Simply put, a surveyor measures the earth. Surveyors measure everything from a quarter-acre residential property to entire mountain ranges. A surveyor also measures airspace, often for airports, and some surveyors map the floor of the ocean.
The job requires a great deal of special training and attention to detail. As a surveyor, you’ll spend a lot of time outside, measuring distances and angles with specialized equipment. You might have to haul that equipment on your back up a steep hill, or you might have to stand by the side of a road for a long period of time to take measurements.
The job can be physically taxing, but is intellectually demanding as well. In addition to fieldwork, you might find yourself in courthouses and assessors’ offices researching legal records and verifying the accuracy of others’ map work.
You’ll learn the most sophisticated applications of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which utilizes satellites to pinpoint precise locations, and Geographic Information Systems, which are used by surveyors to pull together and analyze survey data in digital formats.
Educational requirements for surveyors
High school students thinking about a career as a surveyor should take courses in math, including algebra, trigonometry and geometry, as well as courses in drafting, mechanical drawing and computer science.
In the old days, surveyors started out as members of a survey crew and learned on the job, working their way up to become licensed surveyors. These days, however, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree, although some community colleges and vocational schools offer one-, two- and three-year programs.
In any event, you still need a state license to work as a surveyor. After passing the first exam, you have to work four years under the tutelage of veteran surveyor before taking a second exam that leads to licensure. Most states have a surveyor licensing board that requires you pass one of their exams as well.
Those without a bachelor’s or associate degree can find work as apprentices, but to move up and earn higher pay and better surveyor jobs, you will likely need some additional schooling.
Surveyors can advance in their careers through experience, moving up from surveyor to senior survey technician and even to what’s called a “party chief,” which is the head of a survey team. A survey team includes surveying technicians, who adjust and operate the survey equipment, enter data into a computer and make sketches of areas being surveyed, as well as a party chief who provides day-to-day leadership.
Industries that need surveyors
Companies that provide architectural or engineering services hire most of the country’s surveyors, although surveyors can also find work with government agencies. The demand for surveyors goes up when there is a lot of construction activity, and the demand goes down during recessions.
Still, surveyor jobs are expected to increase faster than average in the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is an increasing demand for geospatial data among emergency planning, security, marketing and urban planning firms. The BLS also notes that many surveyors are approaching retirement age, and fresh, young surveyors may be needed to replace them.