Modern Surveying: It’s Time to Bury the Dead Presidents

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series July 2016
By John M. Palatiello

How would you respond if asked to name a famous surveyor? Here’s what prompted me to think about this.

In October 2014 at the NSPS leadership meeting in Overland Park, Kansas during the joint Kansas and Missouri surveyors’ conference, my firm arranged for representative Kevin Yoder (R-KS) to address the then-NSPS board of governors.

A career in modern surveying and other geospatial disciplines should be attractive to young Americans

I greeted the congressman in the hotel lobby and was escorting him to the ballroom where he was to speak when he asked me to expand upon the issues in his briefing memo. I began to explain the impending challenge of recruiting and attracting the next generation of surveyors, the fact that the average age of a professional surveyor is 58, and that many geospatial programs do not quality as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.

That was when Congressman Yoder asked me to name a famous surveyor. My response was,”Well, the joke in the surveying profession is that Mount Rushmore is three surveyors and another guy: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were surveyors.”

His response was prophetic: “So, they have an image problem.” Since that time, I’ve discussed this with numerous surveyors and facilitated three state surveyor society strategic planning sessions where I asked the same question the congressman posed to me. The Mount Rushmore occupants is the usual answer.

Surveyors shouldn’t have an image problem. While there may not be a contemporary surveyor as famous as our Founding Fathers, the profession has an attractive story to tell.

What Modern Surveying Offers

As a result of planning sessions among surveyors in Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia, I gleaned the following description of surveying in America today.

A career in modern surveying and other geospatial disciplines should be attractive to young Americans. It is a profession that uses state-of-the-art technology (including UAS, GPS, lidar, CAD, scanners, total stations, etc.), and applies history, law, and mathematics to collect and apply data to solve problems and provide solutions for clients.

Today, jobs can be in a variety of environments, including the outdoors, an office, and a computer lab.

Surveyors today make rewarding and fulfilling contributions and benefits to community and society, such as environmental protection; economic growth; preservation of property rights; collection of data for decision-making; protecting public health, welfare, and safety; and providing a foundation for engineering, infrastructure, and construction.

And salaries for members of survey crews and technicians are above the overall national per capita annual average. Income for licensed professional surveyors varies by state and region, but most make more than $60,000 per year, and a principal, owner, partner, or senior executive in a surveying firm or organization typically earns a six-figure salary.

Which is more attractive to a young person deciding his or her future: dead presidents or the four preceding paragraphs? But how often do surveyors tell the latter rather than the former?

Marketing the Modern Profession

Organizations such as NSPS and MAPPS are developing a national campaign to promote workforce development in order to recruit the next generation of surveyors and geospatial professionals. NCEES has convened a task force on the future of surveying to identify obstacles and opportunities. The first step is a consistent, positive, and attractive message, one based on the personally challenging, societal-benefitting, and financially rewarding profession of today rather than a focus on dead presidents.

“Surveying today is no longer just about boundaries,” said Marvin E. Miller, PLS, PPS, SP, RPP, CP, executive director of MRG GEO, a Florida-based surveying and geospatial firm. “It is much more enhanced and complicated. It’s a cool thing. We need to spring forward from the history to attract young people into the profession.”

Emphasis on education: To elevate the profession, an emphasis on education is also needed. For too long, surveyors have debated about a four-year college degree as requirement for licensure. According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 1990 and 2014, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds to receive at least a high school diploma or its equivalent increased from 86 to 91%. During that same time period, 25- to 29-year-olds who had attained a Bachelor’s or higher degree has also increased. As Americans become better educated and more earn a college degree, surveying education should increase as well if the field is to be recognized as a profession.

NSPS and its predecessor, the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), has had a policy in support for a four-year-degree requirement for licensure as a surveyor since the 1980s. Today, fewer than half the states have a four-year-degree requirement without an option for licensure through less education, experience, or a combination thereof.

Since the 1980s, not only have Americans become better educated, but the nation has become more litigious, the value of land has increased, and the sophistication of surveying technology is greater than ever before. It is also a fact that Americans without a college degree have experienced a substantial loss in economic status, with significant numbers moving out of the upper and middle class.

