Gen Z on Stage!

How professional events can address GEOINT’s generational shift and cross-generational career goals


By Dr. Mark Brickhouse, Geospatial Institute, Saint Louis University; Tara Smith, Graduate Student, Saint Louis University; Dr. Vasit Sagan, Dr. Ness Sandoval, and Dr. Enbal Shacham, Saint Louis University; Dr. Camelia Kantor, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF); Dr. Steven Fleming, USC Dornsife, Spatial Sciences Institute; and Tara Mott, Esri

Professional conferences and networking events are under-utilized resources for workforce development in the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) field, present opportunities and advantages, and, if used properly, can help address the field’s generational shift. Many organizations tend to focus on their mid- to senior-level workforce when participating and investing in such events, and often lack incentives for engaging their youngest employees and students as well as the latest generation entering the workforce: Gen Z. This article advocates the adoption of a GEOINT curriculum framework that uses designated professional conferences as embedded into GEOINT programs (capstone requirements) to connect students with recruiting and retaining Gen Z staff amid the generational shift of the GEOINT workforce. Further, local and national GEOINT and geospatial conferences and events can be structured to better meet the educational and career goals of Gen Z as well as members of other generational cadres who share their professional aspirations.


Professional organizations, industry, and academia are all struggling with profound changes in United States demographics. With lower birthrates and lower rates of immigration, the U.S. population as a whole is aging. The share of the population entering higher education (< 18 years old) and the share of younger workers (18-44 years old) is projected to continue to decline through at least 2050.[1] The challenges of recruiting and training the future workforce will only increase in the coming decades, and the need to engage young students and professionals in GEOINT careers will become more critical.

This year, Millennials (ages 23-38) will replace Baby Boomers (ages 55 to 73) as the largest adult population cadre, and Gen Z (ages 7-22) is entering the workforce.[2] Gen Z may become the best-educated and racially diverse generation in history, but is still defined by general traits that will have to be considered in geospatial workforce development.[3] 

The changes in U.S. demographics affect all of academia, industry, and professional organizations, and other technical disciplines have developed processes and strategies to better engage Gen Z students and young professionals. The role of professional organizations in providing growth and mentoring opportunities is critical: 

“Although many programs—including academic resources, scholarships, and mentoring—address critical aspects of a support network, comprehensive networks are rare and are often missing essential elements. One element that is frequently overlooked is the role that professional societies can play in promoting self-efficacy and a sense of belonging by providing an intellectual home for aspiring young scientists… In addition, professional societies are ideally positioned to promote a deep sense of belonging within their science communities, particularly through multileveled mentoring and multiple opportunities to stay involved.”[4]

Other technical disciplines have identified the critical role of collaboration with allied industries in providing relevant and rewarding capstone experiences. For example, the IEEE Curriculum, specifically the Undergraduate Degree Programs in Software Engineering, requires involvement and active participation of industry is a critical element in the success for a software engineering program, usually the execution of Capstone projects in coordination with industry. Further, many IEEE students gain community recognition through the publishing of papers in international conferences.[5] It is also critical that these engaging academic experiences be paired with concrete strategies to encourage membership in organizations like USGIF and ensure that the increasing diversity of the student and young professional population is reflected in the geospatial professional community.[6]

Gen Z and Millennials are also less likely than Baby Boomers to join professional associations, which will also require the GEOINT community to take additional initiatives to engage them.[7] 

To address these issues, a growing number of universities and colleges are participating in USGIF’s Collegiate Accreditation program, producing the next generation of GEOINT professionals the nation will need to meet the technical complexity and growing challenges of the national geospatial mission. They all require a capstone experience that can be met by student participation in a geospatial conference as a speaker or poster presenter. USGIF and its partner academic institutions have been developing and implementing new methods to provide a supportive and competitive environment for students to participate in a network of GEOINT focused events such as the GEOINT Symposium, GeoResolution, GEOINTegration Summit, LA Geospatial Summit, ICARS, etc., with the ultimate goal of providing them with opportunities to present their work and connect with potential employers from the government and industry.

