When it comes to land ownership, someone has to draw the line. You can’t just decide put your picket fence wherever you’d like. It’s the job of land surveyors to define legal property boundaries on large and small scales, both in urban environments and remote wilderness.
To learn a little about the day to day work of a land surveyor, we spoke with Mark Mason in British Columbia, Canada. It’s a mix of field work, historical research, and navigating bureaucracies to precisely define boundaries for contemporary projects as well as laying out references for any questions that may arise in the future. As Mark put it, “land surveyors are required to stand behind their work for the rest of their lives.”
Tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.
I’m a British Columbia Land Surveyor (BCLS) working for Browne Johnson Land Surveyors in Salmon Arm, BC, Canada. I’ve been in the industry since 2003, but I’ve only been a commissioned land surveyor for a couple of years. I spent a lot of the time before that in school, writing professional exams, and articling/training in the workplace to become a professional surveyor. As a legal land surveyor, I often work with property rights: researching and re-establishing old boundaries, helping people understand the rights they hold, and guiding people through the process of creating new parcels or changing parcel boundaries.
It’s a career with a unique mix of physical and intellectual challenges. We need to know how interpret dense legislation or calculate a complex spiral curve—but also how to sharpen a machete or dig through frozen ground with a frost bar!
For more about land surveying in BC, check out the Association of British Colombia Land Surveyors.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I liked the idea of working outside, using my body and my mind together. I haven’t been disappointed! Land surveying can be very physical work, but there is a strong intellectual and technological component as well. I was also attracted to the direct connection with history that land surveyors experience in the form of plans, field notes, and from surveying monuments from decades or even centuries in the past.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I have a diploma of technology as well as a Bachelor’s degree, both in geomatics engineering. In BC, a BCLS candidate must either have a university degree from an approved program or a diploma of technology plus completion of a series of 13 board exams. A period of articles and project submissions is followed by another set of professional exams and a final face-to-face interview with the board of management. It’s a challenging process that typically takes 10 years or more! However, being a professional surveyor is jurisdictional, and different regions will have different requirements for their members.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? Do you spend most of your time in the field or in an office?
A lot of people don’t think much about what land surveyors do. In a nutshell, we are the interpreters and providers of landmarks and records that directly impact real property. If you consider that many people would call their land their primary asset, this is a very serious responsibility indeed! We do lots of other types of surveys as well, like building layouts and topographical surveys, but only a legal land surveyor can survey property boundaries.
There’s a popular misconception that property boundaries are based on coordinates that surveyors can simply “walk to” with our instruments. The reality is that, while physical coordination of monuments is easier than it’s ever been, property boundaries often need to be determined based on evidence and plans that are old, decrepit, and done with different technology and expectations than we have today. Learning how to weigh evidence and fairly re-establish a boundary can be as much an art as a science.
Land surveyors can spend as much time reading legislation, bylaws, and engineering documents as we spend in front of an instrument in the field or calculating coordinates for a subdivision. We are mathematicians, historians, project managers, advocates, engineers, and even chainsaw operators!
I’m lucky enough to split my time between the field and the office. Some land surveyors in larger outfits can work mostly from behind a desk, managing many field crews at once. I work primarily in BC, but I’ve traveled as far as Baffin Island for my work, and I know other surveyors who have worked on literally every continent!
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
That all we do is stand by the road! That’s where people often see us working, but it’s the same as a surveyor saying that all the public does is drive in cars!
More seriously, I think that people can get caught up in the “gee-whiz” technology of surveying, which is constantly changing, and forget about the legal aspects and the professional responsibility that surveyors bear—something that hasn’t changed much at all in hundreds of years.
It’s also important to know that, unlike lawyers, land surveyors put the public interest first. That means we’re not biased by our client—this means that the property line will be drawn in the most equitable position, regardless of which neighbor is paying the bill. We often advocate for our client’s interests in the case of subdivision applications or zoning bylaw changes, but we’ll stay completely impartial when it comes to boundary resolution.
What are your average work hours? Is it a typical 9-5 thing or not?
