Storm warning

By on 2 October, 2019

This is an exclusive feature from issue 101 of Position magazine.

Despite the growing dynamism of surveying and geospatial disciplines, economic forecasts warn of turbulence ahead.

Location is everywhere now. We know this because we use it daily in the palms of our hands, and we’ve watched and participated in the integration of spatial data into traditional workflows and reporting processes as it has dramatically pitched up over the past decade. The ubiquity of modelling across disciplines, and the ongoing technological transformation of surveying also seems to suggest a bright future, along with a demand for infrastructure and housing that, despite a well-telegraphed dip on the horizon, is largely projected to maintain a steadily rising demand.

But the numbers tell a different story. Australia is currently experiencing a serious shortfall of surveyors and spatial professionals, and according to a recent report commissioned by Consulting Surveyors National, will continue to do so for the next five years, with a provisional return to surplus projected by 2024.

At the same time, course offerings for surveying and spatial education have been shrinking and consolidating down, despite an uptick in enrolments for surveying courses, which are now increasing after a decade of effort in a dedicated campaign aimed at preserving cadastral surveying as a profession. An ageing workforce requires a legion of bright young things to replenish it base and at base, the pipeline of graduates to industry is of insufficient capacity.

Understanding the bottleneck

A vast range of forces are acting on the industry and its embattled educators, subtly different yet interlinked for surveying and spatial pathways. Broad dynamics common to the tertiary sector have seen universities falling over themselves to attract international students, altering criteria for staff and curricula as institutions seek to realign their performance indicators with international metrics over domestic ones, with impacts on both attracting appropriate staff and their prospects post-tenure. Objectives of educational institutions and commercial actors are not aligned, adding complexity to the challenge of creating synergistic partnerships between academia and the private sector, SMEs and large firms alike.

TAFE is becoming a less-trodden pathway into a surveying career, with a full undergraduate degree required to become a licensed surveyor in all Australian jurisdictions – and complex requirements that differ subtly by state. Adam Burke, geospatial manager for NSW at Position Partners, said that TAFE students have historically been very well regarded in the industry, typically considered to come prepared with solid practical experience. Burke’s view is that the current shortfall for registered surveyors could be aided with some streamlining of the route to registration.

“There’s a current need for registered surveyors, and I think we could attack that two ways. Firstly, the pathway to registration is not easy, and it’s very bureaucratic,” he said.

Burke suggests that closer coordination between TAFE providers and universities offering surveying degrees could help to facilitate a more accessible pathway to university from TAFE. “There’s a big disconnect between TAFE and universities, that I think could be made easier. That probably means universities acknowledging their TAFE qualification, and some TAFE course content may need to have the bar lifted a little,” he said.

“I think that’s one angle to increase the number of people from TAFE to university, which then means you get more people going for registration.”

Burke sees streamlining of administrative processes on the demand side as a means to freeing up capacity of registered surveyors. If some of the processes that registered land surveyors find themselves doing day-to-day as the only qualified personnel were more automated, it may assist the projected shortfall of registered surveyors over the next five years – an area that digital cadastre projects and gateways to automating local government processes around plans could assist.

The ‘Get Kids into Survey’ campaign aimed at introducing surveying to primary school children will be launched by Surveying Task Force NSW.

Burke isn’t the only one who sees reform as part of a solution to securing a dynamic, and healthy future for surveying. The industry’s future is high on the Surveying & Spatial Sciences Institute’s strategic agenda, and SSSI CEO Peter sees a bottleneck that’s out of step with industry needs in 2019.

Olah said that many industry leaders are TAFE graduates, whom have historically composed a large portion of the surveying field force.

“It’s very easy to see in the current context that there may be kids who are technically very proficient but not academic, who now don’t have a pathway to a technical profession where they could really excel,” he said.

“That’s sad because that was a good pathway for those people but it was also a very good pathway for the professional and the industry.”

Balancing act

Olah envisages a streamlined process to free up the accreditation and licensing process, and help standardise it across the states and territories – the existing, convoluted pathways to accreditation and licensing reflecting a very different set of circumstances within the industry and the economy as a whole.

“It’s a system that was vitally important when you have one source of proof – of spatial data, and it was only surveyors, and you also had an oversupply of people wanting to be surveyors. So you’ve got a protectionist system, bluntly – for a profession that on pure numbers is in decline. Now that doesn’t make sense. That’s a strategic misfit.”

“Ultimately what is happening is that the market is filling that gap by getting that same data from various parts of the spatial stream, which is good – except that the spatial stream has no regulation around it at all,” he said.

Olah believes that the explosion of spatial data sources, processing tools and providers, coupled with the demographic changes and supply issues affecting surveying, call for a re-think of the licensing regime for surveyors – and a balancing of the regulatory environment that would help to shore up the playing field for geospatial service providers at the same time.

“In some areas especially, professional high end spatial businesses are being hurt because they’re being outcompeted on price by cowboys with very few qualifications or quality systems, if any.”

“I see the future for the industry surveying and spatial as one based around a very flexible very outcome based certification process – I think that’s where the two streams of surveying and spatial could meet. But there’s a lot of work to do to get to that and you’ll see increasingly in terms of our [SSSI’s] strategic projects – that’s where a lot of our effort will go.”

