they are opposed to.

    Thirdly, the labor conditions in surveying are poor. Many talented young men, who have other options for employment, and whose continued employment would be to the benefit of the profession do not stay working in surveying because of the poor labor conditions. They are able to compare the poor labor conditions in surveying with the labor conditions in other lines of work to the disadvantage of the surveying profession.

    • John Bean

      Mr. Mish,

      I tend to agree with the points you made, however, I think you inadvertently exposed another source of the problem. Your statement that “Many talented young men, who have other options for employment…”. Sexism appears to be alive and well in the surveying world. Any vocation whose practitioners ignore half the population in defining itself will never get the respect that comes with being a “Profession”.

      John Bean

  8. –Can of worms opened here– I’m not sure your thoughts are necessarily cohesive, but you do point at some interesting discussion pieces related to land surveying.

    I will agree with you on several points, number 1 – we have an identity crisis! We have called ourselves the “Kings of Location”, however we have done a poor job of embracing new technologies to proficiency; probably why trades have adapted and trained their own personnel! At the same time, we have for decades reinforced continued education requirements for tried and true boundary location/section breakdowns. As a young surveyor, newly licensed, do you think I could spend my education hours learning new technology? Not until just recently. I sat in classes “breaking down sections” of which I have done 0 times and do not expect to ever touch as a PLS.

    During my 20 years in this profession, I have performed the following: engineering surveys, topographic suveys, boundary surveys, construction staking, control surveys, just to name a few. What if we broke surveying down into categories of expertise and only those qualified could perform and bid on said projects? Don’t even get me started on boundary surveyors attempting to be construction surveyors…. Let’s just say the results are ugly!

    I know that solutions to our dinosaur-like traditions seem daunting; I feel it too. Maybe we could embrace that we are hybrids: neither are we doctors, engineers or carpenters, but somewhere in-between them all. I don’t believe wearing a suit-and-tie to the office will change perceptions as much as how we professionally and ethically treat the public, i.e., not practicing outside of our expertise! If you can’t own the project, don’t bid on it!!!!

    I will respectfully disagree on pay, however. If we truly are professional hybrids, required to invest in a minumum of 2-8 hour exams, why can’t we expect to be compensated above the trades and slightly below the engineers? We have undersold and undercut ourselves for far too long – professionals charge accordingly. Surveyors need to take this seriously. Don’t we all pay more for excellent coffee than we do for bottom-of-the-barrel coffee? I feel that excellence in surveying needs to be compensated properly – or we can continue to dwindle and perform inadequately.

    Wages are all over the place, as well. I can step into Survey Office A in my locality and they will agree to pay me $2 to run their office and line out field crews. Also, Office A’s projects including 50% travel. However, I can step two doors down to Survey Office B, to perform nearly the same duties and responsibilities and they will pay me $3.75, with little or not travel. Why? Can’t we have a pay scale of some kind? I believe the trades have a better shake with unionized and prevailing wages.

    Thanks for hearing my rants,
    Steven W. Carper
    WA PLS 49274

  9. …couple of brilliantly articulated observations in this article. I enjoyed reading it.
    It is true that building a network of land surveyors would have to be the toughest type of community to take form. Why aren’t surveyors more proactive about educating the public regarding what they do? Don’t they know their time is worth more?
    In response, I must say that the cohesion or lack there of seems to be 100% a matter of choice, internet availability and willingness to share experiences for future generations.
    Only when Land Surveyors are United can this happen.
    As someone who has cared about this issue for most of my life, in my spare time my father and I built a global community with Subgroups and forums for every geographic location – all 50 states / 149 countries. Organize meetups, share knowledge. Develop grass roots campaigns to alter the public view and educate the locality of the value surveyors provide.

    The social cohesion needed to explain surveyors to the world and to themselves cannot not happen in the pages of a printed magazine. A primary difference between surveyors and plumbers is everyone has an uncle or brother who can fix a pipe but rarely is there a surveyor in the family and if there is shared knowledge is not often socialized and useful. Law and medicine, likewise make a better comparision, to surveyors.

    On the solstice, June 21st, for the 7th time we’ll simultaneously remeasure the planet as a community at Noon, worldwide. Survey Earth in a Day 7

    The opportunity to connect and collectively reclaim, repair and educate the public can only happen when Land Surveyors are United..feel free to reach out and connect..shared expertise solves many problems across time and space.

  10. Can I have your permission to reprint this article in the Surveying and Mapping Society of Georgia Spring quarter newsletter?

    Thank you in advance for your response!

    • Gavin Schrock

      Most certainly; please cite xyHt and the author: Scott Martin

  11. I found it interesting how you mentioned how a good land surveyor strives to learn more each and every day. My son has been interested in becoming a land surveyor and wants to make sure his education doesn’t end when school ends. I will be sure to pass this information on to him so he can start living his dream!

  12. “Sexism” indeed Mr. Mish. If you recall this was brought up years ago at the “SanJACK-INTO” massacre!

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