Over the past few decades, improvements in computer technology, information processing, and automated mapping have led to the creation of new and rapidly growing occupations focused on the development, use, and management of geographic visualization and analysis tools, data, and procedures. Geographic information systems (GIS) are at the foundation of a series of geospatial technologies, which also include remote sensing (RS) and global positioning systems (GPS).
Measuring and mapping the Earth's surface are the responsibilities of several different types of workers. For example, cartographers compile geographic, political, and cultural information and prepare maps of large areas. Photogrammetrists measure and analyze aerial photographs to prepare detailed maps and drawings. Surveying technicians assist land surveyors by operating survey instruments and collecting information in the field, and by performing computations and computer-aided drafting in offices. Mapping technicians -- including GIS technicians, which a GIS manager supervises, create geographic data from field observations and use GIS software to visualize and analyze various issues and problems. Regardless of which niche these workers inhabit all are geographically literate and have strong geographic skills.
Being geographically literate means much more than just knowing a range of geographic facts. Key geographic skills include not only being able to answer the question where -- but also why, how, who, and what. For instance, where do we locate the new branch library? Why is this area better than that one? How do various demographic factors come into play? Who are the users of current branches? What should be the service area boundary for the new site? And inside each question are others focusing on patterns, relationships, and interactions.
Learn more about geography and geographic career opportunities at the careers site of the Association of American Geographers.
GIS has become an integral tool for all geographic professionals. Workers use GIS to assemble, integrate, analyze, and display data about location in a digital format. They also use GIS to compile information from a variety of sources. GIS typically is used to make maps which combine information useful for environmental studies, geology, engineering, planning, business marketing, and other disciplines. As more of these systems are developed, many mapping specialists (or GIS technicians) are being called geographic information specialists.
GIS managers, technologists, technicians, and other related positions operate computer hardware and specialized software in order to visualize and analyze interrelated layers of geospatial data (information about the world around us represented by points, lines, polygons, and images). They employ spatial thinking processes; they see the world and all that is in it through geographic eyes. Driving their work are geographic questions just like those noted earlier.
Many GIS specialists serve the geographic research needs of a wide range of people, such as across city government departments -- planning, fire, police, economic development, public works, etc. (To learn more, visit Careers in GIS.)
The majority of people using GIS do so as only part of their chosen field. (To see examples of GIS use in many fields, visit the Esri Map Book Gallery.) This means that GIS represents a core and widespread technology and a way of doing spatial research in fields as widely varied as market research, epidemiology, forestry, transportation planning, archeology, public safety, real estate, and geology, to name just a few.
Some surveyors perform specialized functions closer to those of cartographers and photogrammetrists than to those of traditional surveyors. For example, geodetic surveyors use high-accuracy techniques, including satellite observations, to measure large areas of the Earth's surface. Geophysical prospecting surveyors mark sites for subsurface exploration, usually to look for petroleum. Marine or hydrographic surveyors survey harbors, rivers, and other bodies of water to determine shorelines, the topography of the bottom, water depth, and other features.
Photogrammetrists and cartographers measure, map, and chart the Earth's surface. Their work involves everything from performing geographical research and compiling data to producing maps. They collect, analyze, and interpret both spatial data -- such as latitude, longitude, elevation, and distance -- and nonspatial data -- for example, population density, land-use patterns, annual precipitation levels, and demographic characteristics. Their maps may give both physical and social characteristics of the land. They prepare maps in either digital or graphic form, using information provided by geodetic surveys and remote sensing systems including aerial cameras, satellites, and special laser-based tools.
Cartographers, photogrammetrists, and GIS specialists spend most of their time in offices using computers. However, certain jobs may require extensive field work to verify results and acquire data.
Some information provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Education and training. Those interested in becoming GIS and mapping professionals should take geography, computer science, information technology, and a range of mathematics courses while in high school.
The rapid rise in the use of GIS and other geospatial technologies has prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to create specific geospatial occupation titles and a Geospatial Technology Competency Model. From these descriptions and model components, it is clear that persons interested in these careers should plan on at least an associate degree or a certificate from a postsecondary geospatial program for entry level technician positions. However, placement as a Geospatial Information Scientist/Technologist or job advancement will require a bachelor or possibly a graduate degree. Collegiate GIS and geospatial programs are found in a variety of academic subject areas with geography, natural resources, and IT among the top choices.
In the past, many people with little formal surveying training started as members of field crews and worked their way up to become licensed surveyors, but this has become increasingly difficult to do. Now, most surveyors need a bachelor's degree. A number of universities offer bachelor's degree programs in surveying, and many community colleges, technical institutes, and vocational schools offer 1-, 2-, and 3-year programs in surveying or surveying technology.
Cartographers and photogrammetrists usually have a bachelor's degree in cartography, geography, surveying, engineering, forestry, computer science, or a physical science, although a few enter these positions after working as technicians. With the development of GIS, cartographers and photogrammetrists need more education and stronger technical skills -- including more experience with computers -- than in the past.
Most cartographic and photogrammetric technicians also have specialized postsecondary education. High school students interested in surveying and cartography should take courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, drafting, mechanical drawing, and computer science.
Certification and licensure. In the early 2000s, a formal GIS certification program was established via the GIS Certification Institute. Participation is voluntary however its importance increases as GIS careers increase and as the expectations associated with job applicants do likewise. Esri has put in place a technical certification program to recognize individuals proficient in the use of Esri GIS software. It too is voluntary but its importance increases for persons wishing to advance in the GIS workforce and is typically associated with persons already in the workforce. For those in high school or starting in a postsecondary college or technical school program, other geospatial certification programs exist through Digital Quest, an Esri partner.
All 50 States and all U.S. territories license surveyors. For licensure, most State licensing boards require that individuals pass a written examination given by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Most States also require surveyors to pass a written examination prepared by the State licensing board. Specific requirements for training and education vary among the States. An increasing number of States require a bachelor's degree in surveying or in a closely related field, such as civil engineering or forestry, regardless of the number of years of experience. Some States require the degree to be from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Many States also have a continuing education requirement.
The National Society of Professional Surveyors, a member organization of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, has a voluntary certification program for surveying technicians. Technicians are certified at four levels requiring progressive amounts of experience and the passing of written examinations. Although not required for State licensure, many employers require certification for promotion to positions with greater responsibilities.
The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing has voluntary certification programs for technicians and professionals in photogrammetry, remote sensing, and GIS. To qualify for these professional distinctions, individuals must meet work experience and training standards and pass a written examination. The professional recognition provided by these certifications can help workers gain promotions.
Other qualifications. Members of a geospatial field crew or a survey party must be in good physical condition because they work outdoors and often carry equipment over difficult terrain. They need good eyesight, coordination, and hearing to communicate. Surveying or other field work is a cooperative operation, so good interpersonal skills and the ability to work as part of a team is important.