Success in the GIS Workplace: Part I


Today’s job market is pretty grim, so whether you’re kicking off your GIS career or you’re a long-time player looking for ways to stay on top of your game, knowing the basics of how to succeed in the GIS workplace is crucial.

To help you out, we’ve put together a comprehensive three-part series on gaining (and retaining) competency in the GIS workforce. With a little help from a publication from the Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA Journal), we give you the secret to what makes a fantastic GIS professional as well as some easy and practical ways that you can do to succeed in the GIS workplace.


When the U.S. Department of Labor issued a Geospatial Technology Competency Model in 2010, the URISA Journal went ahead and broke it down for us.

Their eighteen-page paper describes, in detail, the contents of the Competency Model and how it can be used to further your GIS career. This three-part careers series is a reader-friendly summary of the paper and highlights the most important aspects of competency in the GIS workplace.

We’ll also explore the practical ways in which we can gain these competencies. So let’s get started!

Breaking Down the Model

The model is structured as a pyramid with nine levels, or ‘Tiers’.

Starting at the bottom of the pyramid, Tier One specifies the more general skills (or ‘competencies’) you’d need to be competent at any job. As you go up the levels of the pyramid, the competencies become more and more specific for the GIS workplace, with the top-tier, Tier Nine, specifying management competencies.

So here are the nine levels from the bottom of the pyramid to the top:

  • Tier One: Personal Effectiveness Competencies
  • Tier Two: Academic Competencies
  • Tier Three: Workplace Competencies
  • Tier Four: Industry-Wide Technical Competencies
  • Tier Five: Industry-Sector Technical Competencies
  • Tiers Six to Eight: Occupation-Specific Competencies and Requirements
  • Tier Nine: Management Competencies


Geospatial Competency Model Pyramid from The U.S. Bureau of Labor

Geospatial Competency Model Pyramid from The U.S. Bureau of Labor


In this post we’ll cover the first three tiers of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model.

Tier One: Personal Effectiveness Competencies

Tier One is also known as ‘soft skills’, or personal attributes that are essential for most workplaces. These are broken down as:

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Integrity
  • Professionalism
  • Initiative
  • Dependability
  • Life-long learning

Granted, the components of the personal effectiveness competencies vary depending on who you ask. However, these six are the U.S. Department of Labor’s definition of the most important soft skills that a professional needs to improve one’s ability to reach his or her personal goals.

If you’d like more information on these components you can easily search for Personal Development resources online, or comment below so we can point you in the right direction!

Tier Two: Academic Competencies

Tier Two competencies are the skills normally learnt in an academic setting. In addition to the basic reading, writing, mathematics, and science, we have communication skills and critical thinking as essential cognitive functions. For the field of GIS specifically, geography and basic computer skills are included in this level.

Geography skills include:

  • Subject-specific geographic knowledge in:
    • Human-environment interaction
    • Regional geography
    • Physical geography
    • Cultural geography
  • Geographic skills in:
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
    • Cartography
    • Field methods
    • Spatial statistics
  • Geographic perspectives in:
    • Spatial thinking
    • Global perspective
    • An interdisciplinary perspective


For those of us in the field of GIS, the Basic Computer Skills specified by the U.S. Department of Labor may seem a bit silly. However, an important point to note is learning to manage databases, especially if you’re just starting out.

SQL is the most commonly used language to manage databases in the field of GIS and there are plenty of free introductory courses online.


Tier Three: Workplace Competencies

Workplace competencies represent interpersonal and self-management styles that are applicable to a wide range of occupations and industries. They are:

  • Teamwork
  • Creative thinking
  • Planning and organisation
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Working with tools and technology
  • Checking, examining, and recording
  • Business fundamentals

These soft skills are what you learn the longer you work in a field, and are the basis of becoming a professional in that area.

In the field of GIS in particular, most of these skills can only be gained through experience as you work with others to solve GIS problems.


Wrapping It Up on the Foundational Competencies

As you can see, the foundation competencies are the basis of a GIS career. They are the basis on which you will build more industry-specific skills.

So stay tuned for Part Two, as we discuss the next tiers involving industry-specific competencies!


This article is part one of three on the “Success in the GIS Workplace” series.



DiBiase, D., Corbin, T., Fox, T., Francica, J., Green, K., Jackson, J., …, Van Sickle, J. (2010). The New Geospatial Technology Competency Model: Bringing Workforce Needs into Focus. URISA Journal, 22(2), 56-72. Retrieved January 20, 2017, from

U.S. Department of Labor, Employment, and Training Administration (n.d.). Geospatial Technology Competency Model. Career OneStop. Retrieved January 20, 2017, from