Welcome Younger Geospatial Professional James Combs to this Spotlight interview. What an impressive start to this YGP’s career!
Please provide a recap of your post high school education and training. Do you have any licenses or certifications? Are you a member of any organizations?
I was very fortunate that the University that I attended had a surveying program. I started at Murray State in 2005 . I also started working at a small local survey firm during all breaks from school. I have had a straightforward path to licensure and after graduating from MSU in 2011 I took a course in PLSS from University of Wyoming online and got my first surveying license in 2014. Since then I have obtained surveying licenses in Colorado, Kentucky and New Mexico.
After moving to New Mexico in 2015 I have been very active with the New Mexico Professional surveyors. I have been the president of the Middle Rio Grande Chapter of NMPS and am currently the Vice President. In the Fall of 2017, I got involved with the New Mexico Young Surveyors and became the president of that organization. I am currently the Secretary of the Young Surveyors network as well. The NSPS Young Surveyors Network is a great organization and I am happy to be a part of it.
When did you become interested in the surveying profession and what are some of the things that made it a career that you wanted to pursue?
After starting a program in construction management, I took a course in plane surveying at Murray State. At the time I had already created a love for the outdoors, and I enjoyed carpentry at the time. I enjoyed using my hands and taking my time creating something I could be proud of. I also knew that I enjoyed math, although that joy grew as I began to see how math can be used for many real world solutions through surveying. After my first summer surveying at a local firm I was sold. I switched to Civil Engineering Technology with a focus on surveying and I have been focused on surveying ever sense.
Can you provide a timeline with description of the positions you have held in the surveying profession to date?
I was an instrument operator for my first summer of surveying. Then I was a crew chief or instrument operator every other summer during my time at Murray State. I often would operate as a crew chief with another Murray State student during those summer breaks. After graduating in 2011 the economy was slow, and I had to pick up some non-surveying jobs. I had a desire to move back out West where my wife is from.
We finally found a great position in Cheyenne, Wyoming where I started as a instrument operator but quickly became a crew chief. I learned a ton in Wyoming, being introduced to a wide variety of surveying. While in Wyoming I eventually became an assistant survey manager helping to create plats, calculate layout points, line out crews and do field work.
I moved back to Kentucky for a short time as a principal surveyor of a small company, but found that the company was not going in the direction I wanted to be headed. After some search we found a great opportunity in New Mexico. I started as a project surveyor and became a Survey Manager after about a year. Currently I am a regional survey manager managing three offices.
Please describe some of the technology that you have become skilled in using and any challenges associated with using it on a daily basis.
I have been lucky to start surveying with a basic total station and HP graphing calculator as a data collector. My first several years of surveying made sure that I had a good understanding of total stations and differential levels. As I begun using GPS my formal education helped me to understand how I was getting positions on a plane surface. It took me a lot of experience to fully understand how total station and GPS data are really derived. You can learn about state plane coordinates and scale factors in school, but it takes some time to sink in.
For the past three years I have been delving into UAS photogrammetry. Learning how to correctly create a UAS photogrammetry deliverable has been very difficult and I am not done learning. I have crashed several UAS and spent many hours looking at point clouds. After getting a lot of training and trying several different pieces of hardware and software I finally feel like I know what I am doing. Also, I have spent the time to understand the ASPRS accuracy standards. I am currently taking a course in photogrammetry from Michigan Tech and will continue to learn more about it. I have enjoyed learning this new tool and look forward to learning more about scanning and LiDAR in the future as well.
I could not imagine doing anything else. A lot of my day is being a manager these days not so much a “surveyor,” but now I get the opportunity to train LSITs and give them the tools for success. I believe I will be surveying until I retire, and even when I retire, I will probably just open a small survey shop and keep going!
What are a couple of ideas that could attract more young people to the surveying profession?
I think the biggest thing is more general. Surveyors need to value their time and deliver great products to the public. If we bring up the minimum service to the public and value our time the public will start to find out and the young folks will know. I have gone to quite a few career fairs and the New Mexico Young Surveyors have developed a relationship with a local charter school in Albuquerque. Those sorts of things are very helpful.
Surveying education needs to become more readily available, I realize that most people are not lucky enough to stumble onto it like I was. Many folks get into surveying after they have already started a career. We need more online schools that are ABET accredited and prepare students to sit for exams in any state!
Any further thoughts or comments, perhaps how you see all of this technology changing the world?
I have so many comments and thoughts on this! Everyone that is in the middle of their career or just starting it need to be prepared for changes and be prepared to speak up. We are going to continue to have individuals trying to do things as cheaply as possible and undercut our prices. We always have to remember our value to the public and that we do in fact protect the public.
As geospatial professionals if we continue to stay on the cutting edge of technology, but always understand what we are doing with this new technology we will be just fine. On the other hand, if we are always operating with tech from 10 years ago, we will be left behind.
I believe it’s a fine line between using the latest technology and having enough time to fully understand how it operates before you start selling services using said tool. It takes a lot of energy to stay up with new trends. I make no claim to be the best at this, but I believe we all need to make the attempt. As we move into the future, we all need to care about our profession’s sustainability and reputation, staying on top of new trends in geospatial technology will be a key to our success.
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