Geospatial Technology Competency Model Solidifies Skill Standards

22 Sep, 2010 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

With contributions from the academic, government, and corporate sectors, the GeoTech Center crafts a touchstone that benefits an entire industry.

Just as travelers rely on maps, everyone requires some guidance to progress in the right direction, and to determine whether they've reached their goal. Students, educators, workers, and employers, for example, all need to know which skills are fundamental to success in geospatial careers. Conflicting — or absent — standards have plagued this relatively young industry, where the problem is compounded by ever-changing technology.

The U.S. Department of Labor's (DoL) Employment and Training Administration provided an answer to this confusion in July, when it released an industry competency model for geospatial technology. The newest of 16 such models available through the Competency Model Clearinghouse, the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) is designed to guide workers interested in entering the industry, educators developing curricula, employers who hire staff and develop apprenticeship programs, and organizations that bestow professional certifications.

The Clearinghouse defines a competency as "the capability to apply or use a set of related knowledge, skills, and abilities required to successfully perform 'critical work functions' or tasks in a defined work setting." A competency model, therefore, "provides a clear description of what a person needs to know and be able to do — the knowledge, skills, and abilities — to perform well in a specific job, occupation, or industry."

"The GTCM is the basis of everything we do," said Phillip Davis, director and principal investigator of the GeoTech Center, which led the arduous model validation process. "It's the keystone or foundation for all the other goals we're trying to accomplish." The GeoTech Center, which comprises partners from colleges and universities, government, and industry, develops professional and academic resources to support the development of geospatial technicians.

Contention and Consensus

The model development project drew upon a variety of information sources, including existing skill standards, competency-based curricula, certification requirements, and previous efforts by other groups — such as a preliminary GTCM developed at the University of Southern Mississippi. DACUM (Developing A CurriculUM) job analysis sessions, which Davis described as "two-day brain-dumps," also helped project participants "come up with a blow-by-blow description of an occupation."

"What was hard," Davis continued, "was getting all the players in the field to agree on a definition of what our industry is ... it came down to a turf battle, and we needed somebody to get a consensus."

That somebody was David DiBiase, director of the Dutton e-Education Institute within the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Pennsylvania State University. DiBiase crafted a methodology to reach consensus among industry and university interests, gathering a dozen experts to analyze an outline of the GTCM.

That draft was then vetted by 40 other participants, including representatives of industry groups such as ASPRS (the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing) and GITA (the Geospatial Information and Technology Association), before achieving approval from DoL.

"Step by step, everything we did with the GTCM, we had to check with DoL," said Davis. He went on to explain that although the government agency facilitated and oversaw the project, the actual decision making was left to the experts. "They let industry work out all their differences — and similarities."

Those differences spurred a great deal of what Davis politely termed "stimulating debate." Even though the comments became quite heated at times, all the contributors' opinions were taken into consideration and melded into the final product.

Impacting a Global Industry

The effects of the GTCM are far-reaching; "It's impacting all across the board," said Davis. As an example, he explained that the GIS Certification Institute has had to rely on a portfolio-based approach for the GISP (Geographic Information Systems Professional) certification, with "no actual test — there couldn't be, because there was no standard of what should be in it." With the GTCM, however, "we have a real good road map to what KSAs [knowledge, skills, and abilities] the geospatial field requires." The GeoTech Center is currently discussing the issue with the institute's board of directors, said Davis, and certification candidates could possibly see a knowledge-based exam by 2012.

For the academic community, an evaluation matrix has been created to help educators and students. "It's a condensed version of the major points on the GTCM," said Davis. "It's a reality check for educators, especially in two-year colleges." The spreadsheet will also help college graduates who are transitioning to universities determine which classes they'll need to take.

The usefulness of — and urgent need for — the GTCM extends beyond America's borders. As Davis put it, "In Europe, they don't have anything equivalent to the GTCM." He explained that Europeans have been struggling with the lack of standards, especially as professionals move across borders in the EU. For example, many Greek graduates want to escape the economic troubles in their homeland and transfer to the Netherlands, where there's a shortage of GIS professionals.

According to Davis, the GTCM project has also helped to harmonize the geospatial industry, both in the United States and abroad. "Instead of trying to compete, [industry stakeholders] have become a little more cooperative — that alone is worth the price."

Davis anticipates that the model will pay further dividends in the next two or three years. "With this model, [users] might start new academies, might start new programs — it's a broad framework." The GeoTech Center expects to develop periodic updates of the model in coming years, which are especially crucial considering the speed of technologic change. "It has such huge consumer implications with wireless [technology]," Davis observed. "Everything has become location-based."


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