James Huebner understands well the natural forces of energy and gravity and sees beauty in them. As a longtime AP physics teacher, he conveyed those insights to his students, explaining the scientific discipline focused on the physical universe in all its size and grandeur.
But in Huebner’s personal universe, a certain repetitiveness had set in. After decades as a teacher, coach, and union leader, it was another semester, another season, another grievance. On and on.
“I had done my time,” Huebner said. And so, in June 2019, Huebner, 61, of Manahawkin, pivoted, leaving his classroom for another — this time as a student.
For Huebner, the future of work is as a land surveyor.
“It goes hand in hand with physics,” Huebner said. “It’s a practical application, compared to being in the classroom, which is much more conceptual.”
Land surveyors measure land. The measurements, which take into account topography, let contractors know where to lay pipes, where to construct buildings, and where to build highways. Licensed surveyors are required by law to oversee construction plans submitted to government entities and to affirm boundary lines for title insurance.
“I thought surveying was just for buying and selling a house,” as part of a title search, said Huebner, now a student at Rowan College of South Jersey, a community college affiliated with Rowan University.
“But I’ve come to realize that it’s an integral part of the construction process. You use surveying as a check to make sure construction conforms to governmental regulations,” he said.
On Long Beach Island, Huebner, who had been working as a survey technician, was gaining state-required experience as he measured building lots where million-dollar homes are torn down to be replaced by two-million-dollar palaces. There’s not much room to build so there can’t be mistakes. “They fight for every half-inch,” said Huebner, who must augment his required classroom training with field experience en route to certification as a licensed land surveyor.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that the land surveying occupation will grow less than other occupations — at about a 2% pace between 2019 and 2029. The average rate of growth for occupations is 4%.
Advancing technology, as in other fields, is slowing down growth in the occupation of surveying.
“You don’t need as many people on the ground as you used to,” said Curtis Sumner, executive director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors. With global positioning systems (GPS) and drones, fewer people are needed in the field. Assignments that once required crews of six to nine members can now be handled by two or three workers.
Demographics are also affecting the field, with the workforce aging out.
“My guess is that the average surveyor is in his 60s or 70s,” said Mark Husik, who is the executive director of the New Jersey Society of Professional Land Surveyors, or NJSPLS. “In my group, they are retiring every other day.”
So desperate is the need for surveyors that civil engineering companies such as Fralinger Engineering Co. in Bridgeton, N.J., teamed up with the society to persuade Rowan University to inaugurate a four-year degree program in land surveying starting in September. Rowan’s program also includes a shorter pathway for civil engineers, geographers, and a handful of other majors.
The only other place in New Jersey to get the same degree is at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. In Pennsylvania, Husik said, the closest institution is Penn State University.
Albert A. Fralinger Jr., who, at 88, chairs the board at the company he founded, talked about his pressing need to replace surveyors. “My head man doing surveying retired and went to South Carolina. He was old enough to retire and he left. I have another surveyor; he’s in his 60s and he’s going to leave.”
“We don’t have a big supply of qualified people here,” Fralinger said.
Becoming a licensed surveyor is a lengthy process. A four-year degree is required. Depending on the state, licensed surveyors must have three or four years of supervised experience and pass not one, but three, licensing examinations.
Future surveyors can begin working immediately as technicians under the supervision of a licensed surveyor, accruing hours toward their required three or four years of supervised experience. Their experience must be approved by a state licensing board.
Husik’s organization has begun an apprenticeship program to make sure that the supervised experience dovetails with classroom work.
In South Jersey, students can take their first two years of courses at Rowan College, a community college, earning an associate’s degree in surveying engineering technologies. They finish their third and fourth years at Rowan University, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in surveying engineering technology.
They also need to sit for exams including the fundamentals of surveying exam, as well as principles and practice of surveying, the professional test. Passing those examinations, along with the degree and the experience, allows them to work anywhere in the United States. Also, each state has its own licensing body that administers the state-specific surveying exam required for surveyors to be licensed in that state.
New Jersey surveyors earn an average of nearly $43 an hour, or $89,040 a year, but the higher end of those wages is generally available in the north, closer to New York City, where surveyors can earn more than $92,000, or $44.44 an hour, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In the Philadelphia area, the median hourly wage is just under $31, higher than the rest of Pennsylvania.
Demand has pushed those wages up, even for surveying technicians, local experts say.
Sumner and Husik, along with such company officials as Fralinger, worry about a potential loosening of occupational licensing requirements, due to the pandemic and the increasing sophistication of technology.
“Surveying is not just about data collection,” Sumner said in an interview. “Modern technology will never replace judgment because judgment is based on experience, based on knowledge, of how property boundaries are determined and on whether what you find on the ground represents what is recorded on paper.”
As Huebner was beginning his pivot, he asked his professors about whether technology would put him out of a job. Not anytime soon, he was reassured.
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