What Gen X means for the future of surveying

July 3, 2019  - By
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Photo: iStock.com/Georgijevic

Photo: iStock.com/Georgijevic

The surveying profession has come to a crossroads, and is divided amongst itself to boot. A gap exists within the profession, and yes it is a generation gap, based on how technology has evolved and how the different generations experience it differently. In this column I explore the histories both of the generations and the technology to reach conclusions on how best to move forward — together.

Surveyors now have more tools than ever before available to them to perform their tasks. But surveyors of different ages regard these tools differently. Not to put too fine a point on it, the younger porfessionals among us feel their creativity and desire to further the profession is being stifled by the group who is supposed to be leading and mentoring them.

Why is this crucial to consider? Because these are the future users, purchasers and adopters of geospatial equipment and software, and the future setters of industry standards. All involved, from manufacturers to distributors to surveyors themselves, would do well to think deeply upon this.

As we enter the final stretch of the 21st century’s second decade, many things have changed since the Y2K scare and the proliferation of the Interweb. From deregulation of the surveying profession to changing coordinate systems and datums, the surveying profession faces many challenges in 2019. One of the biggest challenges we face has nothing — yet everything — to do with technology.

Talented people are necessary to grow our profession. We are falling well short of having enough to keep up with demand. Sounds like a simple problem; just hire more surveyors and technicians. This sounds easy, but several roadblocks confront us.

A select few still invest in their surveying future by going to college to get a degree and eventually become a licensed surveyor. These individuals find, however, that the road to success has lots of potholes along the way, just as their elder predecessors did.

Recently, I participated in a group discussion with the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) Young Surveyors Network to discuss surveying, technology and the young surveyor’s role in promoting future career opportunities. This discussion was part of Network’s series of meetings and seminars held in parallel with the main NSPS Spring Business Meetings.

It was great to see the higher proportion of women in the young surveyor group than in the typical professional society meeting. Their feedback was consistent with that of the young men in the group. All together, their perspectives led me to write this article.

While I think of myself as still “young-ish” (in my early 50s), being the oldest participant in that group was intimidating, to say the least. These young technicians and surveyors are driven and focused, yet they seek the same feedback and mentoring that I desired when I was their age.

In the weeks after that meeting, some of the items discussed continued to resonate with me and forced me to reflect on my own experiences and career path. To be fair to them and truly understand their views on today’s surveying profession, I needed to look beyond the profession, policies and procedures to which I hold fast in my ethical approach to the craft. These younger generations have been exposed to a completely different world than the one I remember fondly, and the world they grew up in has subjected them to challenges to which I cannot relate. To help explain the conundrum of trying to find a way to relate, we need to take a step back and look at not just generational values but how the many industrial revolutions have affected us as well.

TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATION

The first part of my research to help me find a way to step into the shoes of these young surveyors was to look at past generations and how they relate to each other. Going back to the turn of the 19th century, we get the following breakdown:

Traditionalists or Silent Generation: Born before 1945

This timeframe contains sub-groups including the “lost generation of 1914,” the “interbellum” and the “greatest generation.” Alaska and Hawaii were not included in the United States during this period. Most of the country west of the Colonial states was subject to the government Public Land Survey System started in the early 1800s. The Great Depression took its toll on much of the population, and previously rapid expansion slowed to a standstill.

Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964

World War II changed the world. Soldiers returning from military duty to start or resume families accelerated population growth and a departure from traditional social attitudes. Two-income families emerged, and prosperity ruled for many years. Surveyors, teaming with civil engineers, helped fuel an unprecedented explosion of real estate expansion through planned developments across the country.

Generation X: Born 1965 – 1976

The children of the fast and free-living Baby Boomers grew up to become the Gen Xers. They were the first “latchkey” kids, more likely to be raised by divorced or remarried parents. As young adults, in their effort to enhance their lifestyle more than their parents, they did many things to the extreme with no consideration of cost. This led to massive real estate developments, “McMansions” and increased debt. Surveying continued to flourish but most growth was enjoyed by engineering firms who absorbed surveyors to expand their services.

Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995

This group is often labeled as the “Peter Pan” generation for its predisposition to put off typical adulthood norms like marriage, having children and buying real estate. They have a propensity to be more mobile and nomadic, as they take advantage of technology and rapidly changing environmental factors. With this generation we find the slowdown in career choices towards surveying, even though technology and spatial data acquisition have exploded with potential.

Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials: Born 1996 – Current

This generation was born into technology, and it affects everything they do. From infancy they were experienced soothing music, dancing screens, interactive toys, and dolls teaching them new skills. This generation doesn’t know of a world without computers, cellphones, GPS-based maps or high-speed internet. Surveying has also benefitted from the technology explosion but it hasn’t captured the imagination of this generation sufficiently to develop future practitioners.

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION. WELL, YOU KNOW…

The generational differences only tell part of the story. Each one faced its own challenges when it came to technology (or lack thereof), societal standards, and other facets of their respective eras. A succession of several Industrial Revolutions brought new tools for completing a wide array of tasks and procedures. Here is a summary of each of them in chronological order:

First Industrial Revolution (1784)

Mechanical production via water and steam power led the way during the late 1700s and began a trend of radical changes in the ability to create larger items. The Gunter chain and surveyor’s compass, both invented in the 1600s, were the mainstay of measuring tools during this time period.

Second Industrial Revolution (1870)

Mass production and increases in labor opportunities coupled with the adaptation of electricity in many areas enabled people to flourish like no other time to date. The optical theodolite with horizontal angle measurement was introduced and then mass produced in the late 1800s to help surveyors make more progress westward.

Third Industrial Revolution (1969)

A significant leap forward in technology occurred with the invention of the microprocessor in the late 1950s, followed quickly by rapid development of electronic machines designed to follow manual instructions. Programmable controllers and devices were born from the fast-paced development of sophisticated miniaturized circuitry. These developments were used to create measurement devices for sending infrared and visible light waves across long distances. In the late 1970s, technological advancements led to the development of electronic theodolites or total stations. These instruments were the first to be able to electronically determine the horizontal and vertical angles normally read manually by the operator, and to combine this data with electronic distance measurement. Further development created methods of storing this data electronically for input into computer calculation and drafting programs.

Fourth Industrial Revolution (Current)

Industry experts differ as to when the Fourth Revolution began, but all agree we have turned the corner and are now fully entrenched into a new realm. Further miniaturization of computer chips, advanced sensors and storage, and robotic mechanisms have introduced a new reality for everyone, including the surveyor. Today’s practitioner has many sophisticated tools available for work, including GNSS receivers, laser or LiDAR scanners, UAVs with a multitude of sensors, hydrographic vehicles with single and multi-beam fathometers, and many more instruments currently under development.

Surveyors now have more tools than ever available to perform their tasks. Now we must cross-reference these revolutions with the practitioners from the various generations to help us understand upon which road the profession is headed.

TECHNOLOGY MEETS GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES; WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

One thing that stood out in my aforementioned discussion with the young surveyors’ group was how much they were embracing technology not just in their every day lives and communication, but how they understood the enhanced abilities of the latest tech and instruments for surveying. They see the value in large data, point clouds and BIM (building information modeling) needed for industry use.

The general consensus from this group was that my generation (Gen X) and earlier (Baby Boomers) are easily dismissive of their enthusiasm for incorporating these new technologies into our workflow simply as ways to shortcut old methods done by more labor-intensive means. While I initially tried, myself, to dismiss this suggestion, further research has only proven their point: their creativity and desire to further the profession is indeed being stifled by the group that should be leading and mentoring them.

Cross-correlating the generations with their various personalities and quirks with the amalgamations of industrial revolutions turns up some interesting results. Gen Xers and earlier surveyors were strictly taught by their managers and mentors that both historical data and original monuments are sacred and not to be denied. This information was derived from the most basic of survey instruments and measuring equipment, with accuracy that is not acceptable by today’s standards.

