Surveyors Overview

Employment of surveyors is expected to grow faster than average. The best jobs will go to workers who have both strong technical skills and a bachelor’s degree. Jobs in engineering, architectural and related services accounted for 7 out of 10 jobs in the field.

Nature of the Work for Surveyors


Surveyors measure and map the surface of the Earth. They establish official boundaries and borders on land and in the air and water. Surveyors may provide data describing land features or the location, elevations, dimension, contour and shape of land. Some define airspace for airports, write land descriptions for legal documents such as leases or deeds and measure construction and mine sites.

Surveyors measure angles, directions and distance between points both above and below the surface of the Earth. They use previously established survey reference points and specialized equipment to determine the exact location of key features in the survey area. Often, they research legal records as well and look for any evidence of previous boundaries, analyzing data to determine where boundary lines are found. On occasion they’re need in court to provide expert testimony on their work or that of another surveyor. They must also prepare maps, reports and plot, record surveying results and verify the accuracy of their data.

Surveyors may have special skills that help support cartographers, photogrammetrists and other surveyors. Geophysical prospecting surveyors for example are often involved in the hunt for oil, marking sites for subsurface exploration. Marine or hydrographic surveyors work on rivers, harbors and other bodies of waters to determine features including the topography of the bottom, shorelines and water depth. Geodetic surveyors on the other hand measure vast areas of the Earth’s surface using satellite observations and other high-accuracy techniques.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) helps surveyors locate reference points very accurately. They place a satellite signal receiver, a small tool mounted on a tripod, at an unknown point they want to determine and then place another receiver at a known location. Simultaneously the survey can collect information from several sites in addition to the known reference point, which results in a very precise position. This same tool can be used to trace out road systems when placed in vehicle. Because GPS is much more wide spread—the price of receivers has come down and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes—so it’s becoming a key tool for surveyors. Once they retrieve GPS information they check the results and interpret them.

Typically, surveyors have a team or survey party that gather field measurements. The team consists of a party chief who leads the daily work activities as well as one or more surveying technicians or assistants. The party chief may be a surveyor, but some are senior surveying technicians. Surveying technicians must adjust and operate the surveying instruments including the total station, which measures and records distances and angles. As they surveying technicians work they enter data into computers, make sketches and take notes.

Two tools light-imaging detection and ranging (LIDAR) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are often used by surveyors. LIDAR digitally maps the Earth’s topography using lasers attached to planes and other technology. It’s usually more accurate than traditional surveying methods and can help collect other types of data including the density and location of forests. LIDAR data helps surveyors provide spatial information to specialists in other fields including construct ion, forestry, seismology and geology.

GIS helps surveyors assemble, analyze, display and integrate data about a particular location in a digital format, as well as compiling information from many sources. GIS are often used to make informational maps that help in business marketing, environmental studies, planning, geology, engineering and other fields. Mapping specialists are increasingly being labeled as geographic information specialists.

An 8-hour day and 5-day week is common for surveyors. Many work hours are spent outdoors, so longer hours may occur during the summer to take advantage of more suitable light and weather conditions. During inclement weather, construction-related work may be limited.

The work of surveyors is active and sometimes even strenuous. They’re exposed to all kinds of weather, and they walk considerable distances, climb hills carrying heavy instruments and equipment and stand for long periods of time. Travel is not uncommon and some surveyors who work at survey sites far away must commute long distances, spend nights away from home or temporarily relocate. Indoors, surveyors plan surveys, analyze data, prepare reports and maps and search court records for deed information.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Surveyors

Surveyors typically hold a bachelor’s degree in surveying or a related field. All states require these workers to be licensed.

While individuals with little formal training used to find jobs on survey crews, working there way up to become licensed surveyors, this is now rarely the case. Instead, a bachelor’s degree is typically required. Many colleges and universities offer 4-year programs in surveying and many community colleges, technical schools and career colleges offer survey or surveying technology programs that last between 1 and 3 years.

