Land Surveying: The Lost Profession


n my 35-year tenure as a land surveyor working around the world and conducting seminars and courses, I’ve found that many surveyors do not know the genesis of our profession. Yet, knowledge of our profession’s history is crucial to ensuring its future.

The word “professionalism” is bandied about quite a bit these days and is often used as a marketing term to make the consumer believe the service about to be paid for is better than a competitor’s. Plumbers, singers, baseball players—just about everybody who gets paid for a service wants to be called a professional. I recently saw a local ad for a septic-system installer with the banner “Experienced – Licensed – Professional.” Are we so used to hearing this that we’ve become immune to questioning why anyone can use the label “professional”?

I recently read several articles on professionalism in business, and according to many who profess to be knowledgeable on the topic, professionalism consists of not much more than what we used to call good manners. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the use of good manners in our business and personal lives, but I do not believe they constitute professionalism. So, what does?

Learned Professions

The term “learned profession” (pronounced [lur-nid]) is a designation older than this country, but what does it mean, especially in a modern context? The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act and associated regulations state:

To qualify for the learned professional exemption, an employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction [emphasis added]. This primary duty test includes three elements:
  1. The phrase “work requiring advanced knowledge” means work which is predominantly intellectual in character, and which includes work requiring the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment, as distinguished from performance of routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work. An employee who performs work requiring advanced knowledge generally uses the advanced knowledge to analyze, interpret or make deductions from varying facts or circumstances. Advanced knowledge cannot be attained at the high school level 
[emphasis added].
Do land surveyors practice “work requiring the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment”? In my opinion they do this every day while re-tracing existing boundaries. If they don’t, they are not practicing land surveying at all, although they may be in the business of being a “measurer.”

The phrase “field of science or learning” includes the traditional professions of law, medicine, theology, accounting, actuarial computation, engineering, architecture, teaching, various types of physical, chemical and biological sciences, pharmacy and other similar occupations that have a recognized professional status as distinguished from the mechanical arts or skilled trades where in some instances the knowledge is of a fairly advanced type, but is not in a field of science or learning.

In order to be a competent land surveyor, one must have acquired an advanced knowledge of, at a minimum, several maths, physics, history, and boundary law. If a surveyor lacks math and science, it would be next to impossible to use any of the survey technologies without risk of error. Of course, without a thorough knowledge of boundary law and history, even the most expert measurer would have no success in retracing ancient bounds.

The phrase “customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction” restricts the exemption to professions where specialized academic training is a standard prerequisite for entrance into the profession. The best prima facie evidence that an employee meets this requirement is possession of the appropriate academic degree. However, the word “customarily” means that the exemption is also available to employees in such professions who have substantially the same knowledge level and perform substantially the same work as the degreed employees, but who attained the advanced knowledge through a combination of work experience and intellectual instruction. Thus, for example, the learned professional exemption is available to the occasional lawyer who has not gone to law school, or the occasional chemist who is not the possessor of a degree in chemistry [emphasis added]. However, the learned professional exemption is not available for occupations that customarily may be performed with only the general knowledge acquired by an academic degree in any field, with knowledge acquired through an apprenticeship, or with training in the performance of routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical processes. The learned professional exemption also does not apply to occupations in which most employees have acquired their skill by experience rather than by advanced specialized intellectual instruction.

Though this isn’t usual, I know of at least one land surveyor who did not attend university but studied on his own and passed all 10 (or more) mandatory exams that were the equivalent (minus electives) of a four-year surveying engineering degree. Being able to accomplish this puts him, in my estimation, at least as high as, if not higher than, those who complete the degree while attending university full-time. His self-education while articled to a practicing land surveyor certainly entitled him to be qualified as a land surveyor, too.

Nothing in these definitions specifically mentions surveying or land surveying, although other professions are named, including law, medicine, theology, and engineering. Should land surveying even be considered a “learned profession”? It would appear that the U.S. government may not think so.

What basic philosophy separates a learned professional from the rest? John W. Lewis, MD, JD in his white paper “Ethics and the Learned Professions” puts it rather succinctly when he states, “The learned professions are occupations whose core product and service is their pledge to put the interests of others ahead of their own while providing their specific services.” This is an excellent starting point, but how many of us who call ourselves professionals believe the principles espoused in that statement?

To help both land surveyors and laymen understand this responsibility, here is a little background information.

Early History of Land Surveying

The oldest historical references to land surveying I’ve come across date from 3000 BC, when spring floods in the Nile Valley washed away all boundaries of individual farm tracts. Resulting conflicts prompted Egyptian rulers to establish a land register, possibly the oldest anywhere in the world. Egyptians established a system of survey baselines beyond the river’s flood limits and developed a methodology for surveying and recording the location of the corners of each farm plot. Each spring the officials, what we would now call land surveyors, could re-trace the lost boundaries of each parcel.

References to this birth of land surveying have been found in ancient Egyptian documents as well as on the painted walls of buildings and tombs. By comparison, the oldest reference to the practice of medicine dates from 300 years later.

