The definition of geospatial career pathways, offering professional growth opportunities following a geospatial paradigm with associated competencies, will enhance the appeal of starting positions and draw smart young people into our field. By Prof Josef Strobl
Reflecting options at PhD career day, University of Salzburg
The‚ ‘brainware’ behind managing and operating spatial data infrastructures, generating information from geospatial sensors and data, and effective geovisual communications increasingly is considered the main critical success factor for leveraging geospatial technologies across its application domains. Education and training on various levels are supposed to develop these competences. Even though educational programs proliferate, student numbers often stay below expectations and industry is struggling to hire qualified staff. After decades as an established discipline, (too) many geospatial positions in public administration and businesses are still being filled by people “trained on the job”.
Very likely only a minority of current staff are on a geospatial career path, most rather fill a specific position without a clear development track. Offering attractive careers will be critical to attract and retain bright and motivated brains. Progressing from entry-level experience towards geospatial 2.X, 3.X etc and ultimately C-level positions is a prospect important for the ‘brainware’ lifecycle, as progressive development through generations and versions is for software.
Education & geospatial careers
While most would consider academic programs in the geospatial domain as starting points for professional careers, earlier exposure to initiatives stimulating spatial awareness and spatial thinking cannot be overestimated in their impact on choosing academic directions.
When talking to incoming students, I notice that a majority already was exposed to GIS Day events, geospatial science center exhibits and projects with a mapping focus, or had teachers known for actively participating in in-service education aimed at spatial technologies and related pedagogies.
Early selection of academic interests clearly helps, in particular with starting a geospatial career with an adequate mindset. Aiming at a ‘GIS job’ due to the perceived good job prospects and building mostly technical credentials will get the candidate exactly that — a job. But not a career. The latter will require a much broader approach to transferable spatial thinking competences serving as a foundation of a pathway leading beyond a techie skillset.
Even though a majority of standard ‘GIS programs’ are designed this way, geospatial careers do not necessarily, or not even preferably, start squarely within this field. Undergraduate exposure to any ‘spatial’ discipline like planning, environmental or resource management, geography, ecology or archaeology build a sense of purpose, context and direction for further studies with a geospatial focus.
Similarly, geospatial minor or certificate programs complement education in an application domain and very substantially broaden the scope of outreach into other disciplines. The value of a spatial view ultimately is generated in these disciplines; integration with a variety of fields thus may be considered more important than a purely geotechnical qualification.
From a geospatial technology industry perspective, accessing careers from a computer science background often is considered preferable. A solid technical foundation is indispensable for anyone building spatial architectures and applications. In practice, experts for the “how to implement” and the design-oriented “why to select this approach” will work together, e.g. as developers and product specialists or designers. Developers often will continue their careers by taking their generic skills to other industries. Individuals with a spatial sciences background more probably will be candidates for geospatial careers.
Today, few academic qualifications will support a professional lifetime outright. Technologies, industries and societal demand keep changing rapidly, and so will our qualifications. The rapidly increasing value and importance of an explicitly spatial approach now is evident in all domains tied to markets, to our environment, to safety and security as well as all kinds of infrastructures. A majority of professionals thus will be confronted along their already launched career pathways with an emerging demand for leveraging spatial intelligence within their domains.
This observation was the starting point for the UNIGIS distance learning network in the early 1990ies, and today is valid more than ever. Continuing education these days does not primarily update professionals on the latest and greatest in their fields, but rather introduces new paradigms relevant for career advancement. Since a ‘spatial turn’ in many disciplines is the foundation for radical instead of mere incremental innovation, a geospatial certificate or degree adds a new quality to a professional profile, similar to attending business school for mid-career advancement.
Continuing education in the geospatial domain thus in most cases is directed at graduates or practitioners from all disciplines where a spatial view adds value. As these individuals tend to be fully engaged in their jobs (and families), going back to school full time rarely is an option. Evening and weekend programs are popular, even more so online distance education as it offers access to advanced qualifications in learning environments more independent from the locations and schedules of traditional education settings.
As geospatial competences are now required in a majority of all disciplines, qualifications need to be assessed and established across different academic and professional traditions, cultures and experiences. On a very generic level, UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) or the European Qualification Framework (EQF) provide orientation, e.g. identifying ISCED/EQF 7 as a postgraduate Master’s level degree.
