Careers in the Geospatial Sciences:The New Professional

By Richard Serby

Much has happened since Geographic Information System (GIS) technology was pioneered by Dr.Roger Tomlinson in Canada during the 1960's and made commercially available in the ESRI in 1981.As recently as 1988 our task as corporate recruiters was to find pen and ink cartographers who also had some basic computer skills.There were few training programs other than those offered by the producers of GIS software and hardware products.Cartography was as much art as science and many involved in the craft were not much interested in becoming computer scientists and many computer scientists were not interested in cartographic applications.The task of finding the right people with the right blend of interests and skills was a difficult one.

The recruitment of people skilled in photogrammetry posed a similar dilemma.As one client put it, "We used to take people off the street, give them on-the-job training, and hope that they would stay for more than a few weeks." There were few formal training programs and the highly detailed work of the Stereoplotter Operator or Stereo Compiler was not appealing to some because it takes such a high degree of sustained focus over a long period of time.Finding people who can 'put the dot on the ground' is still one of the most difficult searches we conduct.

As the industry began to consolidate in the mid-90's and small companies were sold or merged with larger organizations, training became more available, wages and salaries improved, and the task of finding the right person with the right set of skills became less difficult.It is now possible to find degree and training programs in most areas of the country and, as the technology spreads into other industries, the opportunities for interesting and challenging careers improves.

Wages in 1988 for entry-level cartographic technicians were in the $6 - 8.00 per hour range in most average cost-of-living areas of the country.Today the same entry-level person will typically be paid in the $14 - 16.00 per hour range.Someone having a good computer science and programming background combined with 'practical' geography (as opposed to cultural geography) may command $30 - 40K per year within two or three years out of school in an average cost-of-living area of the country.Senior level GIS technical applications specialists, programmers, and developers may earn well into the $60's in some regions.This is a far cry from what we were seeing just a few years ago.Preparing for a well-paid career in the geospatial sciences means acquiring more than only basic GIS application skills.So how does one decide how to prepare for a career in the geospatial sciences in the new millennium?

John Tull (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)), GIS Manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation (, advises that a combination of geography, engineering, business, marketing (even in government), and leadership skills are important to cultivate.Russell Davis, of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission GIS Laboratory, adds that strong GIS, Oracle, and Visual Basic programming skills need to be in your skill set.

Strong computer science skills are consistently mentioned as critical in preparation for a career in the geospatial sciences.Bruce Stauffer (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)),Vice President of Advanced Technology Solutions, Inc.( in Lancaster, PA encourages skills in database design, VB/VBA programming, Javascript, Active Service Page (ASP) development and COM development.

As recruiters, we also see a continued demand for strong C / C++ and Unix OS skills in combination with 'the usual GIS suspects' such as ESRI, Intergraph, Autodesk, and MapInfo products.

Howard Hammerman, Ph.D., President of Hammerman Associates (www.hammerman ), summarized the essential characteristics of someone who will be successful in the industry by saying, "...integrity and passion about the technology (are critical).A determination to get the job done no matter what..." are at the core of being a valuable employee." He continues by stating that the understanding of relational databases and the ability to resolve database and business problems from an analytic point of view contribute to success in his industry niche.

The geospatial sciences continue to be a high demand career field with many great opportunities for the person who takes the time to develop a strong set of skills and enters the industry with a strong work ethic and commitment to this important technology.

Other contributors of data, history, and ideas:

Stewart Hay (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)), GIS Project Manager ECOWISE Environmental Pty Ltd, Canberra, Australia (

Tara Morgan, Information Science and Management, Florida Marine Research Institute

Published Thursday, February 7th, 2002

Written by Richard Serby

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