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GIS Employment Outlook: Relatively Rosy for State and Local Government Professionals

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Wednesday, July 20th 2011
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Summary:

Directions Magazine surveyed selected state and local government geospatial technology officials to get their input on the current outlook for jobs. Some states are cutting budgets and we wanted to see how this has impacted hiring or expansion in GIS departments.

Directions Magazine [DM]: Do you expect to see cuts at your level of government? When?

Cy Smith, Oregon State GIO, and President, Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA):
No, cuts were made over the last year; not anticipating any more.

Tim Barnes, GIS Manager, City of Huntsville, Alabama: I don’t expect more cuts for 2012. We have suffered budget cuts for the past three years with 2011 being the most severe. I’m expecting a small increase in the 2012 budget.

Eric Abrams, GIS Manager, Iowa Department of Transportation: The only cuts I expect to see are with temporary employees.  Also additional staff is not being added to the GIS area.

Ryan Pecharka, GIS Manager, City of Prattville, Alabama, and member, Alabama GIS Executive Council: I do not expect to see cuts in terms of reduction of force or equipment. Smarter methods of operation are evident. I see collaborative efforts and positive reinforcement that enable us to sustain, value all that we do have and use it for continuation of quality service. Our administration is aware of difficult times and has worked collaboratively to preserve well-being. With regard to when, it is difficult to apply a timeline to measure. Rather, methods of approach and management are carefully and considerately being set into place that intelligently accommodate needs and will carry us into the future and allow for success. Our administration has shown faith in us and each other. We show the same in them by a continuation in the quality level of service they enable us to provide together. So to speak, they have carried us through good times and been there for us in times of decreased stability; however we together do look forward to a bright future.

Bob Austin, Enterprise Applications Integration Manager, City of Tampa, Florida: Overall, the city’s property tax collections have fallen by $44 million since 2007. We had a $42 million budget deficit this current year, addressed by a combination of layoffs and departmental consolidations and the use of reserve funds. Tampa faces a $28 million shortfall next year. At present, the city is evaluating several ways of addressing this shortfall. The mayor will be providing his proposed budget on July 28, at which time the administration’s decision will be made public.

Jon Gottsegen, Enterprise GIS Services Manager, Colorado State GIS Coordinator, and President, National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC): We have already experienced cuts in state government and specifically in our office for personal services. We’ve had to go through such cuts on the order of 10% in a recent fiscal year. We met this through some attrition and removal of personal services contracts. We’ve also had a pretty strict hiring freeze. Hopefully we won’t have to cut again in the near future. At least, not this fiscal year, which just started.

Statewide GIS official – Anonymous response: No, I believe most positions will be maintained through budget cuts. Additional duties may be assigned.

DM: Do you expect cuts within the GIS department or will those using GIS technology fair better? Why or why not?

Cy Smith: Not expecting GIS employment cuts, in fact there will be a slight increase because our enterprise governance model for GIS makes it possible for a few additional staff in GIS to support business processes in a wide variety of departments and agencies.

Tim Barnes: We actually gained positions despite the economy. GIS currently has a huge workload and as a result some positions that were slated to be cut in last year’s budget from other departments were reassigned to GIS.

Eric Abrams: No cuts in the GIS department and those using GIS technology. Iowa has a balanced budget amendment and is not allowed to borrow to make up a budget gap to balance the budget. Because of this I have been working with management to repurpose vacant positions to more GIS savvy skill sets.

Ryan Pecharka: From experience we believe that both in times of stability and distress geospatial exercise can actually become an opportunity that allows GIS technology and application to fare better as well as create excellent learning experiences. GIS has been described as a powerful decision making tool. In this light, the aid and assistance the technology offers during decision making occasions manifests itself in the data it provides and the quality thereof.

Bob Austin: We do not expect the GIS department will be affected. If it is affected, we believe the impact will be less than for other functions. There are several reasons for this but perhaps the most significant has been the recognition of the link between GIS and crime reduction. In 2006, the chief of police and mayor announced a 46% reduction in violent crime during the previous five years. They attributed much of this reduction to aggressive new crime prevention activities that employed GIS-based crime analysis. The reduction had reach 56% by mid-year 2010.

Jon Gottsegen: My GIS department isn’t really a department. I have no staff other than ARRA grant funded which is safe for the next few years. Other agencies seem not to be suffering from cuts to GIS staff.

Anonymous: Yes- the geo community has done a poor job of documenting and reporting the benefits of investing in geo.

DM: What skills/knowledge would make a public sector GIS worker more valuable?

Cy Smith: GIS systems administration; GIS Web mapping and Web services; GIS project management; keen understanding of the enterprise approach.
Tim Barnes: It goes without saying that a good working knowledge of the software is a must, but beyond that an understanding of the structure of local and state governments and how they interface with the private sector can be a valuable asset.

Eric Abrams: Analytical thinkers. I see too many out of college that know how to use Esri software but cannot problem solve.

Ryan Pecharka: Geospatial technology is so broad and diverse in the array of studies and applications. It is important to understand the core basics and principles of the technology itself. This will enable practitioners to establish a basis from which they can expand and grow along with geospatial technology. An understanding of scientific studies, increasing capability in various programming languages, and information technology infrastructure will prove to be valuable assets. A saying or mentality that I like to operate under is: “If you can think it, we can map it.”

