Sunday, January 1, 2006

Land grab: Surveying the terrain one meter at a time has its peaks, valleys

By Liz Garone
Special to Bee Creative

If you're considering a career in land surveying, you're in good company. Three of our best-known presidents, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were all professional land surveyors at some point in their careers.

In the colonial era, land surveying was looked on with high regard. David Harris, 50, owner of Aspen Survey Company, says that today, when projects are budgeted, surveying isn't always taken into consideration and is often an afterthought. Still, it's a great way to earn a living, he says. "You use mind and body, and every job is a little bit different. There is nothing monotonous about this profession."

Harris describes a surveyor's fieldwork as "always out on the fringe of society." Despite being on the fringe, you're a lot less likely than your forefathers to come across hostile tribes and wild animals. More common today are curious dogs and angry neighbors, who might not understand what you're doing or particularly care for it. "You meet a variety of people," says Harris, who has been in the business some 40 years, having started with his dad as a young boy. "We run into people who are super happy that we're there and others who don't think the lines are where we're drawing them."

In addition to redrawing property lines and performing boundary line adjustments, work as a land surveyor usually includes some office time. In the office, duties can range from preparing topographic maps and subdivision maps to performing construction surveys.

As a surveyor, there are a number of different areas in which you can specialize. In the valley, common surveying positions are on commercial and residential construction projects. Other specializations include oceanographic, coastal, forestry, photogrammetric (for map making), and mineral positions.

In California, you need to be licensed in order to use the coveted title of "land surveyor" and to work as a professional land surveyor, according to the California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (, the agency that administers the tests and licenses. Getting a license requires qualifying experience and passing an examination. To get the experience, many people work as engineering assistants. In Harris' company, for example, he is the only licensed surveyor and has a handful of people who work under him and use his license.

Rich Fultz Jr., 42, a city land surveyor in the City of Turlock's Engineering Division, has been on the job for two years. For 18 years prior, he worked in the private sector for an engineering and land surveying company. A proponent of the profession, Fultz is the current secretary for the Central Valley Chapter of California Land Surveyor's Association (CLSA). The site ( offers information on legislation as well as educational and job opportunities.

"The CLSA is a great resource for someone new trying to obtain more information about land surveying," he says.

Fultz, who has been licensed since 2000, is also involved with the California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors in the preparation and grading of the land surveyor's exam.

"I believe there are going to be some great opportunities in this profession in the near future. The demand for land surveyors is growing much faster than we are currently being licensed," he says.

David Pimley, 26, has been in the business for two and a half years. He works for GDR Engineering Inc. in Ceres. In October, he took his exam to become certified and is still waiting to hear the results. For now, he works as a "party chief," a term that dates from the early days of surveying, and isn't as recreational as it sounds. It involves running the instruments and the crew. Pimley's favorite part of the job is conducting the boundary surveys. "They're challenging, and I don't get to do them that often," he says.

Once Pimley becomes certified, two things will happen: his pay will go up and he will spend more time in the office. "I like being in both the office and the field," he says. Anyone considering a career as a land surveyor shouldn't want to sit around all day, says Pimley. "It's great for someone who doesn't mind being in the outdoors, the cold, or the fog. We get it all." Harris adds that surveying has its peaks and valleys. "Every day has its challenges, and it has its rewards," he says.

Pay for entry-level surveying work ranges from $12 to $14 an hour and can jump to $24 with experience and a license. There are only a couple of schools in California that offer degrees related to the field. The closest one is California State University at Fresno ( Modesto Junior College ( occasionally offers individual surveying courses.

A degree can come in handy but isn't essential as on-the-job training goes a long way, says Harris. What he does recommend is some junior college level math and computer literacy. "Surveying is a combination of history, applied mathematics, and logic," he says.

<< back