GIS Career and Technical Education: Quo vadis?

04-08-2021 10:00 AM
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Esri Regular Contributor
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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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New Contributor

I polled my Senior high school students during our class time just now with your question. They unanimously stated "No, a college degree is not needed."  However, many of them indicated that a certification or training would be helpful to properly develop the skills in GIS and provide further opportunity for GIS application. 

My Senior class is 28 students who have been using GIS in our classroom for the past four years, throughout their high school experience.  While most are college-bound, some are heading to trade programs in the Fall.  All have been impacted by virtual and hybrid learning this year with COVID, and student adaptation amid change has been amazing.  Our use of GIS in our classroom has greatly enhanced our learning experiences this year, despite COVID.  

New Contributor II


First, I am not offended by your questions. They are important for the future of higher education.

Most students at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, are part-time, non-traditional students with specific career goals. Based on the recommendations of our local Geography Program Advisory Board, and discussions with graduates over the years, our geography GIS curriculum has become much more applied and much more interdisciplinary. For example, the 2021-2022 GEOG BS degree plan will require not only geography/GIS courses but also digital media courses (i.e. web publishing, web app development) Information Technology courses (i.e. network administration, cyber security) and specialized geospatial technology courses offered through the Environmental Science program. In addition, ALL geography courses require the use of ArcGIS Online and/or ArcGIS Pro and many require completion of ESRI training courses. Most students add internship experience to their degree plans.

While I continue to believe that earning a BS gives young professionals a more solid career foundation than a high school diploma with CTE , the structure of BS degrees must reflect the changing nature of the 21st century workplace and be flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of backgrounds and aspirations.

Esri Contributor

@JeffreyLash- I have been really interested in the shifting nature of GIS curriculum and education in higher ed, specifically to meet the needs of graduates that are looking to enter into the job market. The focus on digital media in your program looks like a great way to reinforce this. Thanks a lot for sharing.

New Contributor III

A CTE GIS program gives students a competitive edge. For those who do internships, I have seen them employed right out of high school. For students who have aspirations other than a GIS specific job, GIS is an added skill that makes them a more valuable employee in just about any of the 15 industry sectors. When students write about their GIS projects on a college application, its something that sets them apart, and colleges take notice. When Princeton interviewed one of my students, it was her GIS experience that they were most interested in. Completing a CTE GIS program opens doors to a wide range of opportunities. 

Many employers have higher education requirements for employment, and/or the pay scale is reflective of the education level attained by the candidate. One option for GIS students could be to go straight into the workforce, then do an evening or online degree program to further their education and skill level. There are even employers out there that will pay for their employee's education. Having a certificate or degree in GIS does pull more weight when initially applying for the job initially, whether it's required or not. This is where internships are most helpful.

Esri Regular Contributor

Ali, Jeff, Dom.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspectives!  I think your comments help describe the diverse tapestry that represents the induction period into a GIS career.

I hope others will comment about what they see, especially in their local, early-career GIS job market.




New Contributor

Thanks Tom for bringing a spotlight to this ongoing discussion via this platform. Having worked closely with high school students doing GIS over the past few years, from my perspective, there is merit in both the "traditional" college path and the certification pathways that are emerging around the U.S. right now. It boils down, in my opinion, to what each individual really wants to contribute to the profession.

You mentioned a former student of mine in your post, so I will start there. In his case, his interests in becoming a geophysicist had me strongly encouraging him to pursue a "traditional" pathway at university. His high school internship experiences allowed him to step right into the university's GIS department for additional learning opportunities there.

On the other hand, one of our visions for our high school internship program is to train workers who will stay local, continue with the local government, and "move up the ladder" there. For example, our current county planner see the light at the end of the tunnel and hopes to be able to train the folks that will be stepping into his roles when he retires. A certification pathway allows those individuals to work their way up through that system, without having to leave the community to pursue a degree at university.

We also must be mindful of the intangibles of a college experience. Many folks develop leadership and problem solving skills when they first "leave the nest" and are somewhat self-sufficient for the first time. An experience that sometimes cannot be replicated easily when you are working an entry level job with a supervisor telling you what to do. Again, what is best is not universal. Each person must decide what is best for them.

These are not the sorts of things that high schoolers spend their days thinking about. We as the mentors and role models for these students need to continue to keep our pulse on the directions that industry is heading so that we are providing up-to-the-minute advise to our children, not just a view of "when I was your age". 

New Contributor

Students in the GIS program in Columbia, Missouri have an opportunity most students do not have, gaining knowledge and experience in the GIS field.  The program is a three-year program where the last year students are placed in an internship position within a GIS department.  The valuable experience they gain by working with other GIS professionals provides another line on their resume but also an individual they can use as a reference.

This past year our program like most was moved to the virtual environment, success was enabled by technology such as internet connectivity, Zoom, and ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS online software.  Each of these were an integral part and without all of them the program could not have been completed with high level of learning.

Student are expected to produce high levels of work by second and third year. My students continue on to high education with a few going into the military using their GIS skills.  Many reports the course work they are required to take in college is a review of what they have learned in high school.  Our program has dual credit with the University of Missouri and Missouri State, so they do earn college credit for the classes they take in high school.

Certification of a program is a piece a paper and many times is produced by companies trying to find a niche for profit.  Providing a portfolio of your work should show an employer what you are capable.  The more rounded an employee is makes them a more desirable candidate for the position.  Focusing only on one knowledge set or skill will leave you in the unemployment line.  Students should double and triple on the skill set.  Students in my program are encouraged to add tools such as computer networking and hardware, programming, web design, communications and several more.  Our students have the opportunities many schools cannot provide or afford.  I am proud to say every student who is gone through this program is working in a GIS field.  They started way ahead of their peers because of this program and this made the difference in where they are today.

New Contributor II

In my area there is a high demand for technical jobs in general, and there has been a big shift to certificates for almost all skillsets in our local aircraft industry. This is because it was demanded by employers who had a hard time finding workers who met the traditional degree requirements, and they realized they could tart with basic knowledge, and then advance from there while working. Maybe the GIS sector is behind a bit in catching up to this. Here, our bigger high schools are slowly becoming community colleges and tech schools. 

It would be interesting to see what those that hire for GIS actually look for most of all, and how much they are willing negotiate in terms of experience and education. I know several workers who moved into GIS from other fields within the same employer and their training was only ESRI certifications or online free training. As far as my students at our school, we don't have a large enough CTE GIS program, I don't think, to help them qualify for entry level jobs, for the same reasons you have mentioned. Some of the other tech skills should be woven in more, like the coding side, and also some sort of internship experience would really help be marketable. Given these things, I think it is very likely some places might consider a recent graduate for an entry level GIS Tech position.