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Spread thin, will GIS specialization diminish?

The “GIS Technician” job is not long for this world, though I had a difficult time finding published thoughts to support this theory. Given the proliferation of GIS within university programs for various professional and academic fields, reliance on a GIS technician isolated in an office separate from professional and field staff will diminish over the next decade for three reasons: GIS-related workload will increase faster than GIS-specific staff can be funded and hired; staff already familiar with GIS will be frustrated with having to request work from an overloaded GIS office; and geographical intelligence is too essential to decision making to keep it locked away.

Despite what I believe is an obvious need for ArcGIS to become as commonly deployed and used as Microsoft Access, if not Microsoft Word, GIS applications continue to present a steep learning curve to those unfamiliar. Devotion to formal cartography and accuracy and precision in data and process require a level of training beyond simply dabbling in GIS. Licensing costs for software are high, or licenses controlled by a GIS office. GIS professionals may have both deserved and unreasonable protective attitudes regarding their earned training, skills and status as the keepers of geographical data, its analysis and its cartographic output. How would the industry get beyond these barriers?

Gao and Wang (2020) mention one approach in their discussion about university librarians supporting the GIS needs of students and staff. While a GIS-trained librarian is for some schools a specialty occupation, funding priorities and staff turnover make this arrangement less than resilient. The authors describe meeting the need instead by having GIS training become more accessible to a wider group of librarians (who may already study Python coding as part of library science, perhaps giving them a leg up to get beyond basic GIS operations).

Gelfert (2019) outlines some of the more specialized roles that will continue to be done by GIS professionals. While that article does not acknowledge my main point of wider GIS accessibility, it does reinforce my point that additional specialization will be required for anyone hoping to remain in a GIS-specific role.

Yes, some “Data Entry Clerk” and “Word Processor” positions have survived mobile apps and RFID tags for data collection, the desktop computer and email for written communication, desktop databases and cloud-based reporting systems for data analysis. Yet most of the skills that formerly required special training have been rolled into the requirements or assumed skillset of other positions. These relics of a previous era may provide a steady income and good working environment but are not high-paying, nor do they offer much in the way of advancement opportunities absent higher-level information-technology training and experience. If my theory about the future of GIS is correct, the basic GIS technician role will be the same in the near future. This leaves the open two routes for persons with GIS training: Fit that ability into a job that was historically only a consumer of GIS product rather than a GIS user, or obtain the database-administration, coding or other higher-level IT training necessary to remain in a GIS-specific role when everyone else in the office is able to do the basics.

Jessup and Lenzi (2007) illustrate my point for my current industry: maintenance of county-road networks. Since that paper was written, the state agency at the root of their study has purchased a new asset-management system based on ArcGIS for maintenance of the official records of county roads throughout the state. The system is set for deployment in 2021 and will replace a dated, text-only database. The manager of that system at each of the state’s counties will be forced from a textual environment into a GIS-based environment, one more way in which GIS escapes isolation and pervades operations and management.

Perhaps a Microsoft Excel level of penetration of GIS software and skill across the workforce should be the goal. Some people cannot understand a formula but use a single worksheet to make something they need. Others understand just enough about how a spreadsheet is supposed to function to mess it all up, but at least they do it on their own machine and their own copy of the data. Some think they know a lot about it and end up creating something so complex it should be in a database, not a spreadsheet. Others can do robust analysis in multiple worksheets with complex formulae for which the spreadsheet is the best tool. Regardless, everyone has it on their desk.

Gao, W., & Wang, Y. (2020). The Provision and Sustainability of GIS Services: How an Academic Library without a GIS Specialist Provides GIS Services. International Journal of Librarianship, 5 (1), 53-60.

Gelfert, A. (2019, February 25). GIS Job Titles of the Future… Retrieved December 07, 2020, from

Jessup, E., & Lenzi, J. (2007, March). Washington State All-Weather Road GIS Mapping: Improving Statewide Freight Flows and Connectivity (Tech.). doi:10.22004/ag.econ.207827

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