More specifically, the geospatial community started out with core curricula and now keeps revising its ‘Body of Knowledge’ (BoK), serving as a baseline for assessing, accrediting and profiling academic programs. The (US) Geospatial Technology Competency Model framework was developed through a collaborative effort with a labor market perspective, while the European GI-N2K (‘Need-to-Know’) project aims at better aligning GIS&T curricula at the academic level and in vocational training offers with the needs of the GI job market.
Building these bridges from academic and vocational education to professional practice poses a set of challenges, in particular when professional certification is involved. While completion of specific trainings as well as the attainment of a Certified Geographic Information Systems Professional status or a vendor-specific technical certification are valuable documentations of technical skills and important indications of a motivation for self-improvement, they serve a purpose along the lines of Continuous Professional Development, but much less enable academically founded careers.
Frameworks like the above are references, but successful careers are made by people. Most domain specific frameworks detail within-domain competences, but less the complementary qualifications in social, project management and business-related areas. As a career advances, required competences will become more diverse and individual, and distinctly transversal — most geospatial careers occur in application domains requiring domain specific as well as advanced geospatial credentials.
Supporting career steps through formal educational credentials will be a must in most cases, but what happens in between? Beyond the socializing in formal and informal associations, online communities today probably play the most important role in staying in touch with technical advances, conceptual progress, and the people facilitating all this.
Alumni associations used to look back into some ‘good old days’. Today, e.g. the ‘Club UNIGIS’ or ‘GeoNet’ serve as professional support networks with a strong focus on further learning, identification of emerging trends and connecting the not-yet-connected – referring to people as well as topics.
Active participation in relevant and multiple communities is a key factor in the lifelong learning facet of career development. Formal qualifications build the formal credentials, but communities provide the links to practice and bridge technology with application.
Money is made in markets, (mostly) based on value generated or added. This value is created by solving problems, serving needs and satisfying demands — all these typically requiring contributions from different disciplines. Many problems today are so complex that thye require contributions from multiple disciplines. Therefore universities experiment with alternative organizational formats. Already multiple institutions have established transdisciplinary ‘spatial sciences’, as is the case with my ‘Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics’ at the University of Salzburg.
Similarly, (some) enterprises are establishing a corporate spatial view led by a GIO (a chief geographic information officer). Just as finance, controlling, human resources or IT are organized and led on a corporate level, the same will be beneficial for many companies in the domain of Geographic Information — instead of letting it languish somewhere in IT relegated to a pure technology perspective.
It is beneficial for organizations to foster customers’ spatial awareness and thinking by sponsoring ‘spatial citizenship’ education, as only based on these skills and competences services and users can ‘connect spatially’.
Institutions show leadership by establishing a strong and explicit spatial view across their organizations, as a majority of resources, infrastructure, logistics and market actors are spatially located and need a spatial perspective to be accessed, efficiently used and successfully served.
Education prepares people to lead by working at the interface of academia and industry, and by advanced degree programs. The interdisciplinary GIScience doctoral school at my university aims at future leaders in spatially aware disciplines, across the more traditional ‘little boxes’ of academic departments. Industry, though, is challenged to contribute e.g. by mentoring and internships: fusing the understanding of a domain and its treasure of experience with solid concepts and methodologies from academia provide the fuel for careers along a geospatial pathway.
Competences change and grow from entry levels to the point where projects, departments and policies need leading. Applying spatial thinking and geospatial intelligence to a business or societal problem requires much more than technical and software skills. The educational interventions along a career, developing competences and capacities which typically cannot be completely foreseen at entry levels, are the formative enablers of GIOs and other leaders.
With few exceptions, there are two industry domains out there: those already considering themselves as ‘map-centric’, spatially aware organizations, and those potentially benefitting in the future from ‘connecting spatially’ internally along process chains and with their markets. At this time, geospatial positions often are filled laterally: as technicians, developers, project managers, account managers or department heads. The definition of geospatial career pathways, offering professional growth opportunities following a geospatial paradigm with associated competencies, will enhance the appeal of starting positions and draw smart young people into our field.