Credential Creep in the GIS Field—For Good or for Ill?

A new generation of credentials herald better times ahead for adult education and workforce development.
Have you noticed the proliferation of GIS credentials?
Hundreds of GIS certificate programs, dozens of specialized master’s degrees, and even a few bachelor’s degree programs have sprung up at colleges and universities at an accelerating rate since the 1990s. The absence of standards and accountability for academic certification contributed in part to the rise of GIS professional certification programs. These credentials are conferred by a few professional societies rather than many individual academic institutions.

ASPRS launched its Certified Mapping Scientist program in 1988. This was followed by the launch of the GISP program by the GIS Certification Institute in 2004. Now a third professional certification for GIS analysts is in the works from the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. On top of all this, Esri launched its Technical Certification program in 2010.
What’s driving all of these credentialing schemes?
Who wants these credentials, and why?

Credential Creep

Certainly the maturation of GIS technology and the professionalization of the GIS workforce accounts for part of the interest in affirming academic achievement and professional and technical competence. However, the phenomenon is also consistent with a broader trend variously called up-credentialing, credential inflation, or—most colorfully—credential creep.
The trend is evident in the number of academic degrees awarded per capita in the US, which has increased at a much higher rate than population growth since the 1980s. One commentator has proclaimed that master’s degrees are the new bachelor’s degree. Similar trends are evident elsewhere in the developed and developing worlds, to varying extents. Furthermore, a recent study by Burning Glass Technologies demonstrates that many occupations that didn’t require bachelor’s degrees in the past—such as Surveying and Mapping Technician, for instance—now often do require such degrees. The reason, analysts suggest, is that employers use credentials to pre-screen applicants and streamline the hiring process.
The proliferation of academic, professional, and technical credentials in the GIS field implies that many employers as well as job seekers value credentials. However, the trend raises a concern about whether credentialing programs are converging toward the worthy goal of fostering competence and strengthening the GIS profession, or whether they are diverging toward a jumble of meaningless but costly tokens.
Two educational innovations are encouraging.
One is the creation of a free market for credentialing through “micro-credentials” like badges. You know about badges if you were a Boy or Girl Scout who earned merit badges to demonstrate personal advancement. With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla has developed an Open Badges framework, which enables any organization to confer digital badges and individuals to display badges via “digital backpacks” linked to social media. Earlier this year, Elmhurst College awarded badges to students who completed its massive open online course (MOOC) “Skills for the Digital Earth.” Esri plans to begin awarding badges to learners who complete its various training offerings as part of its forthcoming “Esri U” interface. We believe that badges and other micro-credentials have the potential to enrich education and training by providing finer-grained evidence of accomplishment that advances the positive trend toward volunteered geographic education.
A second innovation is the emergence of competency-based credentialing, which represents the legitimization of experience as valid mode of learning. In the US, Western Governors University was perhaps the first public higher education institution founded on a commitment to award credentials based on demonstrated achievement, rather than on “seat-time” in classrooms. Precedents for the competency-based approach abound, including the tutorial system at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. However, the establishment of an entire institution predicated on the notion that adult learners should receive credit for what they know, regardless of how they learned it, was a watershed event.
More recently, the University of Wisconsin became the first major US university system to embrace competency-based learning with its “flexible option” program. A flexible option master’s degree in geodesign that is currently in the planning stage at UW Stevens Point could become the first competency-based academic program directly related to GIS. We believe that even more innovative academic programs in GIS will adopt competency-based credentialing in the coming years.


Credential creep is happening in the GIS field. Labor market analysts warn that the phenomenon may worsen the runaway costs of higher education, and cut off career opportunities for those who can’t afford advanced training. However, a new generation of credentials that recognize experience and competence rather than seat-time herald better times ahead for adult education and workforce development.

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13 responses to “Credential Creep in the GIS Field—For Good or for Ill?”

  1. Interesting. I have 25+ years experience in mapping and modeling in the petroleum sector, but am trying to broaden my skill set and branch into other fields. I have been pondering what credentials would actually matter if I wanted to change direction professionally: Master’s in GIS? Grad Certificate? ESRI Cerification? or just get some real world experience by volunteering with organizations in other fields who might need help and not mind that I am still learning. I’m lucky, I can afford whichever route to credentials I choose. Many cannot.

