GIS Jobs of Today: Which GIS job skills are in highest demand?

By Diana S. Sinton

Editor's Note: In a field that evolves as rapidly as geospatial information science and technologies, the idea of “getting a GIS job” may not be as straight-forward as it sounds. What are employers looking for, and how do you know that your training and education will get you there? Join Directions Magazine as we begin a short series of articles examining these topics.

Was there really ever a time when all you needed to know to get a GIS job was how to do a few software tasks and design a map or two, or is that as overly idealistic and unrealistic as the image of every 1950s household having an apple pie cooling on an open window sill?

If you did manage to get a job on that "lick, spit and promise," are you still in that position? What daily tasks are expected of you now that didn’t even exist 15 years ago?

New GIS degree and certificate programs continue to launch each year. Keeping curricula current, and instructors both confident and competent, is a perpetual challenge. There are also more numerous and diverse approaches to professional development than ever before. Is there validity in the Monday-morning-quarterback statement that what employers want, what degree programs provide, and what students actually learn are always out of synch?

In an effort to understand distinctions and requirements of GIS jobs, Jung Eun (Jessie) Hong, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of West Georgia, recently completed a content analysis of GIS job advertisements. She compiled almost 1000 GIS job postings, spanning 2007 – 2014, from, and the GIS Jobs Clearinghouse. The titles of the jobs were used to sort the positions into five different job categories:

  • Analysts (27.4% of job postings)
  • Programmers/developers/engineers (29.8%)
  • Specialists (14.0%)
  • Technicians (11.2%)
  • Other (17.7%).

Though programmers, developers and engineers differ in training and expectations, their primary job tasks are similar enough to be grouped at this scale. The “Other” category included GIS coordinators, instructors and the like.

Then, individual skills specified in each ad — such as data mining, web mapping, programming or project management, for example — were all coded into four technical areas:

  • Analysis/modeling
  • Cartography/visualization
  • Data processing/management
  • Software/application development

and three general skill areas:

  • Analytical
  • Management
  • Personal/social

Hong then used this coded information in NVivo, a product designed for analyzing text-based content.

What were the similarities and differences in skills among the five job categories? The most requested skill set across all jobs involved analysis and modeling, with over 56% of all job ads specifically referencing such needs. This includes such tasks as aerial image interpretation, data analysis, database development, data mining, network analysis and/or the use of spatial statistics. The second most requested skill set was a general one: communication, interpersonal skills, and self-motivation and independence.

Within job categories, the similarities were more interesting than the differences. Not surprisingly, the number one most requested skill for a programmer/developer/engineer was web or mobile application development; 57.4% of all job postings within that group identified that skill. But what was the most frequently expected skills for the other four categories of GIS jobs positions? Communication skills, above all other technical or more job-specific needs, with up to 45.9% of the postings specifying that skill set.

Another revealing result from within each job category was that database development was ranked as the second most frequently desired skill across all five job type categories. Within the domain of GIS&T, "database development" can have a specific meaning for a specific use case, but those two words are also common and important on their own within the fields of computer science and information technology. Their high frequency designation as a skill across all of these GIS job postings may reflect diverse and different interpretations of what “database development” actually means in a given scenario...which makes us wonder about the myriad ways that “communication” itself plays out in the world of GIS&T.

In practice, communication skills can include everything from accurately representing one’s self on a resume to finding out during an interview that everyone is interpreting “database development” in distinctive ways. In the Venn diagram world of database development, surely there is overlap with data manipulation, programming, and/or database design. Are you ready for that? Or, does the new boss really just need someone to populate an Excel spreadsheet and join it to a shapefile? Either way, whether you are a wise boss or an eager job seeker, are you prepared to listen carefully enough to the other person so you could tactfully, professionally and courteously adjust and address the miscommunications? Voila, now you get points for interpersonal skills as well!

If the ubiquity of “database development” may reflect instances of commission, Hong’s research also illustrates an example of omission with the absence of the term “geocomputation” in any of the job ads. She had been prepared to code the term as an example of a required or desired skill within the analysis and modeling set, based on the fact that geocomputation had been identified as an entire knowledge area in the 2006 GIS&T Body of Knowledge, one of the sources for her coding information. Geocomputation had been described in the BoK as the "development and application of computationally intensive approaches to the study of complex spatial-temporal problems.” The complete absence of the term from job ads does not mean that those complex spatial-temporal problems are no longer an issue! Instead, I would suggest that the high performance computing, cellular-automata and agent-based models, and simulation modeling that once differentiated a geocomputational approach have now become expected and necessary, and thus have been integrated into analytical approaches in general. Perhaps “Big Data analytics” is more likely to be the nom du jour in a job ad of today, but these are of the same ilk.

Overall, Hong’s findings confirm what many of us have experienced over time: that technical skills will always be critical on a particular day for a particular task, but those must be complemented with a life-long ability to unravel problems. When the Department of Labor’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model was revised in 2014, the bulk of the changes were specific technical competencies in Tier 4 and above. Personal effectiveness, academic and workplace competencies, largely the "general" skills in Hong’s study, have remained as solid and important as ever.

In psychological and human resources parlance, skills are things which we can acquire and learn, while abilities are things that we have naturally. Importantly, both can be refined through training and education. To increase your employability, hone your skills as well as your abilities, and develop your competence and confidence to communicate about them both. Consider these 20 Challenging GIS Interview Questions, which are as relevant today across all types of GIS positions as when they were first published; effective communication is central to them all. 

Interested in more about GIS jobs?  Read the next article in this series, "GIS Jobs of Today: Should you have programming skills?".

Read, "Only Problem-Solvers Need Apply".

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