Establishing a clear set of pathways for GEOINT education, training, and certification to further the professionalization process
By Talbot Brooks, Delta State University; Dr. Christopher Anderson, GSX; Dr. Robert Austin, Austin Communications; Dr. David Alexander, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and Dr. Camelia Kantor, USGIF
Finding high-quality candidates for positions in the greater geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) industry is an ongoing challenge for many employers because of high variability across the educational and training landscape, as well as the extraordinarily varied experiences brought by employees. Likewise, jobseekers have an equally difficult time discovering suitable positions because of the wide variety of titles used and a lack of clarity about the required level of competency needed in position descriptions. Both factors combine to stymie education, business, and government efforts to quantify and substantiate workforce needs and better prepare future candidates.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that confusion in the GEOINT employment marketplace has tangible consequences. Significant salary mismatches across seemingly similar positions, high turnover prompted by employer and employee dissatisfaction, and inconsistency across academic and training curricula are all symptomatic of dysfunction, which ultimately translates into what are widely reported as significant financial and productivity losses for both employer and employee. Peer-reviewed literature strongly supports the idea that improved selection processes, particularly those related to motivational fit, can improve both operations and profit.
Refining the education and training pipeline such that it more closely aligns with position titles and job descriptions is an important first step in minimizing such losses. Three essential actions have begun to address this challenge:
- Redefining the codification of occupations and academic programs.
- Segmentation and professionalization of the workforce.
- The creation of a body of knowledge focused on learning objectives rather than topics.
While these three initiatives represent substantial progress, they fall short due to a lack of comprehensive industry leadership and a clear vision of the future for GEOINT as an industry and an academic discipline. In this article, these positive first steps are identified and potential solutions discussed.
Codification of Occupations and Academic Programs
President George W. Bush’s administration identified geospatial technologies as a high job-growth area in 2001. A substantial investment commitment was desired for the geospatial arena, but was quickly mired by a lack of definition around the terms related to all things “geospatial,” and a debate over whether it constituted an industry. The Association of American Geographers, the Geospatial Information and Technology Association, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (DOLETA) collaborated to form the Geospatial Industry Workforce Information System (GIWIS) in an effort to:
- Develop a constructive definition of the geospatial industry.
- Develop a web-accessible server of industry, job, and educational information called GIWIS.
- Create an industry image and outreach campaign.
- Develop a local pilot program for using GIWIS.
- Take steps to ensure the sustainability of GIWIS and the outreach program.
Numerous roundtable meetings of thought leaders solicited input about these topics from more than 200 representatives from across industry, academia, and government in an attempt to build consensus. The following definition was eventually reached and integrated into a web portal designed to meet the needs of industry, academia, and jobseekers:
“The geospatial industry acquires, integrates, manages, analyzes, maps, distributes, and uses geographic, temporal, and spatial information and knowledge. The industry includes basic and applied research, technology development, education, and applications to address the planning, decision-making, and operational needs of people and organizations of all types.”
The work performed in creating the definition and portal represented the first truly large-scope effort at understanding the emerging geospatial industry using a massive, consensus-driven process. At the same time, but independent from the civilian geospatial world, the idea of defense activities that used geospatial technologies and tools was maturing from a map/observe/report perspective to contemporary GEOINT. The lack of connection between the burgeoning GEOINT and civilian geospatial communities was evident when comparing the above definition of the geospatial industry to the explanation of GEOINT offered by then National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director James Clapper in 2005—the same time period in which GIWIS was ongoing:
“GEOINT encompasses all aspects of imagery … and geospatial information and services. … It includes, but is not limited to … the analysis of literal imagery; geospatial data; and information technically derived from the processing, exploitation, literal, and non-literal analysis of spectral, spatial, and temporal … fused products (that is, products created out of two or more data sources). … These types of data can be collected on stationary and moving targets by electro-optical …, [synthetic aperture radar (SAR)] …, related sensor programs …, and non-technical means (to include geospatial information acquired by personnel in the field).”
Both the defense GEOINT and civilian geospatial technologies communities were working toward a similar fundamental understanding but were compartmentalized because there was little coordination or overlap in their respective efforts. This lack of connection would have far-reaching consequences because the resulting systems for educating jobseekers about the greater geospatial industry would flow from GIWIS and downstream. Subsequently, three systems would come into play:
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Standard Occupation Code (SOC) system, which is used for classifying federal agency employees into occupational categories.
- The U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and its supporting Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) coding system.
- Department of Labor-sponsored workforce development systems at the national level, such as O*NET, and related systems at the state level. These systems match SOC entries with CIP codes, allowing jobseekers to identify potential careers and match them with corresponding education and training programs.