Young Adult and Student Participation in Geospatial Conferences

Professional organizations require increased youth participation to stay viable and relevant, and many are taking steps to more effectively reach and engage students and young professionals.  A recent article, based on interviews with students and young professionals, details how the following actions can draw a younger audience to professional conferences:[4]

  • Show them the guest list and facilitate networking.
  • Invest in design, both for the event and promotional materials.
  • Make registration and attendance easy.
  • Make the pitch for the event and organization concise.
  • Appeal to the boss: Provide incentives and demonstrate the benefit of student and young professional participation.
  • Freshen the format: Fewer keynotes, more participatory events, faster pace, more networking.
  • Offer opportunities for professional development where they can engage with each other and gain critical thinking and entrepreneurial, not just technical skills.
  • Give them a voice: Participatory formats, such as roundtables or idea swaps.
  • Make it affordable.

Large international geospatial conferences currently provide financial incentives to encourage student participation. The 2019 Esri User Conference had over 17,000 attendees, and offered discounted registration for students and faculty, and nearly 1,000 participants took advantage of these incentives: 

  • University Students ($100) – over 300
  • Student One Day (Complimentary)- approx. 300
  • Student Assistant (Accepted, Complimentary)- 60
  • Education (Students/Faculty, $495)- 100

Regional geospatial intelligence conferences also provide an opportunity for student participation, as a result of generally lower registration and travel costs. The LA Geospatial Summit, (entering its 10th year), averages ~15 students each year that participate in some official capacity. Their participation includes one of three major areas: poster presentations, lightning talks or student panelist, about one-quarter of which are on GEOINT topics. The first Geo-Resolution conference in Saint Louis had over 600 registrants and attendees, 129 of whom were students, including >25 poster presentations from SLU and other local colleges and universities.

The national USGIF GEOINT Symposium and GEOINTegration Summit also provide incentives and networking opportunities for students and young professionals. In 2018, there were over GEOINT Symposium 4,000 attendees, which included 206 young professionals and 113 participants from academia. Every year, at least 16 students selected from USGIF accredited programs received full sponsorship to attend the GEOINT Symposium as student assistants. A much smaller event (150 attendees) but focused on education and workforce development, the 2019 GEOINTegration Summit, selected 30 posters and put on stage 15 sponsored students and 5 young professionals who participated in panels, served as keynotes, or presented lightning talks.

Leveraging Regional and National Events

There are a number of regional and local geospatial conferences which can be used to attract more students and young professionals in a participatory role. An initial version of this plan is being developed in coordination with the GeoResolution Conferences, co-sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and Saint Louis University (SLU). St. Louis, the MidWest GEOINT hub, launched a very successful GeoResolution Conference, co-sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and Saint Louis University (SLU).

Working with the USGIF and NGA, SLU is expanding student participation for Geo-Resolution 2020, and issued the call for proposals to institutions throughout the Saint Louis Region at the beginning of the 2019/2020 Fall Semester. Poster presenters will be invited to give flash talks on their geospatial research at the Geospatial 101 Symposium on March 16, 2020. The Geospatial 101 Symposia are public meetings, co-sponsored by NGA and SLU, which help familiarize the local community with fundamental geospatial concepts such as remote sensing, spatial demography and public health mapping. Posters at Geo-Resolution 2020 will be judged, with the best three winning cash awards. We hope to have these young GEOINT practitioners attend the GEOINT Symposium, both as a recognition of exceptional research, and to help grow their professional network and increase GEOINT learning.

On the West Coast, the Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI) of the University of Southern California (USC) has hosted the Los Angeles Geospatial Summit for the past decade. Gathering in LA near the USC campus and presented by SSI each February, the summit is designed to discuss emerging trends in geospatial science, technology, and applications with industry leaders, GIS faculty, and students at a one-day education and networking event. Networking with industry professionals is commonplace throughout the day. Additionally, student attendees gain experience in presenting and listening to lightning talks in addition to making poster presentations. This past year, the collaborating academic programs for the 2019 summit were: California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; California State University, Long Beach; California State University, Northridge; University of Redlands; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Riverside; and the University of Southern California. Companies and organization representatives that supported lunchtime “Knowledge Network” tables included: Accenture, AECOM, Eclipse Mapping and GIS, Esri, Northrop Grumman Corp., OmniSci, Raytheon, SADA Systems, SoCal URISA, U.S. Geological Survey, and Women in GIS.

The GEOINTegration Summit is specifically geared toward this very important segment of its constituency: academia. The Summit is a two-day event in Herndon, VA, focused on GEOINT workforce development, the alignment of GEOINT curriculum with government and industry competencies, and strengthening academic partnerships with both government and industry. It is thought of as an extension of the GEOINT Symposium, also following the same model of bringing together government, industry, and academia. The Summit convenes educators, recruiters, human resources and human development decision-makers, small business leaders and, most importantly, places students and young professionals on the main stage via keynotes, panels, and lightning talks.

