The global geospatial industry has been transforming at breakneck pace, witnessing too many, and too frequent disruptions. While the business leaders seem to have accepted and embraced this reality, the people working in the industry are clearly struggling to keep pace with technology innovation. Perhaps that is why, a whopping 84% of over 2,000 industry professionals who took part in Geospatial World Annual Readership Survey 2020 acknowledged that there was a skill gap in terms of what the industry needs and what professionals coming out of universities have to offer (Graph 1).
New developments in technology are fundamentally reorienting the industry, and there is an immediate need to gear the process towards ongoing innovations. This requires a set of dedicated professionals who are proficient in new technologies and can smoothly handle them. Currently, there is a striking demand-supply gap that is creating challenges for the industry and slowing the pace of automation.
The biggest reason for this widening gap, as cited by the industry professionals in the survey, was that the professional courses they had pursued were not aligned with the requirements of the industry. There is a gap between what the industry desires in terms of human resources and the education/training model prepared by universities to meet that desire. One of the main issues is that the curriculum is not in sync with the emerging technologies, and often students learn about methodologies and frameworks that are fast becoming obsolete. The curriculum needs to be constantly updated, with more emphasis on hands-on training, workshops and mock practices that prepare the students for the industry. Imparting skillsets that are not industry-specific would lead to a workforce that is woefully under skilled and create a talent deficit, taking a toll on the economy. Academia and industry need to collaborate more widely to address this issue.
The survey also highlighted concerns around lack of training from the industry and its inability to articulate its demand. “It has always been difficult to find application programmers and analysts who are up to speed with the latest tech breakthroughs, especially in the rapidly innovating field of GIS. There is a time lag in staffing up,” says Jack Dangermond, Founder & President, Esri.
There was also a broader consensus among these professionals about the existing workforce not being equipped to train in emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. More than half of the responders (52%) said that professionals cutting across companies and positions weren’t equipped, while 21% felt otherwise and 27% weren’t sure (Graph 2).
As we move into the new digital age, which will be powered by AI and automation, this skill gap will only widen. The disruption unleashed at the advent of Industry 4.0 would be unparalleled and overhaul a lot of the industrial sectors and their workflows. As per a report, the number of qualified researchers in the field of AI is approximately 300,000, while companies require a million or more for their engineering needs. This is a huge gap which can only be bridged if companies prioritize reskilling their employees and prepare for the changing paradigm.
So, are big businesses preparing their staff for a smooth transition? Apparently not. 44% of the respondents felt that the companies are not equipping their workforce for a new tech-driven age, while 27% were not sure (Graph 3). Maybe that is why, majority of professionals felt that attracting strategic talent, followed by reskilling the current workforce and developing leadership skills will be some of the major tasks in front of the industry in the times to come.
According to the Geospatial World Business Leaders’ Outlook 2020, which is based on responses of more than 100 industry heads from all over the world, while rising HR costs is one of the biggest internal challenges for them, there isn’t too much concern around bridging the skill gap. “The good news in our business is that there is no shortage of people interested in learning about and working in technology. The biggest challenge is ensuring we have a diverse workforce by all accounts — demographic, geographic, psychographic, etc. The future of technology is the future of humanity, and we need to be sure that our workforce reflects the people we aim to serve,” says Ola Rollén, President & CEO, Hexagon.
When business leaders were quizzed about the top ten threats to growth, the skill gap featured on the sixth spot. However, the industry leaders did have an opinion on ways to bridge this gap. Among the top remedies were changing workforce composition, upskilling of existence workforce, hiring from mainstream IT and user companies, and establishing a strong pipeline.
There are speculations that automation would be a mixed bag as far as employment issues are concerned. The anxiety over a “Rise of Machines” future is certainly unfounded, at least in the near future, and while a lot of current jobs would become redundant, new jobs that require highly specialized skills