But the tradition remained: if it was good enough for our forefathers to establish the early frontier, then more accurate measuring devices are simply overkill. New sophisticated robotic total stations, GNSS receivers and robust data collectors available as a result of the Third Industrial Revolution are shiny objects that stand in the way of “good surveying,” in the opinion of the elder surveyors.

Millennial surveyors, meanwhile, look at the world with a different vision and much different solutions. Most of them were not exposed to televisions with just three channels, telephones mounted on walls, or kitchens without microwave ovens, to just to name a few “antiquities.” Their families have always owned a computer and the library is a place where you go to study. Research isn’t looking in an encyclopedia; you Google. They embracw cellphones with a multitude of apps and functions, including location services within a few feet, practically as extensions of themselves.

The equipment produced for surveyors today is well within their wheelhouse as it maps a multitude of points and features in a blink of an eye. Accuracy and detail are no longer an issue — but adapting that data to legacy deeds and maps is where us old timers can help bridge the gap.

Another problem that has proven to be a yawning void between the generations is the remnants of the economic slowdown of 2007-2012. Many Baby Boomer and Gen X surveyors learned to do more with less. Times were tough and we couldn’t afford to upgrade to the latest versions of total stations, GNSS, software, or invest in new technologies like laser scanning. There was also an exodus of technicians simply because there was no work in surveying for the time period, and they found employment in other professions. That left a void in who was doing the work (now being completed by upper level surveyors with older skill sets), and having no younger personnel to train and groom for future career growth.

There were many technological advancements during that time frame but overall the industry suffered because of the economic downturn. The Millennials, most of whom were too young to be employed during this period, now are faced with working for an older profession that couldn’t afford to stay current with technology and who have trouble relating to the motivations of the younger generation.

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

I believe the surveying profession is at a crossroads, one based upon the gap caused by the generation / technology combination described above. Steps must be taken to rectify this. Here are a few of the pathways to closing the gap and becoming a solid profession for the future:

  1. Embrace the mentor/mentee relationship, but be open to reversing the roles. The younger generations have a handle on the latest technology, so us old timers need to be more willing to close our mouths and open our ears and minds.
  2. Create more opportunities for younger surveyors to participate in organizations so they can also be influencers. Keep in mind that they don’t typically like to “belong” to an organization, so adapt our professional groups and keep their interests in mind.
  3. Change the way we communicate. Many Baby Boomers / Gen X members are critical of the younger generations and social media, yet this trend shows no sign, at all, of stopping. Smartphones are here to stay, so let’s learn to adapt, to remain in step with the youngsters.
  4. Be willing to invest in new and emerging technology. Who know where the next radical survey technique will come from if you don’t have an open mind and checkbook? Invest not only in equipment but your young staff’s future.
  5. Encourage younger staff to get involved in something. Anything. Social interaction can lead to better communication skills and expose them to more business situations. Don’t push them in over their head,s but get them to be “uncomfortable” occasionally. They will thank you for it.

Many professions and occupations will suffer in the next 3–5 years because of attrition through retirement, incapacitation and death. These workforces will lose 20–40% of their workers. Those left will have to pick up the slack and then some. We need to either

A) hire a lot more surveyors, or

B) figure out how to make it work with less bodies.

The conversation that took place in that meeting room with the young surveyors has made a deep impression on me and has changed my focus on the future of surveying. How does this apply to an article in a geospatial publication? Simple: these are the future users, purchasers and adopters of geospatial equipment and software, and the setters of industry standards.

The younger generation understands how to use today’s technology, and the surveying profession overall needs to embrace that fact. The technology won’t mean a thing if we don’t have the bright minds to use it to its full potential.

So I ask you again to embrace, encourage and listen to the young surveyors; they will thank you for it.

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About the Author:


Tim Burch, GPS World’s co-contributing editor for survey, is director of Surveying at SPACECO Inc. in Rosemont, Illinois. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985, and is the secretary, Board of Directors, National Society of Professional Surveyors.

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