  2. Inspiring article redefining the necessity of
    professional development within our forever
    changing field of Geographic Information Science.
    Looking forward to obtaining my GISP in 2015,
    in order to stay current with geospatial
    trends and to join forces with the credential creep.
    Not for Good or for Will, for the Best!

  3. Correct. An alternative interpretation is that the Kurtzweilian view of accelerating returns due to accelerating technology is pushing education along. So, “career maturity” times are shortening. The credentialist agenda comes up with creative ways to accommodate these increasingly nonlinear pathways – and rates of growth in performance expectations. So, certificates, certifications and the like serve also a palliative to numb the growing pain of careers and professions as the gap between performance expectations and skillset widens.
    Let’s all hang on tight to the handrails as we continue this ride!
    Demetrio P. Zourarakis, Ph.D., GISP, CMS-GIS/LIS, CMS-RS

  4. I really don’t have the money to shell out for certifications. Don’t these things tend to discriminate against people that are not members of professional organizations and spend most of their income on mortgages, student loans and child support? Does that mean we somehow don’t make the grade? I have years of experience with Enterprise integration, mobile GIS, geometric networks, software development, and the list goes on. None of these credentials seem to fit me. I am pretty good at what I do but I seem to fall between the cracks of this credential infrastructures. To boot is know some GISP’s i would not trust to park my car let alone have access to a production GIS database. I am thinking some work still needs to be done before I start drinking the kool-aid.

  5. This is unfortunately a situation that we built for ourselves. In the field of accounting or law, the certification and diploma is sufficient to confer competence. In IT fields where they try to reinvent themselves every 2-3 years, the traditional diploma (in terms of its technical training benefits) is next to worthless after a decade. We live in a world now where you can fall into two categories: 1: ) where your only as good as your last successful project and your ability to demonstrate immediate capability and value to the company, 2.) where you are new and inexpensive enough that a company will hire and train and invest in you to create the worker they value while capitalizing on your cheaper rate of cost.
    In both circumstances – we are now sharks. They must continue to swim to live – in that we must continue our education on-the-job to remain viable in the workforce. Welcome to the future – continuous education. Certifications are not a solution (unless you get one every 2-3 years). Stay in school kids – say no to programs selling titles.

  6. I was very interested in the idea of core competencies as a way of sorting out all the various courses (on-line, distance ed, MOOC …etc) as a way of ensuring some consistent quality within the GIS courses being offered. I have noticed that often the courses being offered teach you about the software and some general information about projections but it is a bit harder to find out more about things in depth. Yet if we are to avoid the GIGO analysis problem and terrible looking maps depth of understanding is what is needed.

  7. Who would have guessed even 10 years ago this would be the direction of GIS education. It was certainly the efforts of many educators to build something more comprehensive, but the a la carte approach seems to be the emerging trend. GIS is an interdisciplinary field that is ever expanding due to advancing technology and affordability for the masses. It is accelerating and moving in many directions simultaneously. It is not a field for the faint of heart, especially if a life-long career is desired. It requires constant scanning of a rapidly changing environment and finding the necessary training to remain current. The easy part is finding training. The difficult part is knowing which training will be the most relevant to one’s career considering the scarce resources of time and money. I have spent most of my training dollars with ESRI during the last 20 years. It turned out to be a good investment. But there is more to a career than technological training. Volunteering one’s time to work with others in local and national GIS organizations is vital to gaining perspective and judgment. With it, we can see more clearly which path will be most rewarding and what training will be most relevant.

  8. I agree with “tomprice” & “iaians” that these certificates both by ESRI and others allow many experienced professionals to fall between the cracks, but yet we have some of the most advanced skills that ESRI preaches for at their conferences. The get a certificate quick method is also pumping folks into the industry that HR can sign off on as “hirable” but these people can’t critically think to make an informative map to save their life. I’ll take someone with a Master’s degree in a particular field (i.e. geography, biology, etc) who shows business savvy and critical thinking with a short background in GIS, over someone with a pile of certificates that has digitized polygons for 25 years.

