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GIS Specialists not so special anymore

As a former GIS specialist who has transitioned to a new career as a software developer I have a story to tell about the changing nature of starting and maintaining a GIS career in a sector that thrives on making GIS accessible to everyone.

GIS used to be harder to master when you had to understand datums and projections. Now, with GIS software doing everything for you except the analysis (AI is coming for that as well) I’m not sure that a GIS career is all that it once was cracked up to be. It’s certainly not the road to job security and property it used to be, judging by stories the old timers talk about. 

When GIS becomes easy, GIS specialists become a dime a dozen

Seasoned industry veterans such as Todd Bar have seen this coming for some time. Industry leaders like ESRI or FOSS4G (an organization which promotes and supports open-source geospatial software) improve their already career-disruptive software to lower the barrier of entry into the geomatics sector. GIS and map-making are easy now; look no further than ArcGIS, which has become the WordPerfect of map-making. Just fire up the software, start dragging and dropping in data, a little symbology and a north arrow, and there you go: A map suitable for publication. 

With so many programs both at the college and university level pumping out post-grad certificates and Masters of Spatial Analysis, it shouldn’t be shocking to find that your first job may only earn you a handful of dollars more an hour than the minimum wage. As well, there are plenty of new online programs to take.

In the geospatial industry, you’ll find many talented individuals who are content to offer a discount for their work. If this is your desire, go with grace. But if you want to make more money while working adjacent to this industry, there are ways out.

As someone who used to compete and struggle for a GIS job I can tell you that in major metropolitan areas, the competition for a GIS job was fierce a decade ago. I have seen qualified analysts spend 1-2 years looking for their next GIS job – a demoralizing prospect if there ever was one! Now it can be as bad or worse.

Spatial is no longer special enough to merit its own career path. But that doesn’t prevent you from being spatial in your own industry. In Canada, these are a handful of industries where there is demand that lies adjacent to analysis or working with maps.

Changing a Career to Software Development Focus

After running into the issue of too much competition and declining wages in my chosen geospatial career path, I made a switch to software development in 2016. I can safely say that my prospects, pay and life satisfaction improved qualitatively and quantitatively. There are not enough software developers who can do the math, map and refactor.

There are many paths to success in software development. In 2014, I saw this truth after I graduated from university and persuaded a student I knew in his second year to move from Geographic Analysis at the University of Ottawa to Computer Science with a GIS minor. Between co-op jobs and work afterwards, he has never looked back. There is lots of work and lots of demand for his skills. A life saved from destitution.

Data Science is In-Demand 

There are many opportunities for those who want to blend data and analysis. If you loved your spatial analysis course, math and statistics, or your first-year labs at university, data science might be up your alley. Data science is the set of techniques used to gain insight from data; lots and lots of data. A GIS background has already partially set you up for this: you have the basics of database manipulation, the beginning of solid data visualization, domain expertise in geography, the ability to use R and Python, and some statistics as well as the scientific method. But there is a ladder you’d have to climb to make it to the top. The ability to figure hard things out and the ability to be comfortable with math are critical to success in this path. If you have these traits, a lot of good can follow. 

Data science is a multidisciplinary blend of data inference, algorithmm development, and technology in order to solve analytically complex problems.

Can you Handle Environmental Assessment and Field Work?

The lessons you learned in spatial analysis, geography and biology are still in demand. So is field surveying. But as Canada is still primarily a resource-based economy, the good jobs are not in the city and they will keep you away from home for long periods of time. But they are fun jobs and likely the nicest and most light-hearted job sites you will find yourself in, if you can put up with the occasional bit of discomfort, the 7am daily safety briefings, and the 12-hour, multi-week shifts. You’re young, and the money is going to be better than sticking it out in the city. 

Graphic Design Might be for those Cartographers out there

If you are fond of designing the best posters and maps and have a joy for typography or colour theory, this is an industry that you may want to investigate. Like the industry you’re coming from, there have been dramatic shifts: We don’t print as many reports, papers, flyers or banners as we used to. But we still require our applications to be well-designed, and we still need the packaging to call out to our souls. The money isn’t as good as the other trades, but eventually you may find yourself at home producing beauty. 

If you’ve got the entrepreneurial spirit, you’ll might find that there is promise in this career as it will help you practice the very techniques and tools that help build beautiful maps. But for the same reasons GIS analysis jobs come with fierce competition, you may find the pay and the difficulty of getting the interview for your first slot is as difficult as that of an analyst.  

