In the early years, only government map makers and urban planners were familiar with geographic information systems, or GIS. But with the evolution of modern computing, private sector companies began unleashing its powerful capabilities, creating a host of new career opportunities for IT professionals.
Now retailers are using GIS to conduct geospatial data analysis before selecting locations for new stores. The media relies on GIS mapping technology to keep the public informed about street closures and traffic snarls. A recovering economy, along with a projected shortage of trained professionals, will encourage employers to embrace career changers, while experienced GIS professionals enjoy boundless opportunities.There are more than 300 openings for GIS professionals on Dice, including programmers, developers and analysts. So heed these tips to plot a course to a new career in GIS.
Developers or programmers with C++, .NET or Java experience and geospatial aptitude can easily transition to GIS along with DBAs, project managers and data analysts. If you can visualize objects in space or were a star pupil in geography class, you probably possess the innate skills to succeed. If you’re not sure whether GIS is right for you, software manufacturer ESRI offers risk-free opportunities to test your abilities. You can create maps on the company Web site or enter the annual mashup challenge for budding GIS enthusiasts. Winners earn cash and perhaps a new career, because the company uses the contest to identify emerging talent according to ESRI staffing manager Jason Otero.
Pitch an Idea
If your company hasn’t discovered the benefits of GIS, take the initiative and identify a business problem along with a GIS solution. In turn, your grateful employer may offer to pay for your certification. Ultimately you’ll be able to market your newly acquired expertise to others. Can’t think of an idea? Network with members of the GIS community or join a local users group to uncover transferrable solutions from similar industries
“Some positions require experience, but we’re open to talking to IT professionals who understand algorithms and want to learn GIS,” says Tarun Diwan, technology recruiter for TeleNav a developer of mobile GPS apps based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
You stand the best chance of transitioning to a GIS role by proactively contacting employers to express interest. Even if your efforts don’t yield an immediate offer, employers will turn first to known candidates when the time is right. Proposed smart grid conversions and a need for environmental mapping has power companies worried about future shortages of GIS professionals, according to Linda Welsh, president and CEO of C3G, a consulting and recruiting firm based in Long Beach, Calif. She says the utilities plan to narrow the gap by training technology professionals.
“Many companies prefer to hire candidates with GIS experience simply because they are available right now,” says Welsh. “But they plan to meet future shortfalls by training candidates with technology experience and geospatial aptitude. GIS careers are open to mid-career job changers, who possess the basic skills and a desire to enter the field.”
Responding to posted openings without the required experience is a long shot, according to Jonas Schwartz, a recruiter with TenTek, Inc., a technical staffing firm based in Glendale, Calif. Schwartz says employers are unwilling to take risks and hire novices, especially when they are paying for a recruiter, so candidates will be best served by going solo.
Get an Education
Traditionally, technology professionals earn certifications to transition to a new career. Fortunately, there are many remote and classroom GIS courses to choose from including those offered through university extension programs. But if you can swing it, undergrad or graduate courses offer the added benefit of exposure to the root discipline as well as the technology.
GIS skills can propel career changers into new fields like marketing, landscape architecture, scientific investigations, environmental impact or even archaeology. But college students are keenly aware of the need for GIS knowledge making it difficult to get classes during the regular school year according to George Marinos, a programmer and analyst for the GIS Center at UC Berkeley. Marinos foresees a time when GIS could be a major or minor at the university, given its recent rise, and he says that less-crowded summer programs are a good alternative.
‘There are many benefits to enrolling in a university program, because the technology is frequently taught across a cross-disciplined curriculum,” says Marinos. “The students not only see how the technology is used, they gain exposure to the diverse industries utilizing GIS and have the opportunity to make important contacts in the field.”
— Leslie Stevens-Huffman