The Business of Surveying

One of the benefits of this job is that I receive not only all the state surveying society newsletters but a number of international surveying and geospatial magazines as well. In an interview published recently in a European surveying magazine, Chris Gibson, vice president of Trimble’s Survey Division, said, “Many surveyors today already see themselves as project information or data managers. Rather than just providing the bricks-and-mortar tasks of property line surveying, mapping, and stakeout, these forward-thinking surveyors are managers of the critical data required by the entire team throughout the construction cycle.”

Over the last few months I’ve also heard divergent voices, from such professionals as the head of marketing for a major instrument manufacture and a licensed surveyor who is a leader in the GIS field, all say the same thing, that “land surveyors are going to kill surveying.” I believe what they were trying to express, and what I have come to believe, is that the kind of complicated boundary retracement surveys that many of us cut our teeth on and love to perform are finite in nature. In addition, technologies have advanced to the point where our productivity is increasing at a greater rate than the demand for our traditional services.

We are in a unique situation in the United States with 50 different statutory definitions of the practice of land surveying (even more when you add the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.). So, while there is no national consensus on what surveying activities are regulated by the states, the work performed by surveyors in the U.S. can be put into two categories: the practice of surveying and the business of surveying.

The practice of surveying can be defined as the activities that are regulated by the individual licensing bodies of the state. These activities vary greatly from state to state but tend to be limited to traditional boundary surveying in the west, with the addition of construction staking, control surveying, and limited “engineering” design in the east.

The business of surveying encompasses the activities regulated as the practice of surveying as well as ancillary services performed daily by surveyors—that the unique combination of education and knowledge in both legal matters and measurement sciences enables them to perform. This combination varies from individual to individual but can include managing GIS parcel databases, scanning for industrial alignment, building information modeling, and managing data when divergent geospatial technologies require integration.

Whenever a discussion on the future of surveying comes up, so too does the point that there will always be a need for boundary surveys. No one denies this. A more important question is: What will be the nature of the profession that fills that need? Will surveying be an ever-shrinking anachronism that people put in the same category with blacksmiths and coopers? Or a small group of dedicated professionals without the clout to fight off the hegemony of other geospatial fields? I’d like to think that it will be an expanding (and profitable) profession that has leveraged its tools and knowledge to grow in a way that protects its core base. The business of surveying is the future of the profession.

About the Author

  • James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS, owns Antietam Land Surveying in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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