GIS Career and Technical Education: Quo vadis?

04-08-2021 10:00 AM
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mike-swigunski-eerX672K-9k-unsplash.jpgAt the risk of offending many, do I dare ask, “Does a student really need a bachelor’s degree to enter the field of GIS”?  Is a bachelors, associates, or a slew of tech certs enough?  Will it be that way tomorrow – or by the time your students are job hunting? Can a CTE GIS education get a student an entry level position in GIS?


College enrollment is declining

Recently, Education Week reports that 2020 college enrollment is down 6.8% in the United States.  Now before you think, “Yeah, but that’s all COVID-related” a downward trend in enrollment was expected, before COVID-19 became a pandemic.  That is to say, education experts were predicting a decline in college enrollment, largely due to cost.  The Education Week article also describes how the current trend is disproportionately affecting poor and minority students.  To be fair, COVID has at least accelerated this downward trend – that might have otherwise taken several years to be realized. 

This decline doesn’t really address two other intervening challenges: the lack of undergraduate enrollment  in geography programs and the consolidation of US colleges, generally. With learning technologies advancing and tuition costs skyrocketing, college education is changing, and universities are closing. Experts have predicted a decline in the number of universities – especially those smaller, private, liberal arts colleges. 


A trend toward tech training or certs

We’ve witnessed the growth and specialization of GIS degree and certificate programs – face-to-face and online. We’ve seen a rapid growth of competitive virtual learning systems, arguably led by MOOCs.  Now we are seeing a tech education trend that amounts to ‘just-in-time’ learning with a program from Google and Coursera, Grow with Google.  The messaging seems to be don’t spend your time or money at college; get a tech cert and get a job now – then get another tech cert to advance.  This model seems to align well to traditional tech-based CTE preparation programs.

There’s not really a “Grow with Google” (today) for GIS.  However, one could string together a proper learning plan with Esri Training, Esri Press books, and certifications. Couldn’t they?  High school CTE teachers should ask the question. Responses will vary, depending on many factors including geography and the role of the person you’re asking.  Call your local GIS offices and talk to their HR staff.


Ground truthing: A few entry-level jobs

There may be an interesting, developing trend away from college-based, technology education. Tech fields seem particularly vulnerable to paradigm-shifting e-learning tools and techniques.  But what does “reality” look like today in the entry-level GIS technician/analyst/specialist job?  I sampled a over a dozen local, entry-level positions. Here’s what I found.

I reviewed entry-level GIS jobs (in a Midwest city) listed by: a local water company, a national telephone company, county GIS offices, city offices, and consulting firms.  Of the organizations, one (a rural county GIS office) did not require a bachelor’s degree but still expected experience with ArcGIS.  All others required a BA/BS in GIS or a related field.  Several listings required some experience with AutoCAD and SAP.  Clearly, at this time, what appears to be a larger educational trend doesn’t seem to be aligning well with reality in GIS hiring.  Did I mention that EVERY position I saw required strong familiarity with ArcGIS, including ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Pro, and in many cases Portal (ArcGIS Enterprise)?

Here is an example of minimum required qualifications for a “Junior GIS Specialist”:

  • DOD Secret Clearance
  • Bachelor's Degree from accredited University or College
  • Knowledge or Experience with the following:
    • ESRI ArcGIS
    • ESRI Portal for ArcGIS
    • Operating Systems (Windows Server)
    • Internet Information Services (IIS)
    • Citrix Xen Desktop

How many recent college graduates could meet these requirements?  Forget about the secret clearance.  Can your college graduates meet the rest of the requirements?  Now, how close can a GIS CTE student get – and can one or more technical certifications bridge the gap?  See the case of Donovan Vitale, a high school student who went directly to working for his country GIS office.


Final notes

It struck me that the minimum requirements of most of the entry-level GIS jobs included knowledge of specific GIS and non-GIS technologies. It seems likely that regardless of how a college messages a degree in GIS, companies are looking for serious technical skill sets in entry-level positions.  Does this too present a vulnerability that will contribute to changes in the college GIS landscape in the coming decade?  Do CTE programs offer enough technical education while providing support for those requisite “soft skills”? Of course, this doesn’t have to be an A or B decision.  Maybe the question is, “Can a GIS CTE education be enough to make students competitive for entry level GIS positions? “


What do you think?



Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash
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About the Author
Geospatial technologies in K-12, higher education, teacher education, and informal learning. Esri Education Team