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March 4th, 2011
Framing Geospatial Practice for Practitioner Development

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Davis_Phillip_thumbThe challenge of framing the geospatial skill set for training and education purposes has been an ongoing challenge. Recently, a detailed Geospatial Technology Competency Model has been developed by the NSF-funded GeoTech Center, in concert with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Matt Ball spoke with Phillip Davis, director of the GeoTech Center and professor of Information Technology at Del Mar College about this effort and its implications for GIS education.

Davis_PhillipThe challenge of framing the geospatial skill set for training and education purposes has been an ongoing challenge. Recently, a detailed Geospatial Technology Competency Model has been developed by the NSF-funded GeoTech Center, in concert with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Matt Ball spoke with Phillip Davis, director of the GeoTech Center and professor of Information Technology at Del Mar College about this effort and its implications for GIS education.

V1: Have you been working on the geospatial technology competency model for some time?

Davis: As a quick background, the GeoTech Center of which I am director, was formed in 2008, and funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) advanced technology education program with the purpose of creating projects at two-year community colleges. If you look at NSF in total, they have $5 billion per year, with 95% for fundamental research and 5% on improving education for technicians, which is where weserve. They have funded 37 Centers of Excellence around the country in different technologies, and we’re the one for geospatial technology. We are supposed to serve the two-year geospatial technology education, such as remote sensing, surveying and GIS.

I put together a group of two and four-year GIS educators nationwide to create the GeoTech Center We had our first annual review in February of 2009, where the chair of the advisory boart, Deidre Sullivan who is the director of the Marine Advanced Technology Centersuggested we approach the Dept. of Labor (DOL) about the GTCM. She knew that there had been previous attempts to complete the GTCM that were unable to reach resolution. Previous attempts became bogged down in the fundamental definition of the industry.

With the knowledge she challenged us (the GeoTech Center) to make a name for ourselves to help DOL complete the GTCM. With David DiBiase from Penn State University as one of the senior researchers, we approached the DOL, and received their endorsement for our methodology. Davidis one of the co-editors on the geospatial body of knowledge (BoK), with a research background going back 20 years in defining the geospatial industry.

V1: Can you provide a bit more detail into the structure of the competency model and the objectives that you set out to achieve?

Davis: The competency model is a nine-layer pyramid. The DOL had completed layers one through three, and then jumping up to tiers 6, 7, 8 and 9, that define specific job descriptions such as GIS analyst. The tiers 4 and 5 are the elements that link it all together and this is what they (the DOL) had struggled in the past to complete.

GTCM_PyramidDepartment of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM)

We proposed a methodology, and approached the DOL, and a month after our proposal, in March 2009, they gave us the go ahead. David spent the next year putting together a national panel of 12 industry experts that represent all the industry sectors: surveying, geography, GIS software, remote sensing, data collection, etc. We brought the panel together at a two day workshop in March of 2010 to try to complete Tiers 4 & 5 of the GTCM [Link to competency model: ]

It was a last-minute success, because it always comes down to the language and the verbiage. Our industry like many is territorial, maybe the surveyors felt that GIS was cutting into their territory, and the remote sensing people didn’t know where they were,so trying to reach consensus on what the industry is was the hardest thing. Once the panel was able to define the sectors in the  industry, they could start reaching consensus on what the competencies for those sectors and which competencies are cross-cuttingacross the entire industry.

I think the genius of the panel was to try and find the cross-cutting foundational elements, and then to look at the competencies in each industry sector. There was some some luck on our part because everyone was probably a bit exhausted by the previous battles, and the inability to reach consensus before, which maybe was holding the industry back.

V1: With the competency model in place, what sort of things does it fuel in terms of training and education?

Davis: There really hasn’t been any certification up to this point other than a portfolio-based approach that the GISCI has with the GISP. ASPRS has their specific certification. Esri had not done any certification. It’s hard to do any assessments and certification until you have a definition of the skills.

The body of knowledge (BoK) that preceded this effort is a document with 1,668 individual items, and is too big to get a handle on because it’s a comprehensive list of skills from a casual user on through to what a remote sensing scientist at a research industry would use. So, it was too difficult to use for any kind of specific curriculum development, such as a single course.

The GTCM, on the other hand, addresses a more finite set of core competencies, which is much more manageable. I think that’s a genius of the DOL clearinghouse with the framework that they provide you as an educator and an industry to adhere to. They chunk competencies into actionable items where you can create programs and assessments all the way down to course competencies and how you might test these skills and competencies.

V1: What’s the next step to filling out core competencies of individual job descriptions?

Davis: A DACUM is a process for clearly defining the duties and tasks that are performed by expert workers in any job or occupation. We completed a synthesis of ten years worth of DACUM workshops for GIS technicians, and we now know in rank order the hundreds of items that were identified by bringing in GIS technicians in for one and two-day workshops. What you do is ask workers exactly what they do on a day-to-day basis and groups this feedback into tasks, knowledge, skills and abilities. A trained facilitator remains neutral and guides the process to sort out the categories and terms and help the panel of experts come to consensus. The results of that are then compiled and tabulated and then are vetted with participants again. The results are then further vetted to a larger audience of managers of those workers. Eventually you can refinethese skills to a common core set, which expertsagree upon, and then you have the data necessary for competing a Tier 6 job occupation.

There have been multiple DACUMs across the nation over time, but there was never unified effort to look at the commonality across all of them at once.  Our researcher, John Johnson, was able to come up with a regression analysis methodology to combine these numerous historical DACUMs into a single spreadsheet, and then vetted this result almost 1,000 managers nationwide to derive a MetaDACUM of GIS Technician skills. with a ranked order of skills.

