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Analysis of certified professionals helps improve SDSU’s GIS program

Li, left, and student viewing computer screen
Assistant professor of geographic information science Dapeng Li, left, works with students in the laboratory prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is lead author on the first study to map the distribution of the certified GIS professionals in the United States.

A study on the certified geographic information systems professionals is helping the South Dakota State University Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences prepare its students to enter the workforce.

“This is the first study that maps the distribution of the certified GISPs in the United States,” said assistant professor Dapeng Li, who is the lead author on the open-access article that describes the findings in the International Journal of Geo-Information. “This is useful information for students searching for jobs. The information is also valuable to professionals, educators and employers in the geospatial industry.”

The analysis examined the characteristics and geographical distribution of nearly 9,200 professionals who obtained GISP certification through the GIS Certification Institute. This nonprofit organization promotes the profession by setting professional and ethical standards, promoting community engagement and providing professional mentoring within the industry.

“Skills in geospatial sciences can also benefit students in other majors such as agriculture, data science, natural resource management and computer science,” Li explained. “At SDSU, our strength is in agriculture, so integrating GIS courses into our agricultural programs, particularly precision agriculture, will give our students an advantage in the marketplace.”

GIS analyst, developer specializations

Of those earning the professional certification, more than 40% described their roles as managerial. Of those who described their jobs as nonmanagerial, 68% are GIS analysts, while only 7% are GIS software developers.

These statistics support SDSU’s GIS program changes. The department has added three new courses—spatial databases, Web GIS and GIS programming to our GIS curriculum, according to department head Bob Watrel. Furthermore, the GIS curriculum now has a specialization for those who want to focus on data analysis and another for those who want to develop GIS software.

Li said the voluntary certification program will benefit geospatial professionals. GIS programs nationwide provide a wide range of skillsets because the system is decentralized, he explained. “Every program is different, which is why certification is very important.”

Distribution of GIS professionals

Jobs for geospatial professionals are concentrated in urban areas, with less than 3% of the jobs in rural areas, Li noted. Furthermore, women are underrepresented—75% of the certified GIS professionals are men. “This is also the first study to examine gender among geospatial professionals,” he added.

Nationwide, the largest number of certified GISPs work in Florida, followed by California and then Texas. In the Midwest, North Dakota and Wisconsin have the highest number of certified GIS professionals per 10,000 people.

In South Dakota, one of the largest employers of geospatial professionals is the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resource Observation and Science Center, northeast of Sioux Falls. However, most of the SDSU alumni who work at EROS have earned master’s degrees or doctorates, Li noted.

The insights gained through this study will help “bridge the education-workforce divide and help improve our program based on a better understanding of the market,” Li said.