  9. I believe all of the badges, degrees, certificates, certifications and such are a form of flattery to our profession in a way. Everybody wants a piece of the pie. I have learned so much more in the trenches than in the classroom. I have met some of the smartest people that do not have all the acronyms, degrees and badges following their names. I have used GIS in so many real-world scenarios and have learned from each experience. I may not have the financial means, but I am resourceful and I find a way to learn what I need to. I may not receive decoration for my resume, but I believe my work speaks for itself. Workplaces do tend to get lazy and use credentials as a way to thin out the crowd, and in some places it shows. Unfortunately it is hard to test levels of GIS competence since GIS itself is so broad.

  10. What I feel is being suggested here is a formal, board-approved certification of some sort. This is not the medical field. Think of how many people have engineering degrees, or the title of engineer, but are not “certified” in a particular field. It takes all of us to make this world go round! I agree with travelingchick that I can afford to seek training as I choose. In response to nettiegino I am on the same path – about to submit for my GISP. I also teach a local community college class as part of a certificate program. I don’t/won’t have that same cert myself(anytime soon anyway) due to prerequisites and other college credit requirements. But – I love GIS. I have always loved maps. I loved to look at my grandma’s atlas as a kid. I can only know what I know today, and love to learn more. I also love to see others figure things out. “Everything is somewhere” – I say that frequently. My other frequent statement is that being good in GIS, like any job, is being resourceful. No one can know everything. If you know how to research solutions and learn new things, you can figure a lot of things out (in life too).

  11. Tom Price and Ross Paul Martin have made a very valid part. For those who started working in GIS back in the early ’80’s, before certifications to get a job, when GIS was an add on to drafting software like AutoCAD; getting a job today is not an easy thing to do. Companies are using the degree thing like a barbed wire fence not knowing if they need someone with a bachelor’s degree or a technician without a degree, but with a vast and various experience background. Not every company needs to spend money on high octane when plain unleaded fits the bill. I have worked most of my career in GIS and some form of mapping, keeping up with the software and what is new to get the job done.
    I have a family to support and am holding on to my current job until I can completely retire from the work force. Maybe, someone could write an article about those who started out believing in the value of GIS and where this “must have degree” leaves us. I’m not going to go as far as saying a degree is not necessary or is valueless, but perhaps companies need a guide as to what kind of employee they need to pay for.

  12. GIS is a broad and deep set of uses, processes, and technologies. One can work with GIS software daily and not be a GIS professional (think engineer or geologist), be a GIS professional and not be hands-on daily with GIS software (think system designer or team lead), or develop GIS apps and not work at all with many aspects of GIS. Engineering fields have Professional Engineers (as a license) working in CADD all day, and designers working in CADD all day.
    GIS is also very new to those not neck-deep in it. Several decades is a short time in the development of a practice / discipline. Business value of GIS, and more importantly its components, is still in development and review by those paying for it and those trying to hire for it.
    The issue, I believe, is less about what you do and more about what you are responsible for (or want to be in your career). The GISP (and ASPRS certs) are designed for those wanting to call themselves GIS Professionals. Not every GISer wants to do this, nor should they.

  13. I agree with tomprice that there are licenced and certified professionals that “i would not trust to park my car let alone have access to a production GIS database”. Although I haven’t experienced this with certified GIS Professionals, this type of statement can be made for any profession like P.Eng. or advanced degree holders like MBA, etc. Personality and aptitude are difficult to measure. Plus GIS Professionals in management roles need a different skillset than those touching DBs.
    I’ve also worked with people with advanced degrees with no practical experience as a GIS user as well as those with 15+ years of experience working as they would with the first release of ArcView. In my case, I recently tackled completion of my M.Sc. and GISP essentially as badges, to stretch myself and to back up an important measure of capability – extensive practical experience with web development, system and database administration going all the long way back to the pioneering days of WebGIS (90s). Credentials like these do matter to some HR departments (but not all). As a personal challenge, I’m also considering Esri Technical certification as a means to stay current with tech. while GISP recertification requires continued contribution to the profession which I feel is extremely important.
    I think basically, do the certs, badges, etc. that matter to you the most or you feel will help advance your career. If neither, just continue doing good things in your profession (certified, micro-credentialed or not), strech yourself, stay current and share with the community as this is what truly matters. As you share ideas, code, etc. and grow your network, you’ll get noticed.

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