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A Day in the Life of a Surveyor

Surveyors calculate the height, depth, relative position, and property lines of pieces of land. They use theodolites, transits, levels, and satellite technology -known as the Global Positioning System (GPS)-to determine locations and boundaries. They work outdoors most of the time and often have assistants. Surveyors work with many other people and often act as team leaders, in charge of projects for civil engineers, architects, or local authorities. It may seem that a surveyor’s job is an nonpressured one, but respondents were quick to point out that: “If a surveyor doesn’t do his job properly, everything goes wrong. Imagine the problem if a building straddled two people’s properties or an airport runway wasn’t level.” Surveying is a career that requires an eye for detail, a careful touch, an analytical mind, strong organizational and communication skills, and leadership ability. Surveyors work in a variety of areas. Some delineate property boundaries for legal deeds and titles. Others work on civil-engineering projects, such as airports, highways and waste-treatment plants. Nearly every construction job requires a surveyor (over 60 percent of surveyors were employed by architects in the 1990s). Surveyors also work with cartographers (map makers), oceanographers, geophysicists (exploring for oil), and miners (to ensure the proper positioning of underground shafts). The variety of the job is one of its most interesting features. “You use the same tools in different ways to do different things,” said one quite happy surveyor. Surveyors must keep abreast of technological advances. The recent development of GPS technology, which uses a portable satellite dish and a triangulated satellite to develop maps, has changed the way surveyors and cartographers work together. Continuing professional education is the norm in this occupation. Surveying involves rigorous physical work. Much surveying is done in remote, physically challenging locations and requires the carrying of equipment over undeveloped terrain. Respondents said that their work can be stressful because it is so exacting and because architects sometimes claim a survey was faulty instead of taking responsibility for their own mistakes. Surveyors’ positive comments, however, significantly outweighed their negative ones.

Paying Your Dues

Surveyors are not required to have a college education, but state licensing requirements make it preferable for candidates to earn one. Employers look favorably on college or vocational school courses in civil engineering, mathematics, physics, statistics, geometry, drafting, blueprint reading, and computer science. Many of those who don’t attend college find work as assistants and eventually become technicians, getting their education on the job. All states require that surveyors be licensed. Although requirements vary from state to state, college graduates generally must have two to four years of surveying experience while high school graduates must have six to ten years. All must pass a written licensing exam. Professional certification, while not required, is available through the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping or the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

Present and Future

The profession grew out of the need to map and plan the transit routes for personal and commercial transportation. The planning, construction, and maintenance of America’s infrastructure required a constant supply of qualified surveyors. Surveying used to be part of the civil engineer’s job, but the amount of work required on massive projects turned surveying into a distinct occupation. The need for surveyors is expected to grow significantly over the next ten years. Large, long overdue infrastructure maintenance projects are expected to be carried out, the brisk pace of housing starts and property concerns is expected to continue, and satellite technology is likely to make existing maps seem imprecise and in need of revision. Job opportunities are expected to increase by more than 20 percent over the next ten years.

Quality of Life


Two years into the profession, surveyors usually work as helpers, assistants, or technicians. Hours are long, and the work is more physical than intellectual; however, under the supervision of experienced surveyors, many novices learn the techniques and practices they need to become successful surveyors. Salaries are low; satisfaction is average.


Those who are licensed and able to become fully accredited surveyors are more satisfied (and better paid) than those who are not. Hours are stable, but responsibilities increase; surveyors begin to work closely with architects, contractors, and attorneys.


Surveyors have gained considerable experience from working on a variety of projects. A few specialize, but most remain general surveyors who manage assistants and technicians on surveying jobs. Only about 6 percent become independent surveyors; most remain affiliated with the government department, the contractor, the civil engineering firm, or the architect they have been working with. Hours and responsibilities remain the same; satisfaction is above average.