By: Dustin Hoaglin

"I'm an Unlicensed Professional Land Surveyor"

Is that a thing?  

I've been involved in the surveying industry for over 30 years now. I earned my Associate of Applied Science degree in Surveying and Mapping from the Denver Institute of Technology in 1992 and obtained my Colorado license in 2007. You might say I was a late bloomer or my mentors had to drag me kicking and screaming from the field into the office, but looking back, I'm grateful they did.

As a young surveyor in the late '90s, I was eager to get to each new job site and learn everything I could. Every day was a new adventure, and every site presented a new puzzle to solve. When friends asked what I did for a living, I would tell them I was getting paid to do what others did on the weekends - hike in the woods and work with cutting-edge technology. I enjoyed spending time with the old-timers, who were rough around the edges, listening to their crazy surveying stories of the past while also creating new stories with them.

In my early days as a surveyor, I had a romanticized view of the job and my mentors. They were a combination of cowboys, oil field leathernecks, mountain men, heavy steel construction workers, historians, and mathematics professors. These tough and brilliant individuals were not just solving math problems in a classroom. They were tackling complicated math problems on the side of a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm. I saw many young surveyors come and go who couldn't handle the hard work or complained about not learning enough. But I knew the truth: it was a test. If you couldn't keep up with the old guys for the first few months, they wouldn't waste their time teaching you anything. You had to prove your worth.

As I advanced in my career, surveying transformed from an incredible job to the world's best career. I take pride in being a part of the Brotherhood of Professional Land Surveyors and strive to live up to the high standards set by those before me. In fact, this was one of my motivations for leaving the production side of surveying and joining the vendor side a few years ago, where I could provide mentorship and training to a wider range of people.

Throughout my career, I've made many great friends in the surveying industry. But when we share our "How did you become a surveyor?" stories, I've noticed that most of us didn't set out to become Professional Land Surveyors in high school. I certainly didn't know what a Professional Land Surveyor was back then, and I'm sure most high schoolers today don't either. It seems that people stumble into our profession unless they have a family connection. Can this be changed? Should it be changed? If so, how do we do it? These are important questions that we as a community of surveyors should consider.

As my children have grown up, I've found myself spending more time scrolling through social media sites in the evenings while enjoying a cocktail. On more than one occasion, I've come across individuals referring to themselves as "Unlicensed Professional Land Surveyors," and it bothers me. Based on the comments that follow these posts, it seems that I'm not the only one who feels this way. So, I began to wonder why this term is being used and what it says about our profession. I think it would be beneficial for us to review the wording being used and consider its implications. Below are some links that may be helpful.

The NCEES definition of Surveying Licensure:

A professional surveying license = competency

Buying or selling property. Driving down a highway. Walking a public trail. Professional surveyors (P.S.) are charged with protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public when it comes to these and many other everyday activities.

Merriam-Webster definition of Professional:

1.      Relating to a job that requires special education, training, or skill.

2.      Done or given by a person who works in a particular profession.

3.      Paid to participate in a sport or activity.

Merriam-Webster definition of Surveying:

a branch of applied mathematics that is concerned with determining the area of any portion of the earth's surface, the lengths and directions of the bounding lines, and the contour of the surface and with accurately delineating the whole on paper.

Merriam-Webster definition of Licensure:

The granting of licenses especially to practice a profession.

also: the state of being licensed.

After reading the Merriam-Webster definitions above and comparing them to the NCEES definition, I realized that maybe I should refer to myself as a Professional Licensed Land Surveyor. However, in Colorado, the official title is Professional Land Surveyor, as stated on the Department of Regulatory Agencies website. Other states may use different titles such as Licensed Surveyor, Licensed Land Surveyor, Professional Surveyor, Registered Land Surveyor, Registered Professional Surveyor, or Registered Professional Land Surveyor.

While licensure is an important aspect of being a professional land surveyor, it doesn't necessarily make someone professional. Acting with professionalism is a choice that every licensed surveyor must make. Unfortunately, we may have encountered licensed surveyors who behave unprofessionally. Therefore, it's important to look beyond licensure when evaluating a surveyor's professionalism. Regarding the term "Unlicensed Professional Land Surveyor," I believe it could be misleading and inaccurate. Let's delve deeper into the significance of licensure.

Licensure is critical in the land surveying profession. It's a process that we have in place to make sure that we, as surveyors, are competent and capable of providing safe and accurate services to the public. Getting your license means you have passed the tests and have met the minimum requirements for education and experience. Once you're licensed, you're legally authorized to provide surveying services in accordance with the state's laws and regulations.

But getting a license is just the beginning of the learning process for surveyors. It's my opinion that only after one earns a license does the real learning start. We are forced to learn the balance of real-world application verse what we learned in school because we are now on the hook.

From the viewpoint of the public and/or state agency land surveying licensure is similar to other trades such as barbers, cosmetologists, and plumbers. It involves a combination of experience, application, examination, and sometimes an interview. The recommendations asked for in the application process are the only part that reviews a person's professionalism, unless a board interview is required.

But realistically, we've all hired someone who seemed great during the interview and turned out to be a disappointment once on the job. So, is the current review process enough to ensure that only truly professional people are being licensed? Perhaps it's time to consider a more rigorous review process of a person's professionalism before they're allowed to take the licensure exam. But what would that look like? It's a question that we need to explore and find answers to as the professionals in this profession.

Licensure requirements for land surveying vary by state, with some states mandating a four-year BS degree in an approved curriculum while others require a two-year degree. Additionally, most states require an apprenticeship period of four years before taking the Principles and Practice exam. Once licensed, land surveyors must complete continuing education hours in relevant subjects, including ethics, between license renewals. As licensed professionals, we are responsible for policing ourselves internally to ensure professionalism. Unfortunately, many land surveyor social media sites and groups feature unprofessional photos that detract from our profession's integrity. We all need to think about what professionalism means in our community and hold ourselves and our peers accountable.

Now let's talk about the exclusion of a professional licensure path for topographic, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), 3D scanning, Lidar, construction, UAV, photogrammetry, and other services. Currently, in most states, the experience required to gain access to examination is based primarily on boundary surveying. This exclusion leaves a void for young people who have developed their skills and expertise through non-traditional paths outside of boundary surveying.

As a vendor, I come across many young people who use our tools in various settings. They could be working for a general contractor, performing internal building layout on a construction site. Or, they could be part-time employees of a government agency, creating topographic maps to release grant money. Some might even work for a tribal government, using GNSS equipment to locate archaeological sites and file protection paperwork. Others may be employed by architecture firms, using 3D laser scanners to create point clouds of historic buildings before designing new additions or rehabilitations. The possibilities are endless.

The question is, does public health, safety, and welfare require protection in these cases? These examples are loosely surveying per the NCEES definition and could be considered professional by the Merriam-Webster definition. These individuals have a skill, and they are being paid for their services. However, they are not licensed and not part of our "little club". It is important to consider whether the public is adequately protected without professional licensure for these cases, and should it be?

When I started diving into this topic and really thinking about it, I discovered that I agree with the NCEES assessment that a professional surveying license equals competency. To be practical, maybe we need to widen the focus of our licensure beyond just boundary surveying and become multi-disciplined. We need more members in our club. Take engineering, for example. They have multiple disciplines under their licensure - civil, mechanical, electrical, etc. If we made Professional Surveyor Licensure multi-disciplined, maybe I could sleep better knowing that one's professionalism has been tested and proven for the services they provide. In other words, the rough around the edges old guys in that service sector have weighed them and found them worthy.

Thanks for reading my thoughts. I'm eager to hear your comments and ideas.