All 50 states license surveyors. To obtain a license, candidates must pass a series of written exams from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). First, candidates must pass the Fundamentals of Surveying exam and then they typically work under a more experienced surveyor for four years before moving on to the next exam, the Principles and Practice of Surveying. Surveyors usually also must pass a written exam from the State licensing board.

Training and education requirements vary by state, but regardless of experience, more and more states are requiring a bachelor’s degree in surveying or a similar field such as civil engineering or forestry. Some states require a degree program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and most states also require continuing education.

Other skills that help surveyors in their work include being able to visualize distances, sizes, objects and abstract forms; working with accuracy and precision to avoid costly mistakes; and strong interpersonal skills to be able to work as a part of a cooperative surveying team.

High school grades without formal training can start as apprentices. Those with postsecondary school training in surveying are more likely to start as assistants or technicians. Formal training in surveying from a correspondence school or institutional program along with on the job experience helps workers advance to senior technician positions and later to the post of party chief. In some cases they may advance to licensed surveyor depending on the license requirements of the state.

A voluntary certification program for surveying technicians is available through the National Society of Professional Surveyors, which is a member organization of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping. They’re certified at four levels according to the passing of exams and progressive experience.

Top 10 Most Popular Survey Technology/ Surveying Schools

1. Santiago Canyon College (Orange, California)
2. Renton Technical College (Renton, Washington)
3. University of Arkansas Community College, Morrilton (Morrilton, Arkansas)
4. Ferris State University (Big Rapids, Michigan)
5. University of Akron, Akron (Akron, Ohio)
6. Big Sandy Community and Technical College, Prestonsburg (Prestonsburg, Kentucky)
7. Tyler Junior College (Troup, Texas)
8. Paul Smiths College of Arts and Science (Paul Smiths, New York)
9. California State University, Fresno (Fresno, California)
10. Universidad Politecnica de Puerto Rico (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

See All Survey Technology/ Surveying Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Surveyors

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow faster than average (increase 14 - 19%).

About 50,360 surveyors are employed. Roughly 7 out of 10 workers are employed by the engineering, architectural and related services industry, which also includes consulting firms that provide surveying and mapping services on a contract basis to a variety of industries. Government agencies are responsible for 15 percent of the jobs. State and local governments employ surveyors on highway projects or in urban planning and development agencies. Top employers within the Federal government including the US Forestry Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Job opportunities for surveyors are expected to grow faster than average at a rate of about 19 percent. A bachelor’s degree and strong technical skills should set up surveyors for favorable job prospects. The spur in job opportunities will come mostly as a result of a growing demand for accurate, fast and complete geographic information.

More companies are also interested in geographic information and how it can be used. GIS for example can be used in a number of ways. Maps created using the technology are often helpful for urban planning, emergency planning, construction, security, natural resource exploration, marketing and more. In addition, consumers are becoming more aware and interested in accurate digital geographic information as GPS devices and online interactive mapping systems become mainstream.

Construction jobs grow in relation to the population and the need to update the nation’s infrastructure. Surveyors are required to ensure construction projects are precise and that they follow the original plans. Often, they’re the first one on the job at a construction site in order to offer recommendations to contractors, engineers, architects and others involved throughout every step of the project.

Beyond job growth, positions will become available due to workers that retire and leave the occupation. Surveyors who have strong technical skills and bachelor’s degrees will find the best opportunities.

Most surveyors will work in surveying, mapping, engineering, drafting and building inspection services firms. Those who use or develop GIS and digital mapmaking technologies will find more work as they’re used more than traditional surveying services.

That said, traditional surveying services will still be required for construction activity. The availability of those positions though will change with the local economic conditions and from year to year. In a recession for example, surveyors may face layoffs or job competition as construction and real estate sales slow. However, the ability to work on a variety of projects will help surveyors find work despite a slow in construction.

Earnings and Salary for Surveyors

Surveyors earn median annual wages of $54,180. At the high end, they earn above $89,120 and the low end they earn under $30,130. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,400 and $72,140. Workers employed in engineering, architectural and related services earned median annual wages of $51,870.

Annual Salary for Surveyors

On average, Surveyors earn $54,180 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $30,130/yr $39,400/yr $72,140/yr $89,120/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook