Becoming a Land Surveyor: Job Description & Salary Info

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Get the truth about a land surveyor's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a land surveyor.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Land Surveyor

As a surveyor, you would be setting or confirming official boundary lines for land, bodies of water and air space. The following pros and cons of can help you delineate if a land surveyor career is right for you:

Pros of a Land Surveyor Career
Median annual salary above the national average ($57,050 in 2014)*
Average job growth expected through 2022 (10%)*
Opportunity to do a variety of tasks in several different industries and specialties**
Benefit the public by helping to provide accurate maps and boundaries**

Cons of a Land Surveyor Career
Much of the work is outdoors in all terrains and sometimes in bad weather*
Requires licensing in addition to educational requirements**
May require travel or long commutes to work*
You will need to stand for long periods, walk long distances and/or carry heavy equipment*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Professional surveyors use property corner markers and topography equipment to measure angles and distances in order to map out the boundaries of a parcel of land. Professionals in other fields and members of the public use surveying data for a wide variety of purposes. A construction surveyor may provide land measurements to an architect or urban planner in order to create design documents. A boundary surveyor might verify property lines to a homeowner to establish the boundaries for a deed. A forensic surveyor may testify as an expert witness based on his or her mapping of the site of an industrial accident.

Surveyors measure land surfaces as varied as mountainous terrain, urban areas, industrial complexes and surfaces that are under water. In addition to traditional tools, like transits (an instrument that measures horizontal and vertical angles) and compasses, they also use high tech tools that may include global positioning systems (GPS), computerized mapping tools, such as a geographic information system (GIS), and digital 3D scanning.

Career Paths and Specializations

A career as a surveyor offers a variety of different specialties. The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) lists the specialties as follows:

  • Boundary surveyors map out and verify property lines. They often research public records, deeds and the work of previous surveyors to aid them in their work.
  • Geodesists use global positioning satellites to locate specific points on the earth's surface, measure large landmasses and measure the size and shape of the earth. This information is often used to create maps.
  • Construction surveyors provide exact measurements for large projects such as housing developments, office parks and bridges.
  • GIS analysts use geographic information systems to supply detailed mapping data about a particular area. Examples of how this data is used include helping to figure out the best place to build a new road or how to best clean up a hazardous waste spill.
  • Hydrographic surveyors map the land surfaces that are under water. Some uses for this information include finding oil, determining shorelines and marking underwater hazards.
  • Forensic surveyors map and analyze data that may be used as evidence in a trial. An investigation may include measuring skid marks or identifying details about an industrial site where an accident occurred. Surveyors in this specialty often serve as expert witnesses.
  • Photogrammetrists take aerial photographs to make detailed maps of places that are too difficult to reach on foot. They also survey large areas where information about land contours and the heights of objects are needed.

Job Growth and Salary Info

According to the BLS, even when housing construction is down, the many alternatives in surveying may help employment prospects. Additionally, surveyor jobs should increase due to growth in construction to improve the infrastructure. From 2012-2022, job growth for surveyors is expected to be at 10%, the BLS reports, and the median salary in 2014 was $57,050 per year.

What Are the Requirements?

Since land surveys generally become legal documents, surveyors in every state require a license before they are able to work without supervision and allowed to verify surveying documents. The road to licensure begins with earning a bachelor's degree in surveying technology or a related area. Some states require graduation from a program that's accredited by ABET, a major accrediting organization for higher education programs in engineering, computing and applied science.

After graduation, you must take the Fundamental of Surveying exam. Upon passing, you begin work under the supervision of a licensed surveyor for at least four years. You then become eligible to sit for the national Principles and Practice exam, as well as your local state's exam if required. According to the NSPS, if you live in a state that allows licensing without a degree, you may need over ten years of job experience as a survey technician before you can sit for the licensing exam. Most states require continuing education in order to maintain licensure.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers are often looking for someone with good communication skills, experience and a current license. Some jobs require a fair amount of travel. Here are a few of the listings available in April 2012:

  • A company in Pennsylvania is looking for a surveyor to work in southwest Pennsylvania, parts of Ohio and in West Virginia. You'll need two years of experience doing construction surveys, courthouse research and boundary topographic surveys to verify property lines. A land surveyor license and having a degree will increase your prospects. Knowledge about construction and skills in surveying software is required. Successful candidates must also have a safe driving record and pass drug testing and a criminal background check.
  • An international engineering and design company wants to hire a geomaticist-land surveyor to work in Dallas, Texas. Requirements for this position include a degree in land surveying, engineering, geomatics or an equivalent area, and at least two years post-graduation work experience in geomatics. You'll need to be certified by Texas Professional Land Surveyors and registered with the Texas Department of Transportation. You will be working in all aspects of geomatic surveys, so you'll need excellent math skills, good decision-making and communication skills, and knowledge of all applicable software.
  • A gas pipeline company in Montana is looking to hire a surveyor with two years of experience and current registration. You'll need at least a 2-year degree in survey technology or equivalent experience. Some duties include preparing applications for company facilities and performing land and well location surveys. Good communication and time management skills are a must, and familiarity with GIS and AutoCAD software is preferred.

How to Stand Out

Since much of surveying work is applied mathematics, it's important to be good at math, especially geometry and trigonometry. If you are in high school, earning strong grades can help you land a spot in an accredited program. Also, if you are already in college, consider a summer job or an internship with a survey crew. According to the NSPS, you don't need experience or a degree for summer work.

Develop Related Skills

Besides math and technical skills, there are several other qualities you can develop that will give you an edge in this field:

  • Paying close attention to detail to prevent errors in survey reports and subsequent building or land use plans.
  • Good listening and communication skills for both giving and receiving instructions and information.
  • Strong research skills to find necessary court documents, deeds and previous survey reports.
  • High level of stamina to work outdoors in a variety of environment, possibly with heavy equipment.
  • Ability to work well in teams since much of surveying is collaborative.

Alternate Career Paths

Surveying and Mapping Technician

If you are interested in survey work, but don't want to go through the extensive education and licensing requirements, you might prefer becoming a survey technician. Survey technicians must work under the supervision of a licensed surveyor and assist surveyors in collecting data and measurements. Most have a high school diploma, but some have an associate's or bachelor's degree in survey technology or a related field. Some survey technicians take additional courses in GIS systems. Job duties may include operating equipment and entering data into a computer and searching sites for information from previous surveys. According to the BLS, the mean salary for survey technicians in 2011 was about $39,400. Job growth is expected to be 16% from 2010-2020.

Cartographer

Cartographers collect and analyze different types of data from multiple sources to create graphic and digital maps and charts. Maps are generally thematic, covering data such as population density, demographics, politics and the environment. To become a cartographer, you'll need a strong background in math and a bachelor's degree in engineering, cartography, geomatics or a related field. Good technical skills and the ability to use Web-based mapping technologies are also needed. Cartographers earned a median annual salary of about $56,000 in 2011. Expected job growth in this field is faster than average at 22% between 2010 and 2020.

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