Some authors writing about land measurement and its origin mistakenly call this “engineering.” However, engineering is not land surveying, although they both employ measurement techniques. Civil engineering, the branch closest to land surveying, is commonly defined as “that branch of engineering that specializes in the design and construction of structures such as bridges, roads, and dams.” “Structures” is the key word here. (In 2550 BC, approximately 500 years after land surveying was first practiced, the famous Egyptian, Imhotep, created the first step pyramid using civil engineering techniques.)

In time, the Egyptian land-surveying techniques began to spread. The term “geometry” was first coined by a famous Greek land surveyor, Thales, who learned this combination of art and science in Egypt around 600 BC. “Geometry” is a combination of two words: “geo” meaning “land” and “metria” meaning “measure.” Therefore, geometry was first invented as a mathematical basis for land surveying. How many professionals can claim the distinction of having a math or science invented specifically for their use?

Under the Romans, land surveying was considered a profession separate from engineering, with the Roman term for the surveyor being “agrimensore.” Frontinus, a storied Roman public official in the first century AD, contributed to a treatise known as Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum that described various topics relating to the function of land surveying. According to Serafina Cuomo in his paper, “Divide and Rule: Frontinus and Roman Land-Surveying,” agrimensores “dealt with the division of land, assigning it in ways that could be recognized as equitable and acting as experts in disputes about boundaries, ownership or rights-of-way.” Not much different from what reputable land surveyors concern themselves with today.

It would appear that land surveying was once clearly recognized as a learned profession, so why is that no longer the case? To find this answer, we may have to open a Pandora’s box that many would rather leave sealed.

Formal Education of a Learned Professional

Most people seem to equate a formal university education with the learned professions. The study of the three most common—law, medicine, and theology—has been practiced at universities since the Middle Ages (from what I have ascertained, since the 11th century for theology and the 13th century for law and medicine). Even formal education in civil engineering seems to date to the early 19th century. But what about surveying?

It appears that most formal land surveying instruction has been combined with civil engineering almost everywhere in Europe and North America until recently, with a few exceptions. For example, Konstantin Land Surveying School was founded in 1845 in Russia; Laval University in Quebec has offered a bachelor’s degree in land surveying since 1907; and the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute (originally known as Major Church’s Survey School) began turning out graduates in 1946. Sadly, the two with “land surveying” in their original names have since eliminated these words, and in some universities, especially in Europe, land surveying is still considered a branch of engineering.

This may be part of the problem. With very few universities offering an accredited four-year degree in land surveying (only six in the entire United States at present), many of our licensed land surveyors are not university educated at all, but even more important are not formally educated in land surveying. In effect, they are largely self-taught, often having to pass only two or three exams in surveying subjects.

With such little formal instruction in surveying, is it any wonder that some surveyors find it very difficult to keep up with rapidly changing technologies? According to the Department of Labor as stated above, for someone to qualify as a learned professional, “advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.”

Many states have established minimum standards for new entrants into the land surveying profession, including a four-year degree, but until it’s a four-year degree in land surveying universally, we will never meet the Department of Labor requirement. I’m not saying that it is or should be impossible for a non-university-educated person to qualify for any of these professions; any dedicated individual should be allowed to become qualified by learning outside of school and taking exams equivalent to the four-year university education. However, this option should be the exception rather than the rule.

I’m also not saying that those land surveyors who are currently qualified in their own jurisdiction and do not have a four-year degree in land surveying should be required to give up their license. Not at all! But if we want to be recognized by all entities as a learned profession, we must institute a requirement for a bachelor’s degree in land surveying (or the equivalent) as the minimum standard for licensure…. And one thing more!

Service to the Public as Our First Responsibility

Land surveyors have a special duty that no other professionals have because of our unique responsibility—having to act as both judge and jury when retracing property boundaries. We must be completely impartial when assessing evidence in order to form an opinion on where a boundary should be, and we must make the effort to find all of the evidence before forming an opinion. Sometimes that is really difficult, but if we practice our profession in the proper manner we will treat the various adjoiners equally under the law as we treat our clients. Sometimes our clients have difficulty understanding that premise, but we must try to educate them to understand that impartiality is the greatest ally in our day-to-day practice.

All jurisdictions should establish a process of qualifying land surveyors with the aim in mind that we will assist the general public with the quiet enjoyment of their real property and the ability to use it how they see fit (as long as it does not interfere with the quiet enjoyment of their neighbors). There is nothing more sacred to most people than their homes or real property, and a land surveyor, when acting in that capacity, should be recognized as the professional who, through his education, training, and experience, can be trusted to impartially retrace the boundaries as they were originally laid out.

Land surveyors will not be recognized as learned professionals by the public until they acknowledge that our job is to assist people with various interests in real property in enjoying the benefits of land tenure without fear, favor, or affection to anyone. When we are recognized as having put the interests of our clients and the public before our own, then our status will equal or perhaps surpass that of the three traditional learned professions. If each of the regulatory bodies that oversee our profession recognizes this fact and makes a concerted effort to exercise its responsibilities with this in mind, just imagine in what high regard the land surveying profession will be held.
Jim Gillis, NSLS, CLS, RPLS is survey manager at JEA/Hydrotech, Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. He has diplomas in land surveying and geophysical surveying from the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute and more than 35 years of survey experience.

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