The most prominent national event is the annual GEOINT Symposium, hosted and produced by the USGIF. The Symposium is the nation’s largest gathering of industry, academia, and government to include the Defense, Intelligence and Homeland Security Communities as well as commercial, Fed/Civil, State and Local geospatial intelligence stakeholders. It is preceded by GEOINT Foreword, the pre-Symposium science and technology day where top students from all the USGIF accredited GEOINT programs present posters and compete for a chance to be selected as presenter for the next iteration of the event. Students also serve as students assistants throughout the entire event, supporting event logistics (including the K-12 program where they interact with the new generation of GEOINTers), while also participating in meetings with USGIF’s Young Professionals Group (YPG), Golden Ticket winners, and individual meetings with government and industry leaders. Every year several students receive offers for internships, jobs, and/or are invited to collaborate on projects. In addition, they have open access to the training offered at the conference. The students receive complimentary full conference registration and all major expenses are paid by USGIF.

The Symposium model is already geared towards inclusion of students and young professionals. In particular, there are four categories:

  1. Golden Ticket Winners
  2. Young Professionals
  3. Student assistants
  4. K-12 participants

The Symposium is organized so that these groups have the opportunity to interact and support each other in various ways (Figure 1).   Golden Ticket winners participate in meetings with leadership, meetings also attended by YPGers. Separately, YPGers meet with student assistants and faculty. Both YPGers and student assistants conduct K-12 activities. K-12 activities are also led by government, industry and academic leaders. While the GEOINT Symposium is a good opportunity for students and young professionals to learn the geospatial intelligence community, it only directly supports a selected few (about 20 students) and young professionals. With a heavy focus on government and industry, except for one workforce development panel, there was no defined academic stage where more students, faculty and researchers could showcase their knowledge and discuss their challenges and accomplishments. That gap has been recently filled by the GEOINTegration Summit, but additional plans are underway to consider an academic stage for the Symposium.

Figure 1: Overview of potential interactions of students and young professionals at GEOINT Symposia.

Financial Support and Demand for the Future GEOINT Workforce

As noted above, there is a strong need to develop budgetary models of support to incentivize and expand student and young professional participation in events like GEOINT and organizations like USGIF. We propose pursuing a range of potential funding sources:

  • Industry sponsorships
  • Government grants
  • Student sponsor membership incentives (points, free registrations, conference table, etc.)
  • Student assistant programs
  • Student-company matching
  • Internships/apprenticeships leading into sponsored conference participation
  • Mentor sponsor
  • Student travel awards
  • Conference attendance scholarships

The mutual interest of industry, academia and government in developing the future GEOINT work is the ultimate driver of these needed investments, but it will take a concerted effort of all parties to articulate the benefits of enhanced youth engagement. 

Featured image: 2019 GEOINT Symposium panel: “Digital Natives Empowering GEOINT.”

  3. “Instant Generation,” Loveland, Elaina. Journal of College Admission. Winter2017, Issue 234, p34-38.
  4. “The Role of a Professional Society in Broadening Participation in Science: A National Model for Increasing Persistence,”  TERESA M. MOURAD, AMY FOX MCNULTY, DESIREE LIWOSZ, KARIN TICE, FREDERICK ABBOTT, GWENDOLYN C. WILLIAMS, AND JULIE A. REYNOLDS, September 2018 / Vol. 68 No. 9 • BioScience 715
  5. “Academy-Industry Collaboration and the Effects of the Involvement of Undergraduate Students in Real World Activities,” Elaine Venson, Rejane Figueiredo, Wander Silva, Luiz C. M. Ribeiro Júnior, ITRAC – Information Technology, Research and Application Center Software Engineering Faculty, University of Brasília, Conference: IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), OCT 12-15, 2016
  6. Morris, V.R., and Washington, T.M. (2017) The Role of Professional Societies in STEM Diversity. Journal of the National Technical Association, 87(1), 22-31. ISBN-978-0-9993666-0-8
  7. Page 1 of 5 “Here are some of the strategies professional associations are using to attract and retain so-called Millennials — members age 30 and under.” by Michael C. Lowe | January 01, 2012

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