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Surveyors, Cartographers, Photogrammetretists, and Surveying Technicians

Significant Points

  • About 2 out of 3 jobs were in architectural, engineering, and related services.
  • Opportunities will be best for surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists who have a bachelor’s degree and strong technical skills.
  • Applicants for jobs as technicians may face competition.
Nature of the Work

Surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists are responsible for measuring and mapping the earth’s surface. Traditionally, surveyors establish official land, airspace, and water boundaries. They write descriptions of land for deeds, leases, and other legal documents; define airspace for airports; and take measurements of construction and mineral sites. Other surveyors provide data relevant to the shape, contour, location, elevation, or dimension of land or land features. Cartographers compile geographic, political, and cultural information and prepare maps of large areas. Photogrammetrists measure and analyze aerial photographs that are subsequently used to prepare detailed maps and drawings. Surveying and mapping technicians assist these professionals in their duties by collecting data in the field and using it to calculate mapmaking information for use in performing computations and computer-aided drafting.

Surveyors measure distances, directions, and angles between points and elevations of points, lines, and contours on, above, and below the earth’s surface. In the field they select known survey reference points, and determine the precise location of important features in the survey area. Surveyors research legal records, look for evidence of previous boundaries, and analyze the data to determine the location of boundary lines. They also record the results of surveys, verify the accuracy of data, and prepare plots, maps, and reports. Surveyors who establish boundaries must be licensed by the State in which they work. Surveyors are sometimes called to provide expert testimony in court cases concerning matters pertaining to surveying.

Cartographers measure, map, and chart the earth’s surface. Their work involves everything from performing geographical research and compiling data to actually producing maps. Cartographers collect, analyze, and interpret both spatial data—such as latitude, longitude, elevation, and distance—and nonspatial data—for example, population density, land-use patterns, annual precipitation levels, and demographic characteristics. Their maps may give both physical and social characteristics of the land. They prepare maps in either digital or graphic form, using information provided by geodetic surveys, aerial photographs, and satellite data.

Photogrammetrists prepare detailed maps and drawings from aerial photographs, usually of areas that are inaccessible, difficult, or more costly to survey by other methods. Map editors develop and verify the contents of maps, using aerial photographs and other reference sources. Some States require photogrammetrists to be licensed as surveyors.

Some surveyors perform specialized functions closer to those of cartographers than to those of traditional surveyors. For example, geodetic surveyors use high-accuracy techniques, including satellite observations (remote sensing), to measure large areas of the earth’s surface. Geophysical prospecting surveyors mark sites for subsurface exploration, usually in relation to petroleum. Marine or hydrographic surveyors survey harbors, rivers, and other bodies of water to determine shorelines, the topography of the bottom, water depth, and other features.

There is more to surveying and cartography than meets the eye. Chains, transits, theodolites, and plumb lines have given way to cutting-edge technology such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), laptops, and robotic total stations as the preferred tools of surveyors. Advanced computer software known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become an invaluable tool to booth surveyors and cartographers.

Surveyors are able to use GPS to locate reference points with a high degree of precision. To use this system, a surveyor places a satellite signal receiver—a small instrument mounted on a tripod—on a desired point, and another receiver on a point for which the geographic position is known. The receiver simultaneously collects information from several satellites to establish a precise position. The receiver also can be placed in a vehicle for tracing out road systems. Because receivers now come in different sizes and shapes, and because the cost of receivers has fallen, much more surveying work can be done with GPS. Surveyors then must interpret and check the results produced by the new technology.

Fieldwork is done by a survey party that gathers the information needed by the surveyor. A typical survey party consists of a party chief and one or more surveying technicians and helpers. The party chief, who may be either a surveyor or a senior surveying technician, leads day-to-day work activities. Surveying technicians assist the party chief by adjusting and operating surveying instruments, such as the total station, which measures and records angles and distances simultaneously. Surveying technicians or assistants position and hold the vertical rods, or targets, that the operator sights on to measure angles, distances, or elevations. In addition, they may hold measuring tapes, if electronic distance-measuring equipment is not used. Surveying technicians compile notes, make sketches, and enter the data obtained from surveying instruments into computers either in the field or at the office. Survey parties also may include laborers or helpers who perform less skilled duties, such as clearing brush from sight lines, driving stakes, or carrying equipment.

