The Savvy Surveyor
Written by R. William Glassey, P.L.S.   
Monday, 05 January 2015

Land Surveying: Are We Professional Enough?

“I spent a little time on the mountain
I spent a little time on the hill
Things went down we don't understand
But I think in time we will”
New Speedway Boogie – Lyrics by Robert Hunter 

I have enjoyed a long and storied career in land surveying, now over forty years. During this time, and presumably long before, land surveyors have been arguing and discussing the professionalism battle. Are we, as land surveyors, a profession or a trade? One of the ongoing arguments, supposedly to force professionalism on us, has been to mandate a four year degree prior to licensure. A few states have already instituted this in some form, with mixed success. I have followed the discussion, and generally support the idea of a four year degree for licensure, though absolutely not at the exclusion of non-degreed candidates! I think we are putting the cart before the horse, here. The required knowledge is the important criterion, not how or where it was acquired! It has become increasingly more difficult to bridge the gap between technician and professional, though capable candidates must not be cut off and discouraged. A degree is indeed advisable, though obviously not entirely necessary. On a personal note, I have in my resume four years of college studying math and science, though unfortunately no degree. Many of my mentors had no degree. None had a degree in surveying. What is really critical here is a genuine understanding and love of the game and a lifelong dedication to the discipline that is land surveying! 

Despite thinking about these topics over the decades and analyzing the talking points ad nauseam, I have finally gained some insight, which I wish to share. It is painful, and few, if any of us are going to like the results. During the majority of my career, I always believed land surveying to be a knowledgable and therefore learned profession. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but this was my belief nonetheless. I now believe that we land surveyors have been our own worst enemy, especially in the last ten years or so. I am reminded of the Pogo cartoon strip and the infamous quote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us…” 

A major aspect of land surveying that has always caused us grief is the constant focus on technology and softwares. To remain competitive, we must embrace new technologies, and incorporate them into our business. We must occasionally raise our rates to pay for these improvements in technology and efficiency. As a humorous, though truthful aside, I once recall overhearing a colleague state that we should still be performing our surveys with transit, chain and stadia, since we could realistically bill more hours. This is the mentality over which we continue to struggle! The ongoing evolution of technology simply brings us new tools with which to excel in our chosen craft. 

Softwares come and go, and are a passing thing. For any who doubt this statement, how many of you are still using PacSoft? How long have you been using your current software? Surely someone will pioneer something better than Civil 3D! (It’s for engineers, people.) How about soon, please! Again, a superior knowledge of mathematics, geometry, and an understanding of case law will go a long way toward professionalism. There will never exist a “professional button pusher”. 

This recession, commencing about 2008 and still at least partially in effect, has been especially tough on the surveying discipline. Our natural business ties to real estate, land development, construction and banking have all collectively ganged up on us, and these last several years have been extremely difficult! Many well established companies have gone under, or perhaps opted for early retirement. Meanwhile, every neophyte practitioner with a robot hung out their shingle and began low-bidding projects. It is impossible in my mind to remain a professional when colleagues are participating in, or at least condoning this “race to the bottom – Wal-Mart philosophy”! 

Lowballing, of necessity, takes several casualties, chief among them adequate research, proper field closures, sufficient checking and quality control in general. The public, whom we’re legally and “professionally” obligated to protect, typically doesn’t have the resources or sufficient knowledge to discern a good survey from a poor one, and simply opts for the lowest price. If this passes for “professionalism”, and this is what we continue to offer our clients (the public), then land surveyors themselves have finally answered the question en masse, and unfortunately, we are quite clearly a trade. Sorry! Is it too late to turn around? Ladies and gentlemen, it is up to you! 

In the end, we will be what we wish to be.