At the start of the GIWIS project, BLS SOC entries in the geospatial realm only existed for “cartographer,” “surveyor,” and “photogrammetrist.” Their corresponding CIP codes pertained largely to engineering, surveying, draftsman, and geography programs, with the latter lacking any sub-specializing code for geospatial technologies. The National Geospatial Advisory Committee, a federal advisory committee to the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), acted upon GIWIS recommendations to work closely with industry and BLS to expand the SOCs for geospatial jobs to include the following classifications:
- Geographic Information Systems Technicians (15-1199.05)
- Geospatial Information Scientists and Technologists (15-199.04)
- Cartographers and Photogrammetrists (17-1021.00)
- Mapping Technician (17-3031.02)
- Geodetic Surveyors (17-1022.01)
- Remote Sensing Scientists and Technologists (19-2099.01)
- Remote Sensing Technicians (19-4099.03)
- Surveying and Mapping Technicians (17.3031.00)
- Surveyors (17-1022.00)
- Geoscientists: Except Hydrologists and Geographers (19-2042.00)
- Geographers (19-3092.00)
The academic and training side of the equation (CIP codes) were much slower to respond, partly because geospatial technologies were largely considered tools to be used across academic disciplines, often ending up within the geographer’s toolbox. Geospatial technology education was largely relegated to the role of skills training via certificate, minor, and concentration level within four-year academic geography programs or offered as skills courses at the community college and industry training levels.
These perceptions have evolved over time toward a more contemporary notion of GEOINT, largely due to tremendous outreach efforts from NGA. The result within the CIP system is that GEOINT will move from 29.0203, Signal/Geospatial Intelligence in the “Military Technologies” family of disciplines to 43.0407 in the “Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services” family in the IPEDS 2020 update. While this update does not capture the true nature of GEOINT and geospatial technologies—an analytic, technology-centric lens for interpreting and understanding the geographic nature of phenomena and processes—it does begin to unite traditional civilian and military views of geospatial technologies toward each other.
The ramification is that links between workforce classification and education/training preparation remains, at best, incomplete.
Segmentation and Professionalization
The Brooks Act of 1972 (Public Law 92-582) requires licensure for professionals engaged in federal projects requiring surveying, mapping, and engineering skills. Selection of firms for federal projects is thus based primarily upon qualifications and not bid price. Industry leaders and professional societies have long clashed over the definition of mapping. This conflict has raised awareness about the need for workforce credentialing and spurred academia, professional societies, businesses, and governmental entities into disjointed action. The result of these efforts is a confused landscape for the uninitiated.
Dr. Darryl Murdock, former Vice President of Professional Development at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF), parsed the GEOINT credentialing landscape as follows:
- Certificates that mark the completion of a specified training or education course by any provider. The awarding of a certificate may be based upon simple attendance at an industry-sponsored training event or associated with successful completion of a rigorously graded academic course of study such as that associated with USGIF Collegiate Accreditation Program.
- Certification which assesses, usually through examination or similar evidentiary means, mastery of a body of knowledge or skills. Certifications may be independently accredited as a means of ensuring quality, as is the case of the USGIF-Certified GEOINT Professional and the NGA Geospatial Professional Certification programs. Or, they may be granted organizationally as is the case with the GISP certification from the GIS Certification Institute.
- Academic degrees denote competency-based mastery of a curriculum or body of knowledge related to a discipline or field of study. However, the link between degree competencies is not readily transparent and varies significantly among academic institutions. Independent professional accreditation of academic degree programs is a remediation for this variability and is exemplified by USGIF’s accreditation of colleges and universities.
- Licensure whereby governmental authority is used to coordinate and regulate evidence-based processes required for practice. Surveying and engineering require licensure.
Thoughtful consideration about these position titles, workforce needs, and available education and training opportunities can be used to divide the GEOINT labor marketplace into two general categories: technician and professional.
Technicians use GEOINT methods and techniques to perform relatively routine tasks within an established set of protocols or boundary conditions. Some innovation and freedom of thought is allowed, even encouraged, but strictures, such as review of methods and/or data, are put in place. Technician positions are often highly specialized and may perform tasks of a high degree of complexity within a relatively narrow framework of conditions and are most often prepared through community college, entry-level military training, or industry-based training.
GEOINT professionals are those who create and/or use the technology to render judgments that affect quality/quantity of life and value of property. A profession generally consists of: a codified set of professional standards and practices; specialized education recognized by an authoritative body; establishment of a code of conduct/method for self-regulation that protects the public and general welfare; professional credentialing; and continuing education.
Conceptualization of position responsibilities with respect to technician and professional perspectives will help align position titles and descriptions with credentials. For example, a position requiring a candidate to digitize features from imagery using a particular software package may be best staffed by a candidate holding an industry-specific training certificate or an entry-level certification specific to GIS (USGIF’s new entry-level Essentials certification) and who has perhaps completed an accredited certificate program or earned an associate’s degree. Such a position should be titled “technician,” and the aforementioned credentials included in the position description.
