Geospatial technology is considered a high-growth industry, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (ETA). The geospatial market is growing at an annual rate of almost 35 percent, with the commercial subsection of the market expanding at the rate of 100 percent each year, according to the Geospatial Information & Technology Association.

Increasing demand for geographic information and the widespread availability of advanced technologies offer great job opportunities for people from a wide range of educational backgrounds, the ETA’s geospatial technology profile reads. However, the high-growth industry profile points out, “The public is not aware of the necessary skill sets and competencies needed to prepare for the diverse career opportunities available within the geospatial technology industry. … There is also a need for better industry promotion by creating a national image campaign that raises awareness about the industry…”


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To address this awareness challenge and meet industry growth requirements, the ETA suggests examining alternatives to the traditional pipeline. “These alternatives include recruiting young workers through apprenticeship and high school/college dual-enrollment-dual-credit agreements, as well as tapping non-traditional labor pools to diversify the workforce,” according to the profile, updated February 2016.

The ETA has invested more than $8,367,110 in the geospatial industry, including six High Growth Job Training Initiative Grants totaling $6,438,653 and one multi-industry Community-Based Job Training Grant totaling $1,928,457. But the ETA is not alone in its effort to foster a healthy future for geospatial technology. The wider geospatial community is also aware of the increasing demand for its expertise, and key groups within the community are taking ownership of the mission to increase geospatial awareness and outreach efforts. They aren’t stopping with high school and college though; they’re reaching youth as young as kindergarten.

K-12 Geo-Mentoring

The American Association of Geographers (AAG) serves as one example of a group dedicated to youth outreach. AAG is a non-profit scientific and educational society that contributes to the advancement of geography. Its GeoMentors program consists of a nationwide network of volunteers from the GIS community that works with K-12 educators and schools to incorporate geospatial technology and career information into the classroom.

The program is in collaboration with Esri, which is providing free ArcGIS Online organization accounts to all K-12 schools in the U.S., says Candice Luebbering, senior research geographer with AAG. GeoMentor activities range widely based on the needs of different communities, schools and teachers. A GeoMentor may give a career talk, sharing how they use geospatial technology in their work. They may partner with an educator and provide regular assistance on creating and implementing GIS software into classroom lessons. Other GeoMentors may assist educators in the classroom or in the field, helping to develop a project using geospatial technology that supplements their current curriculum or connects to a community interest or need, Luebbering says.

In the end, students learn how to use geospatial technology to visualize and explore a range of classroom and community topics well beyond geography, from history to math to Earth science to biology. Luebbering says that with more than 1,200 volunteers and more than 3,000 schools enrolled with Esri’s ConnectED program to obtain free ArcGIS Online software, and continuing reports received of GeoMentor activities throughout the country, she is thrilled with the program momentum achieved so far.

She realizes the geospatial sector is a rapidly growing career opportunity area, and she agrees that improving awareness of and education for geospatial technology with young people prepares them to take advantage of the opportunity.

“Young students are our next-generation geographers and geospatial professionals,” she says. “For the continued advancement of our discipline and the important role that spatial thinking brings to our society, youth outreach will always be an important part of AAG activities.”

The advancement of geography is directly dependent upon young people getting interested in the discipline and choosing it as a career path, says Mark Revell, AAG workforce development specialist. “It is our responsibility to do all that we can to engage and educate them so that they choose geography and become the professional geographers of tomorrow.”

Sparking Fire Safety Interest With GIS

In a more focused way, the city of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. is partnering with the Cucamonga school district to teach middle school students about fire safety and disaster management by way of GIS.

The outreach has been presented to two Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes of around 20 students each as an after school program. It runs for 10 weeks, which ends up spanning almost an entire semester. The third offering began Sept. 1.

The project started at a very basic level of thinking that the students would naturally be interested in GIS technology, says Rob Ball, fire marshal for the Rancho Cucamonga Fire District. He says the fire district is a major user of GIS technology for a variety of tasks. They introduced the students to GIS technology and then showed them how it is utilized by the fire district. Then, the youth were given the opportunity to use the technology to complete various projects.

Some of the projects have included a scavenger hunt using Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS, a data analysis project that required the students to determine the ideal locations of fire stations based on various data sets such as emergency responses, and story maps. The most recent story map project required small groups of students to work together to map natural disasters that have occurred in the region. Maps included wildfires, floods and earthquakes.

From a fire safety prospective, Ball says the traditional ways of trying to reach kids were no longer working. “Having kids of our own, we began to consider how to connect to the kids through technology.”

While reading an Esri publication, he says he learned about the ConnectED program. With approval from the city’s GIS department, he got to work.

“The technology has been the medium that has allowed us to reconnect with middle school age students,” Ball says. “Technology is their world and we have been able to show them a technology with which they were not very familiar, but with which they became almost instantly interested. … We are able to show real emergency events that happen in their neighborhoods and we do it through GIS technology and mapping that we use every day.”

