The focus of the professional surveying societies today seems to be on the decline of the number of surveyors out there. Some are even beginning to raise this level of concern to that of soft panic.
From the outside, the surveying community is headed for a perfect storm of obsolescence. Technology has contributed to the depletion of apprenticeships; educational institutions are struggling to meet enrollment targets; and every day more and more surveyors are leaving the labor force through attrition and retirement. Not a promising picture of the future, is it? Or is it?
The professional surveying societies all seem to be following the same pattern. They seem to think the answer is to go into schools and target children and show them cool toys and wow them with technology. Is that really where our value is? In toys? In technology? It might be a good way to get a message out to the public about the science behind what we do; however, that is hardly unique. Farmers use RTK now to plow their fields, and anyone can go to Walmart to buy a drone. So, toys no longer set us apart.
The greatest benefit the professional surveyor has to offer is teaching about land stewardship. It has been my experience that the average person, without hesitation, can tell me where their vehicle registration is. However, if I ask them for a copy of the deed for their property I get a look of bewilderment. Why? Because people are not taught to be stewards of their property or how to be.
Stewardship used to be taught. When this country was agrarian, land tenure and stewardship were taught just as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now that we have entered the modern age, those principles are no longer taught. Does that mean they have less value? No, it means that those who are informed have a greater value.
So, why are we pushing toys when we should be driving education toward stewardship? Why do we focus our attention on the kids who excel in Trig-Star and give them scholarships and ignore the kids in Future Farmers of America and 4-H who still receive instruction on what an acre is and how to calculate it? Every year I commit a few evenings to teach the local high school Future Farmers of America kids about the Public Lands Surveying System and how to read and plot aliquot part descriptions on a quadrangle map. These kids get it, and it has meaning to them. So, I wonder if we aren’t targeting the wrong students.
As an experiment, I started asking some of the land surveyors I know where they were from and if they grew up in a big city or a small town. I was not surprised to learn that most of them grew up in small towns. My experiment was hardly scientific, but the common thread was obvious.
What if the focus changed? What if, instead of surveying education focusing heavily on technology, toys, science, and engineering, the focus were heavy on law, tenure, and history, with light application of science, engineering, and technology?
Every day, I see example plats where surveyors demonstrate their mathematical prowess and computational skill beyond reproach. Some can even demonstrate a result exactly wrong to nine decimal places. Since the surveying degree became popular and most jurisdictions adopted it, the focus of the practicing surveyor has gradually changed to the exactitude of the science of measurement instead of the art of knowing what to do with it.
At some point, even the NCEES needs to understand that boundary surveys are not engineering projects where the solutions can be generated from a manual or specification book. Boundary surveys are 98% application of law and 2% application of the science of measurement. In fact, a boundary survey is one of the few places where an incorrect measurement can still yield the correct answer. (That should generate some mail).
From an education standpoint, I realize the science is easier to quantify and qualify and therefore easier to teach. The question then becomes: Why become a surveyor? What does a surveyor have to offer?
We are the caretakers of the nation’s cadastre. It’s about time we start to act like it. That is our value. I believe our focus should be on land stewardship and tenure.