Geospatial Occupations Q&A - Part One

October 21, 2010

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On September 30, Penn State University and Directions Media presented a webinar titled The New Geospatial Jobs and How to be Ready for Them. A total of 940 people registered to attend the webinar, 506 attended live, and 181 people since have downloaded and viewed the archived version. Needless to say, far more questions were asked during the webinar than could be answered. The three speakers, Richard Serby of GeoSearch, and David DiBiase and Wes Stroh, both from Penn State University, responded in detail to all the questions that weren't addressed. Those responses are provided in this two-part article. Part 1 addresses the Geospatial Technology Competency Model, education and certification questions. Part 2, which will appear next Wednesday, will address jobs and job titles.

Q: How does this Geospatial Technology Competency Model reflect on the GISP designation program. Is it tied in at all to the model, make it more substantial, or slightly undermine it?

David DiBiase (DD):
Check out GIS Certification Institute's press release (pdf) about its GISP Certification Update Initiative.  The release includes this statement: "the purpose of GISP certification is to advance the GIS profession by promoting competent and ethical professional practice. Portfolio-based certification made sense in 2004, when no authoritative specification of geospatial competencies yet existed. The Department of Labor's recently issued Geospatial Technology Competency Model helps fill that gap, and sets the stage for serious consideration of competency-based GISP certification."

Q: I develop curricula for GIS certificates and associates degrees at a Community College. What resources are available for us so that our curricula prepare students meet the DOL competencies for lower-level GIS technicians?
Wes Stroh (WS):
A good place to start is the National Geospatial Technology Center for Excellence. Under the "Educators" tab you'll find numerous resources included for curriculum development. The GeoTech Center is the subject of an upcoming webinar in our series, date TBD Spring 2011.

Q: Do you know of any similar initiatives in Canada?
The Department of Labor's counterpart in Canada appears to be Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. My searches on keywords "geospatial" and "geographic information systems" yielded some results, but nothing similar to the GTCM.

Q: Can you give us the link to the GIS Certification program?
The terms certificate and certification are often confused. Educational institutions offer certificates acknowledging success in a program of study, such as Penn State's Post-baccaulaureate Certificate in GIS. Professional certifications are offered by a variety of professional organizations and designate experience and competency. GISP (GIS Professional) certification is offered by the GIS Certification Institute. Other professional certifications are offered by organizations such as American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) or formal licensing for surveyors such as National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

Q: Why does a prospective employer seek "certification" of applicants, BUT current employers are not supportive in "certification" for its employees?
GISP certification is recognized by eight states, and was only established in 2004. You can expect greater acceptance in the years ahead.

Q: Any plans to have national certification test?
ASPRS already offers a Certified Mapping Scientist-GIS/LIS credential that requires an examination. GISCI has commenced a GISP Certification Update Initiative that may result in an examination requirement (pdf).

Q: As GIS software has become dumbed down and easier to use, I am wondering if there will be a GISP career path in the future? Is the GISP destined to go the path of the dinosaur or will the GISP be able to reclaim their jobs that have been absorbed by other professions?
It seems to me that GIS software has become steadily smarter, not dumber. Plus the demand for GIS pros who can customize GIS software for particular uses remains strong. The Department of Labor estimates that nearly 150,000 additional GIS pros will be needed in the next 10 years. CNN just reported that "GIS Analyst" is one of the "100 top careers." Worries about the demise of the GIS profession are unfounded.

Q: Do you feel like universities and community colleges are adequately training students for a future in the geospatial industry?
Rich Serby (RS):
Yes, I believe that when we view educational opportunities in total that colleges and universities are doing a good job preparing students. We are seeing more community college and even high school programs coming on line that speak to the need for internship and entry-level basic skills. Add these to the number of online opportunities and it appears that colleges and universities are responding to the need.

Q: I see numerous programs online and at campus locations for master's degrees in geospatial studies. Why is it so difficult to find a bachelor degree program in geospatial studies?
There are actually bachelor programs with coursework focusing in geospatial, though they tend to be part of or a track within a geography department. URISA has a useful list and the GeoTech Center mentioned during the webinar has resources for students. Online bachelor's programs are less common - demand to date has been focused on skills development and master's level work for continuing education, but that is likely to change as the industry grows.

Q: How can we get geoSpatial technology in academia to become more involved in the economics and business departments?
At Penn State we're currently developing a course called Location Intelligence for Business. You'll find other business application related courses in other top programs. However, in business and economic departments geospatial is part of the conversation (especially in marketing, retail, real estate, and finance) but it's seen as a tool, and simply one of many tools not always receiving the focused treatment it does in, say, geography.

Q: Why are the online masters degrees (in the US) so much more expensive than the UK courses?
I'm not aware of evidence that U.S. degrees are more expensive than their counterparts in the U.K. For example, Penn State shares online students with Leeds University and the University of Southampton. The tuition those students pay is comparable to ours.