We now have a chart on our website [LINK:] for a GIS Technician, which is a DOL-recognized occupation, and what workers in this occupation on a national level with a common set of core competencies.

V1: Are you working to define skills for other occupations?

Davis: We are now doing another set of DACUMs at the moment for the remote sensing technician occupation. We’ve had the hardest time trying to find someone that has the job precise title of “remote sensing technician”. A lot of people are doing image analysis, and a lot of GIS technicians are doing it, because there is a lot more raster than vector data now. We’re trying to figure out if there is a “remote sensing technician”, per se, because DOL says there is one, and exactly what they are do in terms of their skills and competencies.

We’re going to carry on with that competency model, and try to fill out the upper tiers six through eight of the GTCM for the remaining occupancies identified by the DOL in their Standard Occupation Codes (SOC). David DiBiase is working with an NSF grant proposal with URISA to fill out the Tier 9 management skills, which is perfect for their focus to outline what skills a GIS manager has to know and do. In a couple of years, we should have all nine layers of the GTCM completed.

We received supplemental funding from NSF based on the current results that we were able to show them. They gave us funding for the remote sensing technician, and we’ll probably ask for ongoing funding for other occupations.

All of this has to be redone in 2015, because the technology moves ahead so rapidly. The GTCM that was published last summer in June of 2010 will be out of date by 2015. At Tier 5, what constitutes a sector might shift, and it will be interesting to know those changes.

We’re planning to solicit funding to repeat what was done in 2010. It should be a lot easier now that we have a framework in place.

V1: As educators, what are some of the next steps that you take with spreading the word and applying the GTCM to education?

Davis: By August 2010, we had created a qualitative assessment tool whereby educators can take a look at their coursework to see if they are covering all the topics identified in the GTCM. It will allow educators to look at their program and compare it with what GTCM says you should be teaching, and do a gap analysis.

It also gives you a way to see the flavor of your program. What you can discover is that some programs, even though they may not realize it, may be teaching more surveying or remote sensing than GIS. That’s fine, it’s not our place to tell you what’s right or wrong, it’s simply intended to give you a better feel for what you’re teaching.

One of our leading researchers has come up with a modified assessment, that not only outlines what you’re teaching, but at what level you’re doing them. It uses a 1 to 5 Likert-like scale to rank what your teaching against the GTCM.

Eventually the Center would like to do academic program endorsements. There are more than 450 two year community colleges across the United States that teach at least one GIS course. There are probably 200 or so that offer certificates and associate degrees. We want to understand which ones are utilizing the GTCM, and which have done a self assessment. If they have, is there a level that they meet that means they are GTCM aligned?,If they meet a certain level of GTCM compliance, perhaps we could offer an endorsement from the GeoTech Center. Not a certification, but something that a college program could show to their industry board to demonstrate they are meeting skill sets that the geospatial industry says they need.

V1: With the idea of being an intermediary between education and industry, what is the current state of skilled worker demand versus supply that you’re seeing?

Davis: It varies on a local basis. We just had a meeting in Atlanta, and we identified that it would be an interesting research analysis to look at where the jobs are versus the education program are. We’re trying to help align industry demands with the programs that are out there, and we just now have the instrument to define what that industry is, precisely.

On a national scale, what we’ve seen from the Department of Labor is very positive. David DiBiase gave a keynote speech where he looked data from Daratech, Inc. and the Department of Labor statistics, and they are predicting that between 2008 and 2018 we will need an additional 150,000 workers in the geospatial technology industry. That increase, plus our current workforce, would put us at 850,000 workers in the entire industry, which is huge if you think about it. That’s almost a million people in the workforce that are dealing with some aspect of geospatial technology.

If you go to the competency clearinghouse and click on the GTCM competency model in Tiers 6, 7 and 8, it takes you  to the latest Department of Labor standard occupation codes (SOC) for those occupations. There, the top 10 occupations and their growth rates can be seen. They are anywhere from eight percent annual growth up to the low teens. It’s looking very positive for our industry. We have Richard Serby, president of GeoSearch, who serves on our national advisory board, and we asked him about the prospects for our graduates. He said it’s challenging, because what used to be an $18/hr. technician job is now an $8/hr. job, due in large part to outsourcing. A lot of the data can be shipped digitally to India, and companies bidding large contracts with a lot of digitizing work, they have to outsource that work to be competitive. He’s seeing that a lot of the entry-level jobs aren’t paying as well as they once did recently.

We’re training a lot of experts in desktop software, and he says what we desperately need are more programmers and developers, perhaps less users. Companies are looking for one person that can do it all now, because they can’t afford a large GIS department where they have a manager, a GIS programmer, and technicians. It’s a one-man shop in a lot of places.

What I’ve seen is that a lot of consulting and freelancing is taking place. Those that have developed the skill set go to work for themselves, and bid themselves out at fairly competitive rates that provide a good salary. Buy you have to have the database, programming and software skills in order to do that.

V1: This really seems to fit a strong need in terms of identifying the necessary skill set along with industry demand.

Davis: Our goal is to help empower colleges to produce better geospatial workforce, that’s really the bottom line. We’re trying to make it so that when our graduates leave our two-year schools they either matriculate into universities or go into the workforce with the right skills. It’s a constant challenge as community college educators: to have our ear to the ground to hear what industry needs, and continually adjust. The Center now has the capability to do that in a really meaningful and national way.

V1: Do you find yourself as evangelists for all the interesting jobs that are out there?

Davis: Absolutely. The surveys that we’ve done with industry and educators has pointed to the need to evangelize and recruit to raise awareness with students. This is the digital generation, they growup with technology, but they don’t necessarily have the technical skills to back that up. They are more consumers, and we need more than consumers. If we’re going to compete with India and China and all the other growing technological hubs, we have to have producers.

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