A Four-Year Surveying Degree Should Not Be Mandatory

by Charles Diggs, RPLS

I am responding to David W. Gibson’s article in the January’s issue concerning the need for a four-year degree. I received a four-year degree in 1975 from the University of Florida under David Gibson’s teaching. The surveying program at Florida was still in its infancy, yet David was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher even back then. Nevertheless, it took me many years of fieldwork and maturing before I became a true professional. This article is not about me, but I use myself as an example because when I first started surveying, I possessed the degree but lacked so many other qualities necessary for a good surveyor.

I received my degree when I was 21, still just a kid, and trust me, I acted like one. Partying was higher on my list of priorities than the serious pursuit of a surveying profession. I was good at math and had some book smarts, so I made it through college, but I was emotionally immature and undisciplined. A structured, 40-hour-a-week job was much harder for me than 15 hours of classes and studying when I felt like it.

After graduation when I worked surveying jobs, I met non-degreed people in the profession who were a few years older, were more responsible, and in many practical ways had more surveying knowledge. They were certainly more focused than I was. It took years and many life changes for my mental fog to burn off and for a sense of purpose to set in. I became a registered surveyor in Texas in 1982.

Back then, I found the best surveyors were guys (sorry ladies: women did not join our ranks until recently) who had been on their own and taking care of themselves for a while. Often they had worked at different jobs and had discovered surveying, which just clicked for them. They knew that surveying was what they wanted to do. They were mentored by senior surveyors who recognized their enthusiasm and passion, and they took night courses at colleges and sometimes learned by correspondence courses. Within a few years they understood the needed math and were good at fieldwork. They were often crew chiefs of their own field crews and learned to perform cost-effective surveys molded by the pressures of the business world with its budgets and time constraints.

These gentlemen spent their time fully engaged in the act of surveying. I, on the other hand, had spent my time studying surveying. Which would you rather be, a passenger in a car with someone who has been driving a car for a while or with someone who has been studying about driving a car for a while?

Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, if you had a four-year degree you could get some practical experience as a surveyor in responsible charge and then sit for the licensing test more quickly than someone with experience only. That is all right, but to close the door on the people without a degree reveals a prejudice that only hurts our profession and the public we serve.

What Makes a Professional?

There are men and now women, too, who could pass the test, but we don’t allow them a chance because of a rule that was created out of our own insecurities. We want a piece of paper that says we are on the same level as an engineer, an accountant, perhaps even a banker because of our lack of self confidence. People often do not possess an inner strength, an inner confidence, so they look to a diploma to assure them they are okay.

Other professionals—and let’s include doctors, financial advisors, registered nurses, and city planners—have insecurities, too. Some of them are straight-forward professionals, and some are disorganized, scatter brained, arrogant ninnies. And just about all of them have degrees. It seems to me that this issue deals with a human dilemma and not surveying or whether the home-buyer gets a good survey.

No matter the profession, a written test or a diploma will not measure the elements necessary to make a true professional. These traits include:
  • knowledge of the technical, business, and legal aspects of one’s profession,
  • the habit of having one’s actions follow one’s words, and
  • the habit of making that extra phone call to tie up any loose ends and, as in the case for surveyors, take the time to look for that extra corner or dig a little deeper for that sometimes-elusive iron rod.
The last two traits come from caring and a willingness to do one’s best. These are internal qualities one cultivates throughout life and are not handed out at a university.

A license or registration does not make a professional, but it does legitimatize that we have obtained the knowledge needed to participate and direct work within a chosen profession. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that whether we get our license by a) experience, studying and taking a test, or b) earning a degree, experience, and taking a test, we still need other attributes in order to be a true professional.

Those Lost in the Cracks

Let’s talk about the guys and gals with no degree who found surveying, love it, come to understand and excel at it, and yet are predestined to always be survey technicians. Some surveyors discover the profession only after a four-year degree is out of reach for them, perhaps because of the responsibilities created by a family. It costs a lot of money to raise a family, so unless you have a spouse who makes excellent wages and you live in one of the few spots that offer a four-year degree, you’re out of luck.

These same people are often willing to keep their fulltime surveying job, provide for their family, study at night, be mentored, and take classes on the weekends. In Texas, it used to be that they could sit for the same test taken by folks with a four-year degree; if they didn’t pass the test they would not be a licensed surveyor, but if they did, they were in. To say there is only one route to achieve knowledge is an attack on the spirit and intellect of man. I prided myself in being associated with a profession that allowed learning to happen in different forms and at different stages of life. That is no longer the case in Texas.

Most people attend college straight out of high school and choose a field of study before ever having a chance to work in that field. That is why so many people work in a field unrelated to their degree. My father had a degree in journalism. He became a newspaper reporter but wasn’t very good at it. Later he went to work on a survey crew, liked it, took night classes, and studied at the kitchen table doing traverses with trig tables on an old hand-cranked Monroe calculator. He did his time to get the required work experience, then sat for the test, and became a licensed surveyor in Florida.

Benefits of a Degree?

Why does Professor Gibson say we should all possess a four-year degree? I am sure he has other reasons, but in his January article he states that we need a four-year degree so that we won’t get sued so easily, because in Florida the statue of limitations for erroneous work is only two years for a professional and four years for the general public. Moreover, Florida courts have determined that professions that do not require a four-year degree are not professions and therefore subject to greater liability. Wouldn’t you think that a professional might be held to a higher standard of responsibility than the general public?

Professionals want the additional compensation that goes with being considered a professional, but do we really believe we can have less accountability than the general public? Whether you are doing work within a trade or what might be considered a profession, you must be responsible. In other words, if a fence builder builds a fence, he needs to be responsible for the integrity of the fence, and if a surveyor determines the location of the property line, he needs to be responsible for the location of the fence. The idea that we should tailor our educational and experience requirements for licensing in accordance with irrational laws and court interpretations points to the blind leading the blind. I bet the so-called professions in Florida had a very good and well-paid lobby when the professionals pulled off less liability than Joe the fence builder.

In Texas, I was proud of our dual path that culminated in sitting for the test. Now we have succumbed to the four year-degree syndrome. The average age of a registered surveyor in our state continues to climb, as does the number of grey hairs you see at classes offering continuing education. When we selectively limit the number of people who can be a professional surveyor—and when the small population of registered surveyors begins to age—we need to question if the situation we have created best serves the general public in need of our services.

Think back to when you were a surveyor in the field and you hiked up a high hill and looked over the vast area allowed by this vantage point. Didn’t a sense of freedom find a temporary home in your mind, unabated by rules and constraints, allowing you to entertain possibilities beyond your normal thinking?

Surveyors need to climb that hill again, find worth in themselves by being a part of nature, and release the insecurities that prompt us to conform and be less than we truly are. Let’s find our own path; let’s be original and proud. Let us be sure of ourselves, supported by our own dignity, and not battered by the winds of our own insecurities and legislative bodies corrupted by special interests. Let us welcome all people who are willing to work, study, and learn about our great profession no matter what age they are when they’re moved to do so. Let the test simply be the test.
Charlie Diggs is a registered professional land surveyor in Texas. He can be reached at charlie@guadalupeonlne.com.

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