It depends on the company and the season. In our case, we put in more hours when we’re busy, and take more time off when things are quiet. Some surveyors live for the work, putting in weeks or months at a time in remote locations. With a young family and hobbies that I’m passionate about, that isn’t the path I’ve chosen. Like in many careers, you need to make your own decisions and follow your own path.
What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?
I automate some tasks and delegate many others. Doing research, job organization, data processing, field surveys, and plan preparation can be tedious, detailed work. Building smart processes to streamline the workflow can make the work easier and the results more reliable, which keeps my head above water and my clients happy.
When I got my commission, other land surveyors told me to ask for advice from my peers when I was struggling with something. I’ve found that other professionals are more than willing to lend advice about a tough problem. The conversation can be a learning experience for everyone. I never hesitate to reach out when I’m in over my head, and I’ll never hesitate to return the favor.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
There are lots of ways to design a workflow—for instance, some land surveyors book their notes by hand, and some use electronic data collectors. Every firm has its own unique way of arriving at the end product. However, from a licensed land surveyor, the product should always be of the same high quality.
Some land surveyors delve into land development advocacy, working with local government on behalf of clients in order to facilitate progress on a project. Others stick to strictly surveying. The approach depends on the individual firm and the needs of the local area.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Some field days can be tough. I’ve worked inside fuel tanks with 3 foot ceilings, in -42 to +42 Celsius temperatures, in snow and smoke and hail, and I’ve dug through snow and ice and pavement to find legal evidence. I’ve worked clear through the night by headlamp, and I’ve flown in a rickety long-islander with propane tanks strapped into the other seats. I’ve jury-rigged missing equipment, broken into my own truck, and cut out an emergency helicopter pad with a machete. I’ve been hungry, cold, tired, lost, injured, and downright hopeless!
However, the most difficult days have been the ones I’ve had to spend correcting a mistake. We’re all human, and we make errors in spite of the pains we take not to. It’s important to take ownership of the situation and to work to make it right. It’s easy to be hard on ourselves, but the important thing is to turn a mistake into a learning experience.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
Some of the places we find ourselves working are unique and beautiful, and are often closed for public access. It can be thrilling to travel to areas I wouldn’t normally go, nearby or further afield. We sometimes spend our field days “walking in the footsteps” of the original surveyor, inspecting untouched remote monuments from 100 years ago or more. We leave new monuments as well, and sometimes I imagine a surveyor 100 years from now reading my plan, retracing my boundaries, and finding the monuments that I set. It’s an honor to make a mark in history like that.
Completing a large or difficult survey can be a very satisfying thing, especially if there have been hurdles or setbacks along the way. In our work, we get to “tick” off jobs quite often, so the sense of completion can also be rewarding.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Just like in other professions, salary range varies with negotiation skill, responsibility level, and location. Professional land surveyors take on a lot of responsibility, and should be compensated appropriately. In general, salary for land surveyors is often similar to that of a professional engineer or lawyer—surveyors are often “comfortable” but not “wealthy.”
Is there a way to “move up” in your field?
Definitely. Legal land surveyors are few and far between and can find themselves in demand. Land surveyors start as employees, and move up to partnership in a firm or to ownership of their own enterprise if they wish. Some wind up working for government, private corporations, or public enterprise.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
People sometimes are under the impression that finding their property corners should cost as much as changing their oil or blowing out their sprinklers. What they don’t realize is that land surveyors are required to stand behind their work for the rest of their lives. I’m required to do every job well enough that I’d use it as evidence in court—that doesn’t come cheaply! Property is a critical asset for individuals and for our larger economy. Maintaining the cadastre (legal survey fabric) is an important job and a valuable service.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
If you’re looking for an adventure, an intellectual challenge, and a close-knit community of professionals, consider land surveying! It’s not for everyone, and I’d recommend working as a surveyor’s assistant or office staff before committing to the necessary schooling. However, you might find that land surveying can give you the career satisfaction that lots of people only dream about!
I’ve met very few professional land surveyors who regret their career path, and even fewer (in BC, at least) who are out of work, even during economic slowdowns. Land surveying has been a positive influence on my life, and I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t considered it to give it a chance!