Likewise, a position requiring the development of a comprehensive GIS for emergency services may seek candidates with multiple industry software certificates, a journeyman or higher-level certification (USGIF CGP-G and CGP-D), and an accredited baccalaureate degree. This differentiation is not meant to imply that one position is more important than another, or to create an artificial intellectual hierarchy within industry, but rather it establishes a means of linking credentials to positions.
A Recognized Body of Knowledge
A body of knowledge is a core requirement for refinement of CIP codes, the SOC system, and credentialing. Early efforts were established by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) in the late 2000s. Driven by academia and informed by industry, the resultant work, the GIS&T Body of Knowledge (BoK), segments “geospatial” into 10 conceptual categories. Each category is further divided into topics and sub-topics that are supported by associated learning objectives. It is comprehensive and well founded, but is largely an academic work—written by and for academics, does not extend deeply into the use of geospatial technology for exploiting information or co-requisite “soft” skills (i.e., communication and reporting), and is not segmented by knowledge level.
USGIF began working on its GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK) in 2012. Initial efforts focused on identifying core competencies and listing supporting topics, filling gaps identified in the GIS&T BoK, and leveraging significant participation and input from industry to add practicality. The EBK was further refined in 2019 to highlight five previously identified competency areas (GIS and analysis tools, remote sensing, programming and data management, cartography and visualization, and soft skills). Each competency encompasses a set of topics with learning objectives segmented by knowledge level into prerequisites, essentials, journeyman, and master. The resulting work is less comprehensive with respect to topical listings and learning outcomes presented in the BoK, but is aligned with professional certification and provides a basis for both academic codification and accreditation as well as workforce job classification.
The ideal state ultimately lies in the maturation of the GEOINT EBK as the underlying framework to address the larger need to articulate accredited curriculum with workforce parlance, classification, and credentialing systems. However, greater participation in subsequent revision cycles by those interested in workforce development is needed from government, industry, and academia. One could subsequently argue that without a specific mandate from an employer base—government, industry, or both—it will be difficult, if not impossible, to garner interest in further codifying the GEOINT profession.
Based on the aforementioned criteria (codification, segmentation, and a body of knowledge), GEOINT is making progress toward professionalization. The following areas, however, represent opportunities for GEOINT to further the professionalization process: better defining and explaining the relationship with existing professions (i.e., surveying, GIS, intelligence); better advocacy and awareness of the public protection role of GEOINT (and GEOINT professionals); and defining the value proposition for GEOINT professionals.
USGIF launched a transparent, modular, and portable credentialing system and has created an ecosystem of accredited schools to help address the education and training component of a professional workforce, but these efforts are relatively young and require recognition by the greater GEOINT employment marketplace. Adoption of standardized job codes and descriptions, such as those listed above, is required to help gain further clarity.
The desired end state is a clear set of pathways for education, training, and consequent certification that helps both employers and employees match and advance industry goals. Above all, a clarion call for leadership that unites government, industry, academia, and the labor-management system is needed to avoid fragmentation of the GEOINT industry into a world of competing subsets of spatial technologies and applications. Such a unified effort would result in a common and easily recognized identity for GEOINT that transcends what are currently entrenched and costly boundaries that lead to dissatisfaction and turnover in the workplace.
The groundwork essential for successful efforts that connect and coordinate codification, segmentation, and an improved body of knowledge are in place. A summit among stakeholder organizations would facilitate a renewed GIWIS-style investment and renew consensus efforts through a broader audience. Outcomes from such a summit would be useful in gaining funding support for further alignment and coordinated GEOINT workforce development efforts among government, industry, academia, and representative professional societies.
- Matthew O’Connell and Mei-Chuan King. “The Cost of Employee Turnover.” Industrial Management. 2007:49:1:14-19.
- Geospatial World. “GITA Receives $700,000 Grant from U.S. Department of Labor.” As reported on July 22, 2005. Retrieved on October 20, 2019 from https://www.geospatialworld.net/news/gita-receives.700000-grant-from-u-s-department-of-labor/.
- GIWIS portal as was available through 2010 at http://www.giwis.org. A summary presentation, including screenshots, is available at https://www.fgdc.gov/ngac/meetings/december-2010/geospatial.industry-workforce-information-system.ppt.
- Barry Barlow. “The Future of GEOINT.” Trajectory Magazine. 2017. U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. Retrieved from https://trajectorymagazine.com/the-future-of-geoint/ on October 20, 2019.
- Management Association for Private Photogrammetic Surveyors v. United States. 492 F. Supp.2d 540 (E.D. Va. 2007).
- Darryl Murdock. “The Credentialing Landscape and USGIF Certifications.” United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation Academic Summit. Reston, VA. 2016.
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