Q: Continuing education, classes, conferences, etc. are all well and good, but those of us in the public sector are scrambling just to keep our jobs - there is no money for continuing education. I've been resourceful and have done as much as I can out of pocket or free, but there's not much. This limitation ends up penalizing me when looking at certification, i.e. GISP, as conferences and courses are required.
Some programs do offer financial aid, even for certificate programs, though these do vary from state to state/program to program.  Much of this will depend on student status - it's more difficult to get financial aid to take one course at a time (in most programs) than it is when you maintain half- or full-time student status.  Check with the financial aid officer at the program you're interested in - don't rely just on website material, but actually talk to someone.

Q: I recently completed a GIS Certificate program that was very light on technical skills. Any ideas on how to acquire technical skills without going back to school?
In terms of software specific training, most vendors continue to offer much in the way of support. At ESRI, for instance, you'll find free online tutorials along with paid training and courses and you'll also find relatively inexpensive guides and textbooks to support training for new functions and new releases.

Q: What technical skill areas are most important in the geospatial industry?
Levels 4 and 5 of the pyramid - Industry-wide and Industry-sector Technical Competencies - provide those skills essential across the geospatial profession.

Q: Not all certificate and degree programs are created equal. Is there a list of institutions that have been matched against the competency model with regard to offered educational programs?
The GeoTech Center recently created a curriculum assessment instrument to gauge how well curricula align with workforce needs identified in the GTCM. Prospective students should insist that schools perform and report these assessments.

Q: If I'm considering a certificate or advanced degree, how can I compare programs to determine which will best prepare me for acquiring a job?
You should consider a number of elements, including your work experience to date and your future professional goals. It can be useful to consider the location where you hope to work when finished - programs are a great opportunity for networking with other professionals. Look carefully at the required coursework to determine what skills/knowledge you're going to solidify and what new skills/knowledge you'll take away. Also, consider the program electives - do they match up with your area of interest? Ask for course syllabi and find out what faculty member is teaching in the program. (Though tenured academics are at the forefront of GIS research, adjuncts who work in the field may have more applied knowledge or experience with specific software.)

Q: I am getting a BS in Geography with a minor in GIS. Would it be wise to continue and get a master's degree in GIS?
Additional education is never a bad choice, but many MGIS programs (and professional programs in general) are designed as continuing education for individuals with grounding in the field. In most cases, your experience in a professional Masters program will benefit from some prior work experience.

Q: I have considered getting a certificate or masters in GIS because I am a self taught GIS analyst. But when I look at the classes I feel like they would be a waste of my money since I have been doing these things for years. What is your opinion?
When investigating programs, ask the school how you might tailor the program requirements to acknowledge your existing skills and build new ones. Many programs will accept transfer credit or allow you to test out of basic skills courses allowing you to focus on developing new skills. That said, many of our most experienced professionals in Penn State's program find they benefit from a review and confirmation of basic skills.

Q: When will you let us know more about the Professional Master Program?
Information on Penn State's Online MGIS is available. Please explore the information found there and feel free to contact us with questions.

Q: In your estimation, what proportion of geospatial jobs require at least some programming experience?
We see this increasing rather dramatically. Employers want to see some level of programming skill even at the entry level.

Q: What is the best way to go about getting the Software & Application Development Competencies? College courses, work experience or a masters degree?
The best way for you depends on your circumstances. If formal education is an option, you'll find coursework related to GIS software and application development at many two-year colleges and four-year universities. For example, check out Penn State's open courseware.

Q: Are you seeing positions requiring knowledge of open source software such as GRASS?
More generally, the ability to create custom software solutions - whether proprietary or open source or a combination of the two - is in high demand.
RS: Not seeing positions posted with GRASS.

Q: What do you think is the best programming language to utilize for future GIS work?
It depends on whether you're a software programmer (e.g. working for Esri) or an application developer. In the first case its probably some variant of C+(+). The latter is probably Python at the moment.
RS: C#, .NET, C++ are some of the core languages.

Q: If you don't like to program, should you get out of the geospatial field?
Hang in there! There are plenty of opportunities for those who do not want to be programmers

Q: I've gone away from programming towards system administration (ArcGIS Server Administration). It appears this direction has limited prospects. What would be good to add to my skill set in order to stay in the administration side (I'm currently a SQL DBA)?
You seem to have answered your own question. You have determined that system admin may have limited prospects but you want to stay in system/dba administration. My advice is to become the best system/DBA administrator on the planet and make yourself indispensable!

Q: I'm very proficient as a GIS Specialist with desktop GIS but want to move into an enterprise GIS environment. How do perspective employers view job seekers that need an upgrade?
You should obtain your ‘upgrades' with your current employer or as a student. Employers want to hire people who are ready to contribute on day one. In the current economy employers have more choices regarding a ready-to-work candidate pool.

Q: Richard, Do you see Bentley Microstation skills in high demand??
It is not a skill set that we see very often but that does not imply that there is not a demand in specialized geospatial sectors.

Q: Regarding GIS Project Management careers, has anyone seen an uptick in the number of Project Management Professionals (PMP)?
Yes, we see the number of certified project managers increasing. This may be a product of very good sales people at Project Management Institute or the consolidation of the industry and blending of other engineering functions within the geospatial realm … or both.

Q: Considering how many programming and technical positions are being outsourced, what jobs/skills should one focus on to "outsource-proof" yourself?
Communication skills - oral and written. And business skills.


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