The time has come to stop debating and start lobbying for four-year-degree legislation for surveyors. Emphasis on image: In 1986, ACSM conducted an exhaustive study on the image of surveyors.

A professional public opinion polling firm was hired to collect statistically significant data from two groups: surveyors and clients of surveyors.

The first phase of the study included a telephone poll of 500 surveyors to gauge self image: impressions of their own status and standing as a profession. 63% said their clients had a misunderstanding of surveying. The leading client confusion in the eyes of surveyors was a lack of appreciation for the amount of work and time that goes into performing a survey, followed by those who viewed clients perceiving a survey as a “necessary evil,” while a few thought their clients viewed the cost of their services as too high.

This contrasted with the point of view of clients. A poll of four client groups, developers/contractors, real estate lawyers, home builders and architects/engineers, which constituted phase two of the study, found 87% had a favorable impression of surveyors. 44% believed surveyors have a four-year degree (that was the number one response), while 50% believed surveyors should have a four-year degree.

The study found that 52% of the clients polled view a surveyor as field personnel, while 43% view the surveyor as a professional who manages field technicians.

The quality of surveying services was rated as excellent by 36%, while 49% found them good.

As noted above, while a significant number of surveyors thought their clients viewed surveys as a “necessary evil,” the clients did not share that opinion. 78% found their surveys valuable, while only 14% saw such services as a necessary expense.

What did clients in 1986 say surveyors should do to improve their image? Improve the accuracy, timeliness, and quality was the leading answer, followed by business practices, personal appearance, training and education, public relations and information. While a very small group, 2%, said reduce fees, and 1% said use state-of-the-art equipment.

It is an interesting debate to speculate as to whether a similar poll today would yield the same results.

Business Education

Since the 1986 study, most states have implemented continuing education laws for surveyors. But too many classes are focused on history and technical issues. These fail to address the business management (finance, accounting, marketing, public relations, human resources, public speaking, communications, presentation skills) surveyors’ need to improve their self confidence, image, and status.

The business management classes should address surveyors’ need improve their self-confidence, image, and status.

Dennis J. Mouland, PLS, who recently retired from surveying, said, “I’m a big believer in continuing education. But it never should be about running an instrument or software.” He said seminars should focus more, “not only on the law, but [on] business and interpersonal skills [also].”

Marvin Miller agreed:

“Surveyors are not different than engineers, physicians, or attorneys who are educated in a particular discipline, but that doesnÕt guarantee you’ll be a good business person. A good surveyor also needs to know about contract risks, negotiation, marketing, and how to read a P and L.”

“What we wear reflects what we do. When dress becomes important for the surveyor it is when he or she is in a conference with a couple of lawyers, a banker, and several investors. Then his/her position in the pecking order of the conference may initially depend on how she/he is dressed. But the surveyor’s contribution to the discussion and his/her understanding of the issues will determine, finally, the esteem in which she/he is held”

said Robert W. Foster, PE, LS, a past president of the International Federation of Surveyors (IFG) and of ACSM.

Mouland taught a seminar, “Charm School for Surveyors,” which he estimated he has presented more than 20 times in the past 12 years. He said,

It’s all about people. How you come across impacts your respect for yourself, the profession, and your clients.

Mouland says it also affects fees. Miller, who is helping to implement a leadership development track of classes for the next generation of principals, owners, and partners in MAPPS member firms, supports a charm school class in continuing education and agrees with Mouland on the importance of communications skills for surveyors.

Communications, language and professionalism in your documents and marketing materials are a factor in my selection of firms to put on a team,

Miller said.

As surveyors, we need to be as astute in our communications skills as we are in our technical skills.

He added that a website, social media plan, and other modern marketing tools are the “front door” to business development, which “can be done well at a low cost.” Education, business skills, self confidence, and telling the story of modern surveying as an attractive profession and a rewarding career are the keys to success for surveyors and surveying. To do that, it is time to bury the dead presidents.

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