GIS software is capable of assembling, integrating, analyzing, and displaying data identified according to location and compiled from previous surveys and mappings. GIS software has become an important tool of both surveyors and cartographers. A GIS typically is used to handle maps which combine information that is useful for environmental studies, geology, engineering, planning, business marketing, and other disciplines. As more of these systems are developed, a new type of mapping scientist is emerging from the older specialties of photogrammetrist and cartographer; the geographic information specialist combines the functions of mapping science and surveying into a broader field concerned with the collection and analysis of geographic data.

Working Conditions

Surveyors and surveying technicians usually work an 8-hour day, 5 days a week, and may spend a lot of time outdoors. Sometimes they work longer hours during the summer, when weather and light conditions are most suitable for fieldwork. Seasonal demands for longer hours are related to demand for specific surveying services. For example, construction-related work may be limited during times of inclement weather and aerial photography is most effective when the leaves are off the trees.

Surveyors and technicians engage in active, sometimes strenuous, work. They often stand for long periods, walk considerable distances, and climb hills with heavy packs of instruments and other equipment. They also can be exposed to all types of weather. Traveling is sometimes part of the job, and land surveyors and technicians may commute long distances, stay away from home overnight, or temporarily relocate near a survey site.

Although surveyors can spend considerable time indoors while planning surveys, searching court records for deed information, analyzing data, and preparing reports and maps, cartographers and photogrammetrists spend virtually all of their time in offices using computers and seldom visit the sites they are mapping.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement [About this section] Back to Top Back to Top

Most people prepare for a career as a licensed surveyor by combining postsecondary school courses in surveying with extensive on-the-job training. However, as technology advances, a 4-year college degree is increasingly becoming a prerequisite. A number of universities now offer 4-year programs leading to a bachelor’s degree in surveying. Junior and community colleges, technical institutes, and vocational schools offer 1-year, 2-year, and 3-year programs in both surveying and surveying technology.

All 50 States and all U.S. territories license surveyors. For licensure, most State licensing boards require that individuals pass a written examination given by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Most States also require surveyors to pass a written examination prepared by the State licensing board. In addition, candidates must meet varying standards of formal education and work experience in the field.

In the past, many with little formal training in surveying started as members of survey crews and worked their way up to become licensed surveyors. Currently, the route to licensure is most often a combination of 4 years of college, followed by passage of the Fundamentals of Surveying Exam. After passing this exam, most candidates continue to work under the supervision of an experienced surveyor for another 4 years and then take the Principles and Practice of Surveyors Exam for licensure. Specific requirements for training and education vary among the States. An increasing number of States require a bachelor’s degree in surveying or in a closely related field, such as civil engineering or forestry (with courses in surveying), regardless of the number of years of experience. Some States require the degree to be from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Many States also have a continuing education requirement.

High school students interested in surveying should take courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, drafting, mechanical drawing, and computer science. High school graduates with no formal training in surveying usually start as apprentices. Beginners with postsecondary school training in surveying usually can start as technicians or assistants. With on-the-job experience and formal training in surveying—either in an institutional program or from a correspondence school—workers may advance to senior survey technician, then to party chief, and, in some cases, to licensed surveyor (depending on State licensing requirements). However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain licensure without a formal education in surveying.

The National Society of Professional Surveyors, a member organization of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, has a voluntary certification program for surveying technicians. Technicians are certified at four levels requiring progressive amounts of experience, in addition to the passing of written examinations. Although not required for State licensure, many employers require certification for promotion to positions with greater responsibilities.

Surveyors should have the ability to visualize objects, distances, sizes, and abstract forms. They must work with precision and accuracy, because mistakes can be costly. Members of a survey party must be in good physical condition, because they work outdoors and often carry equipment over difficult terrain. They need good eyesight, coordination, and hearing to communicate verbally and manually (using hand signals). Surveying is a cooperative operation, so good interpersonal skills and the ability to work as part of a team are important. Good office skills also are essential, because surveyors must be able to research old deeds and other legal papers and prepare reports that document their work.

Cartographers and photogrammetrists usually have a bachelor’s degree in cartography, geography or a related field such as surveying, engineering, forestry, or a physical science. Although it is possible to enter these positions through previous experience as a photogrammetric or cartographic technician, nowadays most cartographic and photogrammetric technicians have had some specialized postsecondary school training. With the development of GIS, cartographers and photogrammetrists need additional education and stronger technical skills—including more experience with computers—than in the past.