In addition to Ball, the outreach effort has been led by Community Affairs Coordinator and Public Information Officer Kelley Donaldson, Fire/GIS Technician Vincent Grant, GIS Technician Art Yero, GIS Analyst Isaiah Aguilera and GIS Analyst Ryan Wilson.

“We are very happy with the program and our school districts as well. Other school districts are requesting our team to establish similar programs at their schools,” says Solomon Nimako, Rancho Cucamonga GIS Supervisor.

GIS Learning in a Real-World Setting

The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is also teaching the next generation about GIS in a real-world way, only it targets high school aged youth and applies geospatial technology to park management.

Through a partnership with San Mateo County Parks Department, in California, SCA youth crews have been given the opportunity to work as field staff, collecting GIS data. The parks department uses GIS data for a wide range of applications, but up until a few years ago, it did not have a staff member devoted to working with GIS. The partnership allows the SCA to address gaps in park spatial data and organize spatial information into an accessible database through internship opportunities for GIS technicians and SCA youth crews that work under them.

The SCA was established in 1957 as a national movement to save America’s national parks by engaging students in service. Its youth programs focus on engaging crew members ages 15 to 19. To date, almost all of the San Mateo county parks have had some form of GIS data collection carried out by an SCA crew. All of the data they collect can in some way help inform or support management decisions for the parks, and can be used to improve visitor experience and access to information on the parks.

Crew members are taught about the basic concept of GIS and a variety of applications of GIS, with particular focus on how parks or land management agencies rely on GIS for park management or natural resource management work. They are also taught about field protocols for high-quality GPS data collection. The crew members use tablets with Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS and are taught about assigning attributes to features they encounter in the field. They learn about the value of accurate data collection and how to make maps in ArcMap with the data they collect. Data processing is handled by the GIS technician intern.

The GIS crew members have collected data on park trail systems by mapping trails, collecting point data on trail features, signage, maintenance needs, intersections and drainages. Condition is recorded for many of the items. They have also collected data on park facilities including benches, campsites, gates, park buildings, restrooms, recreational areas, picnic areas, trash and recycling, and parking lots. In addition, crews have tracked invasive vegetation populations within the parks, looking at 10 of the more common and easily identifiable invasive weed species that are found in San Mateo County, mapping polygons and points to represent the presence of them.

SCA youth crews take place twice a year: during the school year, where they work one Saturday a month from December to May, and during the summer, where they work five days a week from July to August.

“No crew member has had any prior experience or familiarity with GIS before starting — not even knowing what the acronym stands for,” says Hannah Ormshaw, senior GIS intern with San Mateo County Parks . “By the end, I would say that they have a basic understanding of GIS – more familiarity with data acquisition, but some familiarity with the use of ArcMap.”

The Bay Area GIS SCA crews are the first in the country to be using GIS as the focus of their conservation service, Ormshaw says. In the future, she says she can see SCA youth crews in many more locations using GIS technology to help collect spatial data for agencies that manage park land, open spaces and urban green spaces.

“From personal experience, and from my understanding of the local school system, there is very little to no inclusion of GIS in the high school curriculum. However, it is a very valuable skill to have and there is a lot of applicability to a huge variety of industries, which could be put to use even if the youth don’t pursue a green career path,” she says.

Support for Young Geospatial Professionals

Geospatial outreach does not and should not be limited to those outside of the profession. The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) highlights the importance of supporting and engaging those who are officially part of the geospatial community as well. While the group, which largely consists of GIS managers and project managers, is not currently involved in youth outreach, it is involved in young professional outreach.

Its Vanguard Cabinet (VC) is an advisory board made up of passionate, young geospatial professionals who strive to engage young practitioners, increase their numbers in the organization, and better understand the concerns facing future leaders of the geospatial community. The VC's mission is to collaborate with URISA’s board of directors and committees to create programs and policies beneficial to young professionals, and to enhance overall innovation, collaboration, networking and professional development opportunities.

URISA members who are age 35 and under are encouraged to apply for membership to the VC. Each year, five or six young professionals are selected by the Steering Committee and each serves a two-year term. In recognition of their service, each VC member is offered a free GIS-Pro conference registration during their term. Additionally, one VC member is selected as the URISA Young Professional of the Year and is awarded free tuition to the URISA Leadership Academy.

“Everyone needs this throughout their geospatial career, and through the VC URISA hopes to extend a hand to these emerging professionals at a time in their career when networking is a new concept and career paths might not be clear,” says Hilary Perkins, past president of URISA and co-founder of the Vanguard Cabinet.

The Vanguard Cabinet was established in 2011 to more actively engage young GIS professionals with the organization. URISA recognized that careers in GIS were changing as GIS became more and more ubiquitous. The VC serves to listen to the professional development and networking needs that are changing as the industry changes. The URISA Board of Directors actively solicits the opinion of young professionals and crafts policies and educational programs designed to serve their needs.

“Spatial is special,” Perkins says. “As GIS use spreads through virtually all industries, the fresh eyes and innovative thinking that young GIS professionals bring can be brought to bear on the entire industry, leading to advancement and deeper knowledge for even us well-established GIS professionals.”