Bob Austin: Public sector GIS professionals must be flexible; the use of multiple software platforms is common in many cities and all platforms must be supported. It is important to be capable of using at least two different GIS platforms with reasonable facility. Additionally, public sector GIS professionals must engage with a diverse audience. Whereas private sector staff may focus on a single project or industry for extended periods of time (weeks or months), public sector GIS professionals may need to address the requirements of multiple departments (e.g., fire, police, arts and solid waste) in a given day. Subject matter expertise is useful. Toward this end, we encourage “ride-alongs” and subject-matter training within the customer departments.

Jon Gottsegen: I always look for problem-solving first. Yes, knowing how to use software is good, and I don’t want to have to teach people to use software, but beyond that I want someone who can learn how to use software on their own, figure out how to break down projects into tasks and then what nuts and bolts steps are required. Good team members with good communications skills are important. I need people who can write well. It’s amazing how much of a lost art/skill that is. Last, lately I’ve been looking for an ArcGIS Server/Web developer. That particular combo of AGS and Flex (or other REST-based app development) is rare and can name his or her price. That makes it hard for someone trying to hire.

Anonymous: Communication, Web development

DM: Do you see ways to save money in other areas to help keep staff? Cloud computing? Moving to open source? Something else?

Cy Smith:
We are exploring cloud computing with a number of other states for GIS. Open source software is not a cost saving option. Open source has been proven (and documented by Gartner and others) to be equally or more expensive from a total life cycle perspective compared with proprietary software. The enterprise, one government approach to GIS data and application development is the way we have found over the last decade to be most effective for keeping staff at appropriate levels and doing more with level budgets.

Tim Barnes: We are constantly looking for ways to save money. We have cut travel and training funds by using online sources. We have hired part-time temporary positions to supplement our workload. We have run our fleet vehicles longer, conserved on electrical energy, used cloud-based solutions and a host of other things to stay lean.

Eric Abrams: Open source, but one of the biggest savings is return on investment. For example, we are collecting data like material spread, material quantity, plow down, etc. Then working to take these data to make better business decisions (for example, a specific rate of salt makes pavement markings become less reflective and they need to be repainted more often).

Ryan Pecharka: All sources of revenue and retention are considered. GIS aids in tracking, maintaining and not only continued, but increased facilitation. Advances in the technology such as cloud computing have allowed us to see and experience ability to accomplish new measures that could have been described as impossible years prior. I believe the door to the future of geospatial technological ability is only opening wider and one of the many long-term results can very well be contribution to financial stability, benefit and efficiency for all involved.

Bob Austin: We have been addressing the need for cost reduction through an “Energy and Efficiency Task Force,” which already has identified $16 million in annual savings through efforts such as energy conservation, consolidated contracting and selected capital investments with substantial near-term ROI (e.g., VoIP telephone systems). We currently are evaluating the benefits of cloud computing, although we recognize that security issues and the current state of the technology may preclude use in some cases (e.g., law enforcement). We make decisions to use open source software based largely on technical merit rather than on cost alone.

Jon Gottsegen: Other than the staff issue I alluded to previously, yes. All of it. Cloud, open source. Problem is one has to learn the open source software, and the cloud is more than just giving Amazon a cc number. However, I think cloud IaaS or PaaS will be cheaper to maintain than our own infrastructure. Colorado has tried to consolidate. It wasn’t really successful or comprehensive in GIS. There are ways of saving money across the state enterprise by consolidating certain services, but there’s a stovepipe effect caused by federal funding that’s narrowly earmarked for specific projects. CIOs are interested in this issue which results from interpretations of OMB circular A87.

Anonymous: I do not believe there is a direct correlation between saving money and retaining staff. Generally these items are covered within different cost centers and transferring funds for salaries requires a legislative mandate.

DM: Will GIS and its use at your level of government help turn things around in these tough economic times with, for example, applications in economic development? How? If not, why not?

Cy Smith: In Oregon, GIS is helping turn things around by helping agencies plan where to expend government resources to have the greatest impact on unemployment; by helping government agencies save money on their internal business processes so they have more social service resources to provide; by making it easier for businesses to access and analyze government information so they can target customers, locate new business opportunities, site new facilities, etc.

Tim Barnes: We are constantly told that doing business in Huntsville is made much easier because of our GIS. Out-of-state developers use our Interactive Mapping Website to find data they need for projects in Huntsville and our GIS Data Depot allows them to download most everything they need to design and develop their projects. Local engineering firms, surveyors, real estate agencies, marketing firms and others have said their jobs and projects are enhanced because of the data made available to them (generally without cost) via GIS.

Eric Abrams: Not for Iowa DOT.

Ryan Pecharka: We believe that GIS can and will have a significant impact in both reinforcing and furthering success. Expanding the use of geospatial technology will help. In retrospect the prior mention of GIS as a powerful decision making tool and tracking, collecting, as well as maintaining, in addition to facilitating the operation of methods using geospatial data will greatly aid in development economically and financially.

Bob Austin: We have been expanding the use of GIS for the city’s economic development planning activities through the integration of demographic information and the production of custom analyses and reports for prospective investors. Other activities include the recent LUCA update (which confirmed a larger number of residence addresses than expected by the Census) and our aggressive correction of errors in the Florida Department of State’s revenue databases, which are used to confirm liability for franchise tax payments to the city. We also use GIS tools as the backbone for planning revenue-generating activities such as the Republican National Convention, SuperBowls and Gasparilla festivities. Additionally, GIS is a fundamental part of all disaster planning activities in the region.

Jon Gottsegen: Not sure yet. I hope so.

Anonymous: Geo will continue to serve as a tool that supports economic development. Open access to geo data does result in jobs.


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