What career opportunities are there in surveying? Civvy Street checks out the lie of the land.

Numerous successful military campaigns over the centuries have relied upon an understanding of the landscapes in which they have taken place, and how geography can make a real difference in the outcome of a battle.

Indeed, it is largely thanks to military necessity that we can use maps to find our way around any part of the British countryside today. Back in 1791 the British government – fearing an attack from revolutionary France – realised that in order to plan adequate defences it would need to comprehensively map the south coast of England. So it instructed its Board of Ordnance to start a survey. That process eventually led to the mapping of the whole of the UK in detail – and Britain’s national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, has since enjoyed a worldwide reputation for providing accurate, reliable and detailed geographic information.

Today’s Ordnance Survey has long outgrown its military origins: “We are now a wholly civilian organisation,” says the OS’s Scott Sinclair, “and it is many years since our Directors General were required to have had experience of military service.” Nevertheless, surveying in general is still a field where skills and experience gained from the military can be a real plus.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions of surveying, including to “examine and record the features of (an area of land) so as to produce a map, plan or description,” or the specifically British meaning of to “examine and report on the condition of (a building), especially for a prospective buyer”. Given this, it’s no surprise that surveying covers several different career sectors; it is not so much a single profession as a group of careers that happen to share a number of skills – mostly involving the measuring, logging and interpreting of information. Surveying is most commonly associated with the construction industry, but also plays a major part in modern transport, communications, mapping and the definition of legal boundaries.

Surveying is well suited to anybody with a practical approach to solving problems, who is methodical and has a good eye for detail and is able to work with a wide range of people. Good communication and negotiation skills, and the ability to coordinate the activities of different people and projects, are also big pluses.

Invariably surveying work is both office-based and carried out on-site, with the latter being done whatever the weather, so it can be physically demanding. Although surveyors tend to operate within specific geographical areas there nevertheless may be a lot of travel involved. Overseas travel is also a possibility, as after training to be a chartered surveyor, your qualification will be recognised in many parts of the world.

Surveying is still very much a man’s world; according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) – surveying’s main professional body – only one in 10 of their members was female back in 2001. Official efforts to encourage more women into the profession (including the setting up of the Raising the Ratio Task Force) have already met with some success; currently 15% of RICS members and 23% of student members are female. Increasingly the skills involved in commercial property surveying are ones that women often excel in – things like negotiation and communication.

It is possible to gain surveying qualifications within the Armed Forces. The Royal School of Military Survey, based at Denison Barracks at Curridge, trains Royal Engineer (Geographic) technicians, with soldiers embarking on a Foundation Science Degree in Applied Computing (Defence Geographic Information), accredited through Sheffield Hallam University – this takes an average of four to five years, mixing formal study with practical experience. Royal Engineer Officers can undertake an MSc in Defence Geographic Information, accredited through Cranfield University; lasting 14 months, this course can provide exemption from the written exams of the RICS.

All three Services rely on the Royal Engineers for construction work; however, the Royal Navy also has a need for personnel who are skilled to accurately survey the world’s oceans. Trade training opportunities include a surveying course aimed at petty officers; this 13-week programme is held at HM Training Group at Devonport, and is followed by a three-week leadership and management course. Military experience of surveying will not qualify you to work as a surveyor in civvy street; however, it will come in useful when you start applying for training opportunities and may enable you to qualify more quickly.

Although surveying is often thought of as a profession only for graduates who have earned the right to become chartered surveyors, it is possible to start in the profession – or to enjoy a full career – as a surveying technician. Technicians support surveyors in their work and carry out much of the day-to-day measuring, drawing up and valuation. To enter the profession at this level you can work towards an N/SVQ at level 4 (in quantity surveying practice, valuation, spatial data management or town planning) or complete an appropriate HNC/HND or Foundation degree. (If you already have relevant experience from your time in the Forces, you may be able to pass on particular modules within the N/SVQ .) Surveying technicians with an HNC/HND/Foundation degree can then progress through two years’ vocational training and a technical assessment interview to qualify as a TechRICS (Technical Member of RICS); alternatively, if you have completed an N/SVQ level 4 and have relevant experience, you can progress straight to the technical assessment interview.

To become a fully chartered surveyor it is essential to gain membership of the RICS, for which you will need to have completed an appropriate degree or a postgraduate conversion course approved by them. Many courses can be taken part-time or through distance learning, allowing you to study either before you leave the Armed Forces or once back in civvy street. All prospective RICS members must gain at least two years’ further practical experience before taking an RICS professional assessment interview known as the Assessment of Professional Competence (APC). It is possible for relevant experience – for instance, gained during your time in the Armed Forces – to be taken into account.
Although RICS is the main organisation awarding relevant qualifications, some surveyors choose to also join other
award-giving bodies such as the Association of Building Engineers, the Chartered Institute of Building or the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Surveying technicians start on around £16k a year, depending on where and who they work for. With several years’ experience annual income is likely to rise to around £25k. It is, of course, possible for surveying technicans to progress up to chartered surveyor level by successfully completing the necessary qualifications.

Starting salaries for those beginning the two years training towards APC range between £15k and £22k a year, and obtaining chartered status will increase salary options. Although the average annual salary for a chartered surveyor is roughly £40k, earnings can rise to more than £100k. A surveyors’ income can also be boosted by additional benefits such as performance-related bonuses and company cars. RICS and MacDonald & Company’s 2007 salary survey shows that the average salary for those working in chartered surveying across all disciplines is £50,618, compared to £39,170 for non-qualified professionals.

Surveyors are employed across the UK, although more opportunities can obviously be found in major cities. Private sector employers include surveying practices, property and construction companies, estate agents, housing associations and large organisations that own land – including supermarket chains, utility companies and financial institutions. Public sector employers include local authorities, national government departments such as the NHS and the Ministry of Defence, and universities. With significant construction projects taking place at the moment, employment prospects in the sector are good, although competition for positions remains high.

While large organisations will have formal promotion procedures in place – allowing surveyors to move into more senior management roles – with smaller employers you are likely to need to move from one company to another in order to gain experience and promotion. Self employment is an option, although it is far less common for building control surveyors than, for example, quantity surveyors.

Although surveying covers numerous specialist roles, you will almost certainly need to complete further training and study in order to progress in this sector in civvy street. However, the attributes and skills required do match the skillset you are likely to inherit from your time within the Armed Forces; if you’re prepared to take the time to train, you will be in an excellent position to see the lie of the land.


Association of Building Engineers
0845 126 1058

Chartered Institute of Building
01344 630 700

Chartered Surveyors Training Trust
020 7785 3850

CITB-Construction Skills
01485 577577

Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors
0161 972 3100

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)
0870 333 1600

Royal Town Planning Institute
020 7929 9494

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