Doom or Boom?

By Gavin Schrock, PLS

“The question to everyone's answer is usually asked from within” – Steve Miller Band
The question needs to be asked. What is the future of surveying? Over the past year, Professional Surveyor Magazine has been seeking insights into that very question, from licensed surveyors to those just starting their careers, from owners to crews, educators to students, scientists to developers, surveying authors, journalists, and more…
When I mentioned the idea of a Future of Surveying theme to surveyors at this summer’s Survey Summit (held in conjunction with the Esri user conference), the reactions ranged from “Excellent idea” to “How can you think about the future of surveying with so many in the surveying profession fallen on hard times!” But if not now, when?
It is undeniable that recent years have put a strain on our profession, as with many others. It is undeniable that work has slowed in many areas of surveying, crews have gotten smaller, and the numbers of surveying school programs and enrollments have shrunk. But just how much do these unfortunate and painful realities spell some kind of permanent setback for our profession? Are we simply seeing an exacerbated example of the ups and downs that befall any number of professions and industries? Or is there a much more long-term transformation of the profession in play, one that has been going on since the first surveyors started using strings, shadows, and sticks to measure?
Do the numbers tell the whole story? Per the Occupational Employment Statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (, in the combined categories of (those who identify themselves as) surveyors (category 17-1022), cartographers and photogrammetrists (category 17-1021), and surveying and mapping technicians (category 17-3031), there was a drop of 40,000 in total number in the past half-decade. But the same statistics show that there was a gain of 40,000 in the preceding half-decade (see Figure 1; 2012 stats not yet available).
While the occupational categories for the same statistics have changed and prevent a direct comparison prior to 1999, this short sample period shows just how much volatility there can be in our profession (and in many others); we are essentially back where we were in 1999. The growth predicted (by the same bureau) for jobs in these surveying-related categories is 25% by 2020. But, how could that be? Well, it did rise by more than that from 1999-2006 … anything is possible.
Also of note are the statistics kept by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) for licensed surveyors in the United States; this reveals some fluctuations in the same period, but with a net gain of 10,000 licensed surveyors since 1999 (see Figure 2). These numbers include multiple-state licenses that have had a net gain of 2,000 in the same period.
Of course, these numbers spark more questions than they answer and would certainly draw a wide range of opinions as to their significance, but is it any surprise that, with a significant portion of our profession reliant on cadastral and development markets, broader economic ups and downs would so directly affect us?
Beyond the numbers, what other forces of change are affecting our profession, for better or worse? Technology has always either been lionized, or demonized. While it is very easy to track the implementation of various technologies to reductions in crew sizes, there are some who say that technology has also decimated the quality and integrity of our profession. I am old enough to remember the predictions of laser-induced doom that the widespread use of EDMs was supposed to bring. Others are more concerned that technology in the hands of non-surveyors is doing the most harm to our profession. These are just some of the more commonly examined elements in the broader subject of the Future of Surveying.  It is unlikely that there is but one force at play, not just the numbers, not just technology, not just economic cycles—we wanted to examine more.
But what, if any kind, of boom? Despite the economic challenges (and some have posited that it is because of the challenges and imperative for efficiency), there has been a worldwide geospatial boom. In 1992 the global market for surveying and mapping equipment was around $1B, and today it is around $5B (that can’t be all just inflation). Is it some grand conspiracy to sell us gear that will erode our quality and make us lazy? Or does it have more to do with, for example, growth in the developing world—when people have to save on costs, they typically find ways to do so and implement the most cost-effective solutions. It is happening here in North America as well; there were 15,000 “geo-types” in attendance at that ESRI conference.
Related to this same driver for better managed assets and rapid development to meet the needs of growing economies, there has been, by orders of magnitude, a whole lot of measuring going on, mapping, remote sensing, scanning, crowd-sourcing. Not necessarily high-precision professional positioning, but it has opened a whole new set of markets. Just where surveying fits (or should seek to fit) into this new dynamic may see more introspection than our profession has ever seen before. Will this precipitate an erosion of our markets or open new ones? How will this new dynamic affect the ongoing realignment of our national professional associations?
We were eager to hear directly from the future of our profession, namely the students who will form this future. PSM initiated a student essay contest, themed “The Future of Surveying,” open to all currently enrolled undergraduate surveying, geodesy, and geomatics students in the United States and Canada. We are proud to share with our readers the three winning essays in this issue with more of the finalists presented online.  All of the many entries expressed at some level an optimism, not only for the careers of the students but also for our profession, a type of optimism that many of us seem to have lost touch with in the face of recent challenges. Such thoughtful students really are our future.
Also included in this issue are guest essays from respected peers in surveying, educators and authors in related fields, a “double shingle” (surveyor-engineer), and some of our own editorial board; we have sought to provide balanced insights. Several of these essays follow the winning student essays, with more to follow in the March issue. PSM is committed to doing our part in helping the surveying profession chronicle its path towards the future.
There is a vast swath of real-estate between “peril” and “potential,” and surely surveyors are best equipped to measure and plot the best course across this uncharted land.

» Back to our February 2013 Issue

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