During a co-op job in university, I was lucky enough to befriend a near-retired cartographer. He was able to navigate change and keep his career together by being an early adopter of spatial technologies and finding a niche where his skills were in demand, but his story is becoming too rare. More common at various meetups are those of mid-career button-pressers who got laid off and found themselves unemployable. Why should this be a surprise? They spent their life on one specialty that is no longer desired as an ends in itself 

18 comments on "GIS Specialists not so special anymore"

  1. margarets says:

    So everyone is these programs is just wasting their time then:

    https://gogeomatics.ca/the-best-gis-education-programs-in-the-world-are-in-canada/

    1. Not everyone. But if you’re not in the top third of your class, if you’re not in one of the best programs in Canada, and if you can’t get a co-op placement or internship with solid future prospects, then the seas may be quite stormy for you in the near future. The good news is that you still can do things adjacent to your passions, and get to take advantage of the core principles, algorithms and logic you’ve learned in your studies and put them towards this brave new world if you’ve got the wit to take your destiny outside the cookie-cutter.

      If you’re not absolutely sure that this is the path you want to go down, I wouldn’t recommend it.

      1. margarets says:

        LOL dude everyone reading this has already done their GIS course. And if GIS education is still so applicable to so many fields with great prospects, why NOT do it? You’re arguing against yourself.

  2. m_ouellette says:

    I couldn’t agree more. After my B.Sc. in environmental geography, I drop my M.Sc. program after two months and I enrolled in a14 months-intensive techical program in Computer science and Internet technologies. Back then none of my geography collegues understood my choice but I absolutely did the right move for my career.

    I would also add that the same thing is happening to the remote sensing field. Although that M.Sc. and Ph.D students are numerous in Geography and Environmental studies departments, I’m afraid that they won’t have many job opportunities, especially if their project involve using existing software package instead on foccussing on algorithm development.

    The truth is that computer vision specialists are much more competent and competitive in the current (and future) job market than traditional graduates in remote sensing. In the NewSpace era, with small sats constellations producing imagery at an higher rate than ever, what those new businesses need are people who can code and know computer vision, machine learning and deep learning. Producing motion imagery (a.k.a “full-motion video”) will also get more and more common with small sats, high-altitude platforms and drones. Who is more skilled at exploiting this emerging type of imagery? My bet is on the video programmer.

  3. Jon Paul says:

    Software companies like ESRI have a lot to do with this …

    1. They do, but I can’t blame ESRI for thinning out GIS Specialists the same way I can’t blame Microsoft for Word for destroying the market for word processor specialists. It’s a good thing for a business to reach out and build software in support of more nontraditional audiences in a way that doesn’t require specialized training, especially in areas such as Geology or Business Analysis. Maximizing the value of the work of their legions of 1st-grade software developers, and making geospatial accessible to anyone is a task that should be celebrated. A shame about us, but we can adapt!

  4. Jon Murphy says:

    Thanks Brian for your interesting and thought provoking article.

    The GoGeomatics website is a platform for topics about and surrounding the geospatial sector in Canada and abroad. As the editor and publisher I encourage debate and discussion online and within our 15 groups across Canada. We’re not always going to agree. We don’t have to, but it is important that we listen to each other and have a place like this magazine where we can talk ideas and opinions.

    The strongest sectors and communities encourage discussion. I’m proud of the fact that we (and by that I mean you the readers and participants) have created a space where we can discuss topics important to us. When we hunker down in our individual silos is when we start to lose the plot. I encourage everyone to keep an open mind. Debate your points and be respectful. So again – Brian thank you for taking the time and making the effort to write an opinion piece like this. I know how much work they can be.

  5. Nathan says:

    Unfortunately this article is very incorrect. The job market in the big cities is tough (in general), but once you apply outside of the major cities opportunities are in abundance. Even applying for positions outside of Canada is in abundance. It has more to do with the Canadian economy and the general low tech wages rather than the GIS profession.

    1. OO says:

      This is not true. I live in West Kootenays (in a small town) and finding a job here is difficult, especially if you are a fresh professional. Most of the jobs asked more than 2 years of experience. Also finding a coop job here is challenging. You could find a coop for 3 months, maximum 6, after that you are unemployed. I have some classmates working as cashiers, or other jobs not related with GIS. Right now I am also unemployed. It is frustating, and yes, I am also studying programming by my own.

      1. margarets says:

        Yes, I find the comments here very contradictory. Is there a demand for these skills or not? If there is demand, where? Which companies, which locations? Something is not adding up here.

        1. Jon Murphy says:

          Hi Margaret, Thanks for your comment. I would love to do an industry study that looks at the market supply and demand side of geospatial graduates from college and university programs across Canada. If anybody wants to fund GoGeomatics to do that get in touch.
          The closest thing we have to a study I have found (let me know if you have other sources)is the Canadian Geomatics Environmental Scan and Value Study. But the focus of that study was not on human resources and much of the data was also collected through interviews and not a broad industry survey. Great study but questions remain. Here is a link http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/geomatics/canadas-spatial-data-infrastructure/cgdi-initiatives/canadian-geomatics
          This study was published in 2015 but I believe it took over a year to actually get published so the data is from at least 2013. So a little dated and pre 2015 oil crash. The oil crash really put a dent in the jobs situation in Canada and for those geospatial folks specifically in Alberta. Oil is coming back though.

          Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Facts are in short supply in the broader context of the state of employment for new graduates in the Canadian Geospatial sector. Some individual programs do track what happens to graduates after they leave but not all do. GoGeomatics could do a Survey Monkey Poll but that is just a survey of those who participate to see how they feel about the jobs situation. However to get at some real numbers we would need to contact all the schools graduating people and follow up with the students for the last 3 years as to where they are working and what they are doing. A salary survey would help as well.

          1. Jung says:

            I think URISA has released their 2017 GIS Salary Survey. While it is mostly US-based, there is some information specific to Canada, which may offer some insight.

  6. Aniekan Ekaette says:

    I believe there’s some truth to the changing landscape of the GIS Profession. Certainly thought provoking. Advancements in technology are making tasks easier and more accessible. In any industry, it’s important to give some thought to how ones skills fits in. Good article.

  7. Linda says:

    I agree! I am a big advocate of geographic thinking but the future of geospatial technology is not in big GIS back office systems. Geospatial capabilities will be part of all relevant systems. GIS professionals can help drive this future by getting involved in these new areas including big data, A/I, etc but also in geospatial data science.

  8. Wayne Condon says:

    I agree with the article in some respects. As a Professional Biologist, I have noticed recently that there are a lot more biologist positions requiring GIS skills. So just being a GIS specialist isn’t as popular in the labour market lately. It’s when someone combines GIS with another specialty that job opportunities are more abundant. I think this shows that GIS is viewed as a tool that should be in everyone’s tool box, whether they’re a biologist, computer scientist, anthropologist, urban planner, hydrologist, epidemiologist or engineer. I guess, in a sense that GIS has become mainstream so that GIS Specialists are no longer required as single discipline experts, rather they require dual specialization to have better job prospects and find rewarding careers.

  9. Jack says:

    Sorry but I don’t know ANY GIS people who expected to sit and make simple maps all day for 40 years. I don’t know any GIS people who refuse to consider other job titles or industries where their skills may be useful. They all have other knowledge from their studies or experience in various industries. They all have different strengths both in and outside of GIS. Some know a lot about databases, others a lot about statistics, and so on. All the GIS programs I know of provide training in more areas than simple map-making.

    I see job postings for “GIS Specialists”, so that is still a thing, and they are all different and all require more skills than simple map-making. As for the jobs where GIS is a small part, the GIS work is fairly basic. That’s fine if basic skills get the job done, but some tasks *require* more advanced and specialized GIS knowledge. That’s where GIS specialists are needed. I know people who have been employed as GIS Specialists for years, so it worked out for them.

    This article is proposing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. GIS people DO learn a variety of skills and they DO consider all their options.

    GIS skills may be over-supplied in the job market at the moment, but that is an issue across many industries, including the alternatives mentioned here.

  10. Claus Rinner says:

    With all due respect, Brian, I think you missed the mark by a long stretch. The graduates of our “GIS programs” at Ryerson – BA in Geographic Analysis and MSA in Spatial Analysis – are generally finding analyst positions upon graduation, or before graduation. Those include GIS Analysts, Retail Analysts, Market Research Analysts, Conservation Analysts, Health Analysts, Crime Analysts, etc. In other words, GIS specialists (in the broader sense) work across industries. I have never investigated starting salaries but I’ll venture a guess that $60k-$70k per year is not unusual. We are not “pumping out” grads, rather we have pushed back against industry demands to increase our class sizes in order to preserve the small-program qualities that we were able to maintain to this point. What you describe as new opportunities in data science, combining data and analysis, is what Ryerson Geography is teaching since several decades. Yes, we encourage our students to add coding to their skillset but not at the expense of their unique ability for geospatial thinking, interpretation, and translating data into decisions. Our GIS certificates aim to provide the same capacity to practitioners from non-spatial disciplines, again focusing not so much on technical GIS skills but rather the application of geospatial analysis within the students’ employment domains and across fields of application. We have no indication that there will be a shortage of GIS-related employment opportunities in the future. The main challenge we are facing is the lack of high school student interest in our undergraduate program – driven by unawareness of the need for MORE geospatial professionals in government and industry. Your article does a disservice to the regional economy and public administration in this respect, as we could be facing a shortage of qualified analysts.

  11. MicahWilli says:

    I’m a little late to the game here, but this article was already written…
    Almost 9 Years ago: http://www.donmeltz.com/gis-is-dead-long-live-gis/
    There is nothing new under the sun. Haters gonna hate & GIS Techs will continue to get paid.

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