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Education and Training: College and license

Salary: Median—$42,980 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Even before a site is designated for construction, surveyors are on the job. They collect information about the size and characteristics of pieces of land. They may have to research old legal records and documents to determine the exact boundaries of a piece of property so a buyer knows how much land is included in the purchase price. To determine the value of the property, the buyer must know what kind of construction is suitable for the land. To measure elevations (heights), contours (curves), points, and lines on the land's surface, they use a variety of instruments and electronics, including the Global Positioning System (GPS). After collecting the necessary information and checking it for accuracy, surveyors prepare charts, maps, and reports. Based on the surveyors' findings, architects, engineers, and drafters decide on the most economical use of the land.

The surveyors continue to work with the builder once the construction plans have been drawn up. Surveyors mark where the corners of a building or airport runway will be and create elevations that help the builder determine if leveling needs to be done at the site. In highway construction surveyors work closely with civil engineers to determine how the land can be made suitable for roads and heavy traffic.

Traditionally, surveyors have led crews of about five technicians who specialize in certain measuring instruments. Instrument workers, for instance, operate such devices as the transit theodolite, which is used to measure horizontal and vertical angles, and altimeters, which measure altitudes. Chain workers use a steel tape to measure distances between surveying points. Other crew members mark the ground with rods, stakes, chalk, or tacks to show boundaries and starting points for construction. Much of this work done with traditional equipment was still being done at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But more and more of the surveryor's work has become electronic. GPS signal receivers can collect information from several satellites to determine exact positions. They are sometimes used in vehicles to record the paths of roadways. Advanced computer software known as Geographic Information Systems assembles and analyzes the data gathered in the field as well as information from previous surveys and mappings. The collected information can be used for environmental studies, engineering, business marketing, and other purposes.

There are many types of surveying besides construction surveying. Some surveyors specialize in doing land surveys to establish boundaries. They make maps for legal documents, such as deeds and leases. Before any piece of land can be sold, its legal boundaries must be set down and recorded. Other surveyors work on geodetic surveys, which involve the measurement of large areas of land and water. These areas are so large that the roundness of the Earth must be taken into account to get accurate measurements. Cartographic surveys are used to develop maps. There are two kinds of cartographic surveys: topographic and hydrographic. Topographic surveys indicate the elevations of mountains and the depth of valleys, as well as the location of rivers, lakes, and other landmarks. Hydrographic surveys—used to make nautical maps and charts—provide information about the depth of harbors, bays, and other large bodies of water.

Surveys are done in the air and underground, too. Aerial photography is often used to survey areas where walking or car travel is difficult. Surveys based only on photographs are called photogrammetric surveys. Under the ground, mining surveys are done to show what raw materials are available and where they are located. Mining surveys also show underground passages. Pipeline surveys establish the right-of-way, or path, for pipelines of all kinds, such as natural gas lines. Other surveyors specialize in doing gravity surveys, magnetic surveys, and oil well directional surveys.

Surveyors work at the construction sites of houses, shopping centers, highways, and skyscrapers. Surveyors are employed by construction companies and federal, state, and local governments, as well as by engineering and architectural firms.

Education and Training Requirements

An increasing number of states require that surveyors have a bachelor's degree in surveying or a closely related field, such as civil engineering or forestry. Some states require that the degree be earned at a school accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. After they've earned their degrees, they must work under an experienced surveyor for four years. At that point they must pass the written exam given by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying and their state's licensing exam. High school courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, drafting, mechanical drawing, and computer science will be useful for those planning to be surveyors.

Some junior colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and correspondence schools offer two- and three-year programs that provide instruction in surveying. With this education, plus on-the-job training, it is possible to advance to the position of senior surveyor technician or, in some states, licensed surveyor. However, it is becoming difficult to get a license without a four-year college background.

Surveyors must be accurate in their work. They must also be able to manage a crew and check its accuracy. The job demands physical strength and agility, because surveyors often carry equipment long distances and map rugged terrain. Good eyesight and hearing are also necessary. Surveyors must have enough drawing ability to prepare charts, maps, and sketches of their findings.

Getting the Job

To work in federal and state government jobs, applicants must pass a civil service exam. State employment agencies list jobs in surveying. Construction companies may have jobs for rod, stake, or chain workers. College placement offices, newspaper classified ads, and job banks on the Internet are other sources of job openings.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Surveyors usually work for fours years under an experienced surveyor before they become licensed. After they have passed their exams, they may lead small crews of three or four technicians on small jobs. They gradually assume the responsibility of bigger jobs, such as a survey for a large housing development. Some surveyors set up their own surveying businesses.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fifty-six thousand surveyors were employed in the United States in 2004. Employment for surveyors is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all jobs through 2014. As in most construction occupations, demand for surveyors fluctuates with the general economy. Opportunities will be more plentiful for college graduates because of upgraded licensing requirements, technological advances, and the demand for more specialized surveying services. The continued use of electronic equipment will make the surveyor's work more efficient, but it is unlikely that machines will take over the surveyor's job.

Working Conditions

Most of the work of a surveying party is done outdoors. However, they do their charting, drafting, and report writing in the office. Time can be lost because of bad weather. Sometimes surveyors work long hours in good weather to make up for lost time or to meet deadlines. Most surveyors work forty hours per week. Some projects require traveling over rough terrain. On some projects surveyors are away from home for several weeks.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary widely, depending on the nature of the work, the location of the business, and the surveyor's training. The median income of surveyors in 2004 was $42,980 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those working for the federal government usually earned the most.

Where to Go for More Information

American Congress on Surveying and Mapping
6 Montgomery Village Ave., Ste. 403
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
(240) 632-9716

American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing
5410 Grosvenor Ln., Ste. 210
Bethesda, MD 20814-2160
(301) 493-0290

American Society of Civil Engineers
1801 Alexander Bell Dr.
Reston, VA 20191-4400
(800) 548-2723

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying
PO Box 1686
280 Seneca Creek Rd.
Clemson, SC 29633-1686
(800) 250-3196

National Society of Professional Surveyors
6 Montgomery Village Ave., Ste. 403
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
(240) 632-9716

The federal, state, and local governments and most surveying companies provide paid vacations and holidays. Many employers also offer health and life insurance plans.