Defining the Geospatial Profession (unabridged)

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor identified geospatial technology as one of the top three emerging technologies for the 21st century workforce.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the projected employment demand for surveyors over the current decade is 24,200 new jobs, representing a growth rate of 28%.  Similarly, the demand for geodetic surveyors and photogrammetrists through 2020 is projected to grow at the same rate as surveyors, creating another 30,000 new jobs.  Growth rate projections for geospatial information scientists and geographic information systems technicians is 9%,  well below the 14.3% BLS average projected growth rate for all occupations.
To help meet the expanding geospatial needs of public and private sector organizations, the Geospatial Workforce Development Subcommittee of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) provided recommendations on approaches to develop intergovernmental and public/private strategies to facilitate the development, training, and retention of a highly skilled workforce.  This subcommittee also examined opportunities for synergies with President Obama’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education “national priority” initiatives. 
Several key findings by the NGAC subcommittee show just how undefined the geospatial profession is.  Consider the following:

  • No single definition exists delineating which subject areas are included in STEM education programs.
  • Geography and geospatial technologies are often missing from identified STEM degree education and programs.  (The Obama Administration's proposal, “A Blueprint for Reform,” to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replace the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” does not include the words “geography” or “geospatial.”)
  • Many college/university programs offer GIS coursework and some offer certificate, undergraduate, and graduate programs.  Most of these programs originate from within geography departments, although some reside in other disciplines such as information technology or engineering departments.
  • Despite a robust educational environment, there has been little effort and collaboration towards professional development beyond the classroom.  Unlike professional organizations that offer certifications (engineering, surveying), the geospatial community does little to formally link education with real-world experience.

According to Esri, there are 600 to 700 post-secondary schools in the United States teaching GIS.  By comparison, just 65 post-secondary schools offer surveying/geomatics, and of these only 16 are ABET-accredited.  Currently, there is no accreditation system for GIS programs in the United States.  It is ironic that there would be so many GIS programs being offered when the BLS indicates a less-than-average jobs growth rate for this occupation and so few schools offering surveying with a high job demand.  More concerning is the fact that so few surveying/geomatics programs are ABET-accredited and that many GIS programs are in geography disciplines that are often rolled up in political or social science departments, not surveying or engineering.

So, where are we in defining the geospatial profession?   The answer to this question unfortunately lies in the answers to many other questions.  For example, before attempting to define the geospatial profession there needs to be a common understanding and/or definition of “geospatial.”  Ask 10 people what “geospatial” means and you most assuredly will get 10 different answers.  What disciplines are included in the “geospatial profession”?  Are surveyors, photogrammetrists, geodesists, remote sensing technologists, cartographers, and geospatial information technologists considered geospatial practitioners?  Is “geospatial” a profession, and if it is should those practicing in the geospatial disciplines be licensed? 

During my 37-year professional career I have witnessed the growth of “surveying and mapping” and the addition of several new geospatial disciplines.  As a learned, licensed professional, I am alarmed to see many of those new disciplines practicing outside their core competencies and without a license.  Has the introduction of these new disciplines and the advancements in surveying techniques and tools served to reduce the professional status of surveying?  Sadly, the simple answer is yes.
During my tenure as the president of MAPPS, I wrote the article, “Are You a Vendor? What’s in a Name?”  (Aerial Mapping 2008). I assert that we need to be careful how we describe ourselves and our profession as this will ultimately define how others view us.  For me, when I hear individuals whom I consider to be geospatial professionals refer to themselves as “vendors” or refer to those they serve as “customers” and the services they provide as “products,” it has the same effect as what I imagine having a root canal without a local anesthetic would be like. 

In order to start to raise the status of the profession, we all need to begin referring to ourselves as “professionals” rather than “vendors” and to those we serve as “clients” not “customers.”  As part of a professional practice, we provide our clients with a service wherein the representation of our professional judgment (a survey plat, map document, etc.) is a contracted “deliverable” rather than a “product.”  We should remind others that we compete based on “qualifications” and “offers,” not “bids.”  It’s time we stop complaining about not being treated with the professional respect we deserve and start describing ourselves using the terms associated with a profession.  

During the MAPPS 2012 summer conference held July 10-14, I had the pleasure of presenting this topic at a panel discussion on “Defining the Geospatial Profession.”  As I did during that presentation, I conclude my thoughts here with recommendations that, if implemented, will clearly define the geospatial profession, help us regain our status as professionals, and set the stage for preparing the future workforce to meet the demands of our ever-changing professional organizations.
  1. Develop a comprehensive description of the disciplines included in “geospatial.”
  2. Brand the profession as “geospatial engineering.”
  3. Develop and implement a strategy to establish a national license for those geospatial disciplines not involved with boundary law.  Include a solid, comprehensive, enforceable code of ethics.
  4. Enact an unambiguous QBS law for geospatial services contracts.
  5. Establish a model curriculum for a two-year technician (community college) and four-year professional degree program.
  6. Establish an accreditation program system for college and university geospatial programs.
  7. Develop an employment opportunity campaign to attract young people into the profession and accredited university programs.
  8. Develop and implement a campaign that will introduce the ASPRS Procurement of Professional Geospatial Services Guidelines to both public and private procurement personnel.
I offer a final observation on the disparity in the BLS data on the 2010-2020 demand for surveyors compared with GIS personnel and between schools offering surveying compared to GIS. One of the reasons for this disparity is the aging of the surveyor workforce that tends to be content with a 200-year-old image.  The brutal truth is that in recent years more young people have entered the broad GIS field than those entering surveying because GIS has a stronger, modern brand.  If we are to attract the next generation of surveyors who will flourish, prosper, and meet the demands of the market, we must abandon the muddy-boot, machete-wielding image of a “surveyor” and our nostalgia for “George Washington was a surveyor” and start projecting the image of a leading-edge, technologically savvy, educated and learned profession. 
Bottom line, if we want to change the world, we need to change ourselves first.

~Marvin E. Miller, PLS, RPP, SP, PPS, CP

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