Pressure from all sides

Where does this all leave the universities? Among other factors, decades of funding erosion have left revenue cavities that have been bogged up with a privatisation processes and the slashing of regulation, meaning almost all Australian tertiary institutions are voraciously pursuing international students to fill their coffers. This has proven to be a highly lucrative endeavour for the institutions overall, with some hidden drawbacks for individual courses and educators – as well as the students themselves.

These golden streams of international revenue do not seem to have trickled down to surveying courses yet. A paper from surveying educators Dr. Craig Roberts and Dr. Bruce Harvey presented at the recent APAS event in April argues that these forces have impacted their courses in two significant ways.

Currently the practical components of the program at UNSW are sufficient with around 30 practical exercises of various complexity across the whole program. However, the pivot towards international league tables has altered internal criteria for future staff hires, resulting in a more research-focused set – which thins the playing field for surveying applicants, inherently a practically focused discipline.

This trend threatens to reduce the ability of new space to develop, organise and facilitate a program of practical course components that meet educational outcomes and crystallise theory for students, providing a crucial theatre for exposure to field work. Concurrently the logistics and organisation of practical exercises – transport, maintenance of equipment and survey marks and the campus geodetic network – are becoming an increasing burden on staff both professional and academic.

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The pivot towards international league tables has altered internal criteria for staff, resulting in a more research-focused set – which thins the playing field for surveying, inherently a practically focused discipline. Olah sees this as a missed opportunity for both a more insightful dialogue between industry and academia, and of revenue generation for the universities.

“It’s pretty clear there’s significant skills gaps that exist now and those skills gaps are projected to get bigger. So that talks in general terms to a pipeline that is meeting the needs of the industry – not just domestically, given that those skills gaps exist in any number of markets quite near to Australia.”

“I suspect this is not simply a question of universities versus industry but also different levels of influence within the university hierarchies, where surveying and spatial are not understood in terms of global value and global market. Now at a domestic level, I don’t think the industry has done a good job of influencing that and we’re working internally, but also with our sister organisations to try to bridge that gap in terms of understanding.”

Industry organises

There are success stories in this space, though. The ‘Life Without Limits’ campaign to raise awareness of surveying and geospatial science career paths. Since its initial launch in 2008, the campaign has been responsible for an increase in new enrolments at tertiary institutions across the country, despite a slow state-by-state rollout. Plans to expand and consolidate distribution of the message are underway, while a very new campaign, Geospatial Science, has recently launched to raise the profile of the broader career pathways in spatial disciplines.

SSSI’s Young Professionals program is going from strength to strength with increasingly greater representation at key industry conferences, and deepening engagement with industry to bring the needs of students and early career spatial practitioners into focus, while highlighting what young professionals can bring organisationally to long-established firms and practices, while further developing their ongoing mentoring program.

Crossovers between 3D games and modelling may be a valuable angle to attract students into spatial disciplines.

Unifying around a future vision

Beyond communicating the existence of these pathways, it’s clear that bridges need to be built within the various streams of the industry as well.

Professor Sisi Zlatanova is one of the Research Cluster staff in the Geospatial Research Innovation and Development department at the school of the built environment at UNSW. Ms Zlatanova moved to Sydney for this position in the last year from Delft University in the Netherlands, where surveying is a more trade-based discipline, with surveyors typically employed on staff of construction firms, rather than a separate stream of entities providing services to the AEC industry.

Ms. Zlatanova sees the hard conceptual partitioning of surveying practice from the spectra of other spatial disciplines in Australia as a limitation on its appeal to young people, and a misrepresentation of where the profession is heading.

“Surveying is really about measurement,” she said. “But if you stop there without bringing in the next components – processing the data in an automated way, putting that data into a digital environment – a digital twin, a digital map, providing some analysis of the environment. If all these components aren’t together, they might fall apart and disappear.”

In her field of advanced spatial modelling and analytics with a focus on developing standards and protocols in the 3D space, Ms Zlatanova has a different take on the differing needs of academia and industry. Anticipating an ease of collaboration due to the relatively small size of the market in Australia, she has found the comparative lack of commercial R&D capacity in Australia has complicated the process of finding synergistic goals for industry partnerships with academic research programs focused on product development. She said that many meetings and discussions around large projects aimed at developing geospatial products in collaboration with even high powered industry partners have ended the same way.

“Every time, we get to the same point in the conversation, which is: ‘but releasing funds for research is very difficult for us because we don’t have a research unit here in Australia’,” she said.

Other discussions in this area with startups and SMEs have faltered due to concerns around restrictions on IP of products developed in a university environment, she said.

The net result of this process is a vicious cycle that seems a perverse complement to the dynamics impacting procurement of appropriately qualified and motivated academics for surveying. Australian students within these research programs find themselves in positions overseas due to the comparatively fewer spatial research and product development roles, and the research programs offered here tend to attract PhDs candidates from overseas – India, China, Malaysia primarily, who return to their home markets once their studies are complete.

While the rapid maturation of Australia’s high end manufacturing and R&D being accelerated and encouraged by the new Australian Space Agency and concentration of space-adjacent enterprise in South Australia, ‘sexing up’ spatial with engaging and forward-looking representations of future applications of spatial technology could help to drum up more interest in those still at school. Hands-on drone mapping exercises, crossover with 3D game engines, sensor-driven sustainable future cities, autonomous vehicles and the world of nanosatellites – these are all themes ripe for leverage to deepen engagement with young minds and inform curricula design.

While there may be dark clouds on the horizon, the time for sowing the seeds of future growth seems nigh.

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