Is surveying a dying profession?

Nov 2008 | No Comment

Surveyors need to adopt the new technologies and to expand their operations beyond traditional activities

The future of the surveying profession is an issue that has been lingering for many years. Recently, the concern has been growing wider and louder among surveyors. Some surveyors contend that the surveying profession, in its current form, is heading towards extinction. Their reasons include a gradual decline in the number of qualified and licensed professionals, impact of emerging technologies, sophisticated and more capable equipment, and a decline in the number of new graduates into the profession. Others have even considered it a less rewarding profession. But are these reasons valid and if so, is there a solution to the problem? To address these questions, one needs to look at current challenges to the profession as well as the possible impact of any factors that could adversely impact the future of the profession.

To begin, let us look at the public perception of the surveyor. It is clear that compared with architects, engineers, computer scientists and other professionals, surveyors have a low social status, at least in the US, despite the fact that the starting salaries are comparable among all the categories. Also, among those people who are employed by the government, the surveyor’s salary increases at a faster pace than some members of the same categories. One would expect that salaries alone should encourage people to choose careers in surveying. Unfortunately, in the US, the average person does not see surveying as a profession. Most people in the US


erroneously think of surveying in terms of boundary or construction activities, which makes surveying a trade rather than a profession. This misconception makes it is difficult to encourage high school students to pursue careers in surveying. This public perception of the surveyor is different in places like Canada or Europe where surveying is viewed as a profession.

In the US today, the average age of a surveyor is over 55 years. This means that within the next fifteen years many surveyors are going to retire. With declining numbers of students graduating from surveying programs, there is a strong possibility that the current shortage of surveying professionals is going to worsen.

Often cited, but least convincing, is the emergence of enabling technologies and associated equipment such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Robotic Total Stations, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), powerful computers and database management systems. An argument has been made that application of GPS technology in the construction industry is impacting the extent to which surveyors are needed on construction projects. In a similar manner, it is the belief that upon the maturation of parcel-based GIS technology, when banks and mortgage institutions no longer need a surveyed plan of the land to ascertain its extent ownership, and value, boundary surveying will also be curtailed. However, the notion that these new technologies are catalysts to the demise to the surveying profession is completely false. It is important to know that job losses will only come to those who fail to adapt to these new technologies. This requires continuous education and training of current professionals and adaptation of existing curricula in surveying institutions.

Every new technology requires some additional training. For example, whereas application of GPS technology in surveying requires some knowledge least squares solution principles, the surveyor who provides data for GIS analyses needs to understand GIS principles and the importance of metadata. The same goes for digital photogrammetry, remote sensing and other technologies. Surveying institutions that offer associate degrees have difficulty introducing these important topics into their curriculum. Furthermore, the requirements for professional licensure in the US place emphasis on boundary surveying, to the detriment of other areas. Most importantly, the requirements for licensure discourage students from pursuing advanced degrees in surveying. This is causing low enrollments in graduate education programs in surveying, lack of faculty with advanced degrees in surveying, and therefore, lack of research in surveying.

Although the decline in enrollments into surveying programs is causing some institutions to reconsider the cost benefits for offering surveying education, the prognosis is not all gloom and doom. The new technologies are bringing exciting opportunities for the surveyor to expend beyond the traditional surveying activities. Surveyors need to adopt the new technologies and to expand their operations beyond traditional activities. Students of today are technology oriented and therefore more excited by the emerging technologies in surveying.

The downward trend in enrollments will change if high school students are informed about the emerging opportunities in surveying beyond boundary surveying.

Dr Francis W Derby

Professor of Surveying Engineering and
Information Systems at Penn State University
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Steve Berglund
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May 09 TO DECEMBER 2009

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