The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing has a voluntary certification program for photogrammetrists. To qualify for this professional distinction, individuals must meet work experience standards and pass an oral or a written examination.


Surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians held about 131,000 jobs in 2004. The following tabulation shows the distribution of employment by occupational specialty:

Surveying and mapping technicians 65,000
Surveyors 56,000
Cartographers and photogrammetrists 11,000

The architectural, engineering, and related services industry—including firms that provided surveying and mapping services to other industries on a contract basis—provided 2 out of 3 jobs for these workers. Federal, State, and local governmental agencies provided almost 1 in 6 jobs. Major Federal Government employers are the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Geodetic Survey, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Most surveyors in State and local government work for highway departments or urban planning and redevelopment agencies. Construction, mining and utility companies also employ Surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians. Only a small number were self-employed in 2004.

Job Outlook [About this section] Back to Top Back to Top

Overall employment of Surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations through the year 2014. The widespread availability and use of advanced technologies, such as GPS, GIS, and remote sensing, will continue to increase both the accuracy and productivity of these workers, limiting job growth to some extent. However, job openings will continue to arise from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or who leave the labor force altogether. Many of the workers in these occupations are approaching retirement age.

Opportunities for surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists should remain concentrated in architectural, engineering, and related services firms. Areas such as urban planning, emergency preparedness, and natural resource exploration and mapping also should provide employment growth, particularly with regard to producing maps for the management of emergencies and updating maps with the newly available technology. However, employment may fluctuate from year to year as a function of construction activity or with mapping needs for land and resource management.

Opportunities should be stronger for professional surveyors than for surveying and mapping technicians. Advancements in technology, such as total stations and GPS, have made surveying parties smaller than they were in the past. Opportunities for technicians should be available in basic GIS-related data-entry work. However, many persons possess the basic skills needed to qualify for these jobs, so applicants for technician jobs may face competition.

As technologies become more complex, opportunities will be best for surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists who have a bachelor’s degree and strong technical skills. Increasing demand for geographic data, as opposed to traditional surveying services, will mean better opportunities for cartographers and photogrammetrists who are involved in the development and use of geographic and land information systems. New technologies, such as GPS and GIS, also may enhance employment opportunities for surveyors, and for surveying technicians who have the educational background and who have acquired technical skills that enable them to work with the new systems. At the same time, upgraded licensing requirements will continue to limit opportunities for professional advancement for those without a bachelor’s degree.


Median annual earnings of cartographers and photogrammetrists were $46,080 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $35,160 and $59,830. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,210 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $74,440.

Median annual earnings of surveyors were $42,980 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,940 and $57,190. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,640 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $71,640. Median hourly earnings of surveyors employed in architectural, engineering, and related services were $41,710 in May 2004.

Median annual earnings of surveying and mapping technicians were $30,380 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $23,600 and $40,100. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,140, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $51,070. Median annual earnings of surveying and mapping technicians employed in architectural, engineering, and related services were $28,610 in May 2004, while those employed by local governments had median annual earnings of $34,810.

Related Occupations

Surveying is related to the work of civil Engineers, architects, and landscape architects because an accurate survey is the first step in land development and construction projects. Cartography and geodetic surveying are related to the work of environmental scientists and hydrologists and geoscientists, who study the earth’s internal composition, surface, and atmosphere. Cartography also is related to the work of geographers and urban and regional planners, who study and decide how the earth’s surface is to be used. For more information see the career database.

Sources of Additional Information

For career information on surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians, contact:

  • American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, Suite 403, 6 Montgomery Village Ave., Gaithersburg, MD 20879. Internet: http://www.acsm.net/

Information about career opportunities, licensure requirements, and the surveying technician certification program is available from:

  • National Society of Professional Surveyors, Suite 403, 6 Montgomery Village Ave., Gaithersburg, MD 20879. Internet: http://www.acsm.net/nsps

For information on a career as a geodetic surveyor, contact:

  • American Association of Geodetic Surveying (AAGS), Suite 403, 6 Montgomery Village Ave., Gaithersburg, MD 20879. Internet: http://www.acsm.net/aags

General information on careers in photogrammetry and remote sensing is available from:

  • ASPRS: Imaging and Geospatial Information Society, 5410 Grosvenor Ln., Suite 210, Bethesda, MD 20814-2160. Internet: http://www.asprs.org/

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,


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