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How do we address the geospatial skills shortage in Australia?

Companies claim their recruitment drives to fill roles are attracting fewer applicants year on year and with job ads hitting a 12-year high it’s no real surprise. It’s also not surprising that globally, there is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills shortage and, as a result, the geospatial industry is feeling the pinch.

Just ask the United Nations who released their paper Future trends in geospatial information management: the five to ten year vision (third edition, August 2020)

So, how did we get here?

There are a few schools of thought. Firstly, the STEM field typically attracts more males to study and work in the field than it does females resulting in a large section of skilled workers not coming through. Typically, GIS-related roles have tapped into the STEM area for recruitment to jobs.

The numbers tell the story starting with the 2026 Agenda: Ideas Paper on Diversity & Inclusion: Thinking differently about difference which contain stats highlighting that the Australian spatial industry workforce experiences just 25% female representation. Then there’s this from the Australian Government’s STEM Workforce Report from 2020 which reveals that 92% of males represent the VET STEM qualified workforce.

From these reports, it’s encouraging to know that the number of women enrolling in university STEM courses is increasing as is the number completing their STEM university qualification, but it’s still a large part of our population that doesn’t participate as much as it could in a geospatial role.

This global skills shortage has had an impact and there’s also a lot of chatter about how geospatial roles in particular are feeling the effects which has been further exacerbated by the increased demand for GIS knowhow from “non-traditional markets” like insurers, banks, resource groups and retailers.

Of course, adding to this is the pandemic, which according to the United Nations, has made the value of geospatial more obvious than ever. It’s also thanks to the pandemic that the usual emigration flow of talent Australian industry relies on is stalled.

 In other words, demand has continued to increase, but the numbers in the talent pool hasn’t kept pace.

Ok. So, there’s a drought in geospatially skilled workers. What can we do?

To begin with, young minds need to be approached in their formative years as they’re considering career paths and their earning future. You can’t approach these same minds and ask them to move into a STEM field when they’re already enrolled in a university degree and have a good idea of where they’ll end up 10 years from now.

These young ‘uns need to be approached while they’re in the throes of developing their career notions, not when their preferred field is already a done deal.

Destination Spatial Queensland kicked this approach off in 2018 with their educational campaign focussing on talking to students at a tertiary level. There is a raft of campaigns like this one aiming to drive enrolments in geospatial science courses.

The other challenge is keeping females in this field.  Mentoring may help, because it’s long been recognised as a great tool to connect geospatially minded women in their aspirations.

It would also help if this field was recognised by a national body as one that was suffering from a critical shortage, like, say the Australian Government. Boom! They have! Surveyors, cartographers and other spatial scientists have been added to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL), a list of occupations the government considers are needed by the nation to recover from the pandemic.

So, with all these great positive things happening for the industry, what’s left to do?

It might now be time to make a geospatial career more attractive.

What? How is that possible, when geoscience is already attractive, I hear you ask.

Well, some are of the opinion that industry doesn’t do a good enough job showing off the system’s capability, instead opting to display them as a disparate group of technical solutions.

Cue Onneer director, Ben Berghauser, a passionate advocate for GIS who feels that industry could do more to attract applicants by creating obvious pathways for those in charge of capability.

“Doing this will shift the existing efforts from a scientific focus and that to the uses of the GIS, which will make career pathways more obvious and more attractive.

“Right now, career paths aren’t clear and those that exist focus on the users who operate the GIS, not those who maintain it. 

“Industry should highlight the benefits a career as a GIS capability specialist provides,” Ben said.

This argument Ben makes echoes the point about non-traditional markets creating their own wave of GIS-specific needs. Perhaps the industry can look past those with STEM qualifications and start looking at these less obvious markets to fill roles keeping in mind that so much of GIS capability includes non-technical skills and is a multi-disciplinary field.

For example, Onneer has a writer who writes about GIS from a non-technical perspective to bridge the classic gap between STEM technical mumbo jumbo and what the everyday person needs to understand. On staff is also a learning and development specialist who designs and implements the company’s GIS skills needs based on national frameworks and development pathways but knew nothing about GIS before joining Onneer. Then there’s the business specialist who understands the intricacies involved in integrating new systems and practices into an organisation.

GIS needs all these skills to effectively grow the industry, and who better to take on these roles than people who have spent their careers perfecting their craft.

The GIS industry will benefit from treating itself less like a tech-only-STEM-shop and more like a critical piece of discrete capability. Focussing on upskilling these domain experts into our GIS world and enabling them to practice their craft in a new domain and promoting their skillset as valuable to the GIS industry.

This shift could help promote those developing their future career aspirations to try applying their interests to GIS or to potentially shift careers into GIS from those non-traditional fields later in their career.

It begs the question: which other specialists can bring something to GIS now or in the future and what can we do to sow the seed and inform their future choices?

Diversification is key. It will help address the geospatial skills shortage now and into the future.