The New Guy

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series February 2022

Tim Burch takes over as executive director of NSPS

Before we talk about NSPS moving forward, I think it’s right that we look back on the impact Curt Sumner had on the organization. I know you could write a lengthy paper on this, but in a few paragraphs can you sum up what Curt meant to surveying?

For the past 23 years, NSPS has been fortunate to have Curt Sumner as the executive director for many reasons. His personality and demeanor helped guide the organization through lots of obstacles:

  • tough economic times, including a significant recession and the implosion of the American Congress of Surveying and Mapping (ACSM)
  • industry disruption and blurring of surveying roles, including threats to professional licensing and opposing LightSquared/Ligado
  • an astonishing effort to expand our advocacy efforts though a 100 percent membership drive with our state affiliates.

Curt’s balance of surveyor, business leader, and diplomat helped NSPS through many of these good and bad times with class and dignity. He will brush it off as simply being a southern gentleman, but his calm attitude has served the organization well.

What about you. How did you get involved in surveying as a profession?

I am a second-generation surveyor, having started my career in high school as a last-minute rodman for my father’s survey crew. It was my career goal to become an architect but several summers of field and office tasks in a surveying company convinced me to try it for a year after high school. Almost 40 years later, I don’t regret that decision.

What is the best thing about surveying as a career? Why should young people look to it as a career?

The opportunities that lie ahead for younger generations within a geospatial career are unlimited. Surveying covers many more sectors than when I started; from simple boundary surveys to complex topographic data collection to large-scale point cloud management, a surveyor can pursue a path where their passion lies.

Today’s surveying covers field and office duties of many tasks, so every day can bring something new and exciting. The younger generation wants to be part of something that is goal-oriented, and surveying provides those opportunities to data collect, draw, design, and manage large datasets. There are many choices for your career path within surveying and geospatial that fit within current technology use as well, including augmented and virtual reality implementation, so the younger generation should consider it as an option.

What are your goals for the first few years of NSPS under your administration?

Like many other professions, surveying has not been promoted enough to our younger generations as a satisfying and lucrative career option. Technology and other influences have kept our long-storied profession out of the view of the millennials and Gen Z, but NSPS will take necessary steps to make surveying and geospatial careers more visible and attractive for the next generations.

This means more social media exposure, promotion of emerging survey technologies to key demographic groups, and encouragement to all genders, races, and nationalities to consider surveying as a potential career.

We also must be cognizant of those who see professional licensing as a barrier to entry for becoming a surveyor. NSPS must work together with all our state affiliates to promote our purpose of safeguarding the health, safety, and welfare of the public through our professional services.

Curt believed that the person to follow him should be a surveyor, but that’s only part of this job. Working with others—surveyors and non-surveyors—is a big part of the job. Is that the way you see it?

In finding Curt’s successor, NSPS faced the task of deciding what kind of leadership was needed to guide the organization into the next chapter of our storied existence. Because of the success of Curt’s leadership style coupled with his wealth of survey knowledge, it was decided to stay the course with a professional surveyor who also displayed a similar aptitude for leading a professional organization.

An even balance of technical knowledge, business acumen, and diplomatic attitude is key; any shift in the weight of these characteristics will not work in our organization’s favor.

I have been involved in surveying associations most of my career to experience continuing education and as a volunteer at chapter and state levels. When I became NSPS Governor for Illinois in 2007, it was nowhere on the radar to someday replace Curt Sumner as executive director.

However, I have found much satisfaction in expanding my role with NSPS through committee roles, as secretary for the board of governors then board of directors and becoming an officer on the board. I rely on my skills and experience to promote our profession to the public but also lean heavily on my knowledge as a businessman to know what works and what doesn’t.

This balance of knowledge and business acumen has served me well, and I believe we can continue with the successful run Curt has delivered to date.

Can we get your take on a couple of hot topics? First, should a four-year degree be required for surveyors or is traditional on-the-job training still the way to go?

I believe there is a place for both education and experience. Today’s surveying and geospatial can require much more education than prior generations of practitioners depending on the task and technology. Yet many surveyors can become licensed through experience in many states.

Part of obtaining a professional license is respecting the ethical oath one takes with registration. Respect your abilities and do not practice any services that one is not trained and/or educated to perform.

We also must show our technical staff more respect for their positions. There have been many survey technicians (field and office) who have learned the profession well, perform their duties with much skill and confidence yet are looked down upon because of their lack of licensure.

There is more to having a successful career that does not get “validation” by not receiving a professional license. The Certified Survey Technician program administered by NSPS is a great example of validation through certification. A competent technician can demonstrate their abilities by achieving certification across several levels (field and office) and solves two things: demonstrates the value of the employee and gives the employer piece of mind.

Second, talk a little about professional licensing issues—multi-state licensing seems to be a hot topic.

The issue with multi-state licensing is simple: most in the AEC industry want surveying to fall into the same licensing path as engineers. The one big difference, however, is that professional surveying license testing carries one big unique component: boundary determination and the laws that apply to original and retracement surveys. Most states have different statutes for these surveys and corresponding minimum standards, so expanding licensing across state lines will compromise some rules of a state.

The biggest problem is that a professional surveying license (in most states) covers many specialized tasks that the typical surveyor is not trained and/or educated to perform. We need to work with state licensing boards to further define then refine licensing for surveying. The overall structure could look like the medical license process: we don’t want one license to cover all doctors, do we?

I am a proponent of a tiered licensing system with a graduated requirement of more education and experience with tasks that require it. A minimum license could sign for simple survey services. More complicated tasks (land title survey, expert witness, etc.) would require higher education and years of experience. Specialized tasks, such as photogrammetry and hydrography, would require specific education and experience along with certification from the appropriate organization (ASPRS and THSOA, for example).

NSPS will be studying these potential licensing changes and talking with industry leaders and others (universities, NCEES, etc.) to see what can be adapted to work with challenges within the profession.

In the rapidly changing world we live in, are surveyors becoming more relevant or less relevant?

The surveying profession, specifically the geospatial sectors, are extremely relevant to the future of our existence around the world. Besides utilizing emerging technology for more efficient mapping of our infrastructure through GIS and cadastral databases, surveyors are necessary to monitor the changing environment due to climate change.

Mapping of the rising seas, expanding and contracting wetlands and floodplain, and surveying of areas for overdevelopment are just a few of the significant tasks that our profession is charged. Our younger generations are focused on reducing the effects of climate change, so providing geospatial information of the world around us is our duty to help monitor this situation.

How can NSPS promote surveying as a profession to youngsters the way professions like teacher, lawyer, police officer, etc. are?

Even the historically preferred careers of doctors, lawyers, firemen, police and teachers are facing a shortage within their ranks. The surveying and geospatial professions are following a similar path, as many within the younger generations are wanting careers with a fast timeline to money and accomplishments.

NSPS realizes we cannot change the expectations of these kids and young adults, but we are not afraid of ramping up our promotion of the profession through modern means. We are adapting our content to focus on social media and more generationally focused concepts for our future technicians and surveyors. We will provide facts and examples of how playing video games in virtual reality will ready one for data collection and modeling with real-world point cloud data. NSPS must display the potential of a satisfying career to all those future surveyors; except they just don’t know that they are. Yet.

Who knows, maybe we can change the mind of an aspiring architect to learn more about surveying…

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