Education Requirements Need to Expand with the Times

Jim Gillis, NSLS, CLS, RPLS
There seems to be a strengthening push from within the land surveying profession to re-examine the educational requirements necessary to become licensed. Historically, in the United States these requirements have not been what any knowledgeable candidate would call rigorous, compared to the other commonly recognized professions. And yet I continue to hear comments from some of my peers that becoming qualified to survey property boundaries does not require any formal education, just a number of years of experience.

At the same time, I also hear from colleagues in other vocations related to land surveying, such as civil engineering, GIS, etc., that land surveyors are not professionals, simply tradesman who perform a task that anyone can do, and that the practice of land surveying should be wide open to candidates with a degree of any sort who profess to know anything about measurement, even if it involves simply operating a work station running some form of CADD, mapping, or geo-referenced database software.

I happen to believe that both of these groups are dead wrong. I think that to become a competent land surveyor today requires more education and more field experience than it ever did before. While I firmly believe that a bachelor’s (four-year) degree in surveying should be the standard prerequisite, a degree in any subject other than surveying is, in my opinion, not relevant to this profession. To me, an associate’s (two-year) degree in surveying provides much more of the required knowledge to become licensed than a four-year degree in mathematics or geography, or civil engineering for that matter.

Canadian Requirements

I would like to contrast the steps I went through 40 years ago in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia with what is required to become a land surveyor in many U.S. states today. I do not have a bachelor’s degree in any subject, but I did attend a two-year surveying program and graduated with a surveying diploma.

In order to be commissioned as a land surveyor, I had to pass 10 individual exams set by the board of examiners in, as best I can recall after 40 years, the following subjects: algebra, plane trigonometry, mensuration, astronomy, theory of instruments, curves and survey methods, photogrammetry, town planning, legal principals, and geodesy and map projections. This was completely separate from the exams I had to pass in order to graduate with my diploma in land surveying.

Terms of Articleship is a formal agreement between a professional and a trainee (a lawyer, architect, surveyor, or accountant, for example), whereby they agree that the senior professional mentors and councils the aspiring professional. Next I had to article to a licensed surveyor for a minimum of a year, mostly in the field, after which I could take the two final exams in statutes and regulations and boundary law.

At that point I still had a great deal to learn about land surveying; after all those years I am still learning, but at least I understand the fundamentals of field measurement and how to apply those fundamentals to our office work.

Growing Requirements 
Problem in the U.S.

Today in many states, though not all (two notable exceptions being New Jersey and Michigan), the educational requirements are so rudimentary that it is difficult to comprehend how the public can be well served and protected as they have a right to be. In my 40 years of surveying experience, I have seen the level of knowledge required to competently survey change dramatically.

I really did start out using an engineers’ transit or an optical theodolite and a 100-foot or 200-foot steel tape. There was no such thing as an electronic calculator, let alone a computer, to help us do our office calculations, and it was rare to do these calculations in the field because it took so long to do them manually. Drafting took place on a drafting table using India ink on linen, vellum, or mylar, and while the commonplace use of EDMs was not far off—and electronic total stations not too far behind—the advent of GPS/GNSS technology has been a real game changer. And this is where the problem lies.

Many surveyors do not really understand the correct use of this technology or how to properly merge satellite-derived data with conventionally surveyed data. If they do happen to get it right, sometimes it is by accident.  From my personal observations, there is an abundance of bad data out there that no one has discovered is just plain wrong. Often the errors are so small that they can be safely ignored, but occasionally the errors are significant and range from a few feet to hundreds of feet. These errors can create monetary damages to the client of thousands or even millions of dollars. And this is assuming that the legal aspects of land surveying are being interpreted correctly, which may not be the case at all.

It is this lack of proper surveying education that concerns me today. Many older surveyors who are excellent at using conventional data and properly interpreting boundary problems leave the GPS issues to younger folks who have been brought up in a digital age and have no problem rapidly pushing buttons. But many of these young people do not understand the technology any better than their supervisors because they are not properly educated. It’s the blind leading the blind.

Let’s Learn from the North

So what is the answer? I believe we could beneficially take some guidance from north of the border. When I was obtaining my first commission, each province had its own board of examiners that individually set the 10 or 12 exams that each province required be taken and passed. Currently, there is only one board for the “technical qualifications” for most of the provinces, and each provincial board of examiners still sets its own legal exams.

Here in the United States most states allow the NCEES to set the Fundamentals of Surveying Exam, and the results are recognized by each state board. This is an eight-hour exam in 15 different subjects consisting of two four-hour segments, each with 85 multiple-choice questions. Can this be considered the equivalent of the 10 exams that I had to pass 40 years ago?

Today, CBEPS, the Canadian equivalent of NCEES, (continued on page 50)(continued from page 43) sets more-stringent qualifications to begin taking exams but does not require a Bachelor’s degree. The minimum entrance requirement to become a CBEPS candidate is proof of graduation from, or proof of entrance in, a two-year geomatics/surveying program at a technical institute or a degree program in a university. So, if you wish to become a land surveyor in Canada, you need to have some formal survey education. Then, the current process is to pass 11 core examinations in surveying subjects and two electives as noted in the syllabus.

If a candidate wishes to attend a technical institute and/or a university and take and pass all of these exam equivalents, that is likely the easiest way to qualify, but this is not the only way. If you begin the process by enrolling in a university or technical institute but you wish to switch to the self-study path, that should also be possible.  And, providing that you pass the required academic exams and fulfill the board rules, you will be qualified to apply to one of the provincial survey associations to begin your formal articleship with a licensed surveyor and sit for your professional exams.

Make sense? It does to me.
  1. First you have to show you are academically prepared to be a surveyor, and you can do that either through attending university or a technical college, through self-study, or through a combination of these.
  2. Then, you move on to the professional stage of articleship, mentoring, and passing exams relating to the profession of land surveying.

It’s a two-stage process that requires you to be both academically and professionally qualified to serve the public.

I believe that in order to avoid the two less-than-desirable scenarios described in my introduction—scenarios that some state legislators are currently promoting—we need to move toward the following improvements. NCEES and each state must adopt the approach of ensuring that newly commissioned land surveyors have both the educational and professional qualifications to do what only we are legislatively charged to do: establish or retrace boundaries of real property and protect the interests of the public while so doing. If that can be done, this ancient and honorable profession will likely become more highly respected by the general public and other professionals and will provide a great future for those bright young candidates whom I feel we must attract to land surveying if we are ever to regain our place on the list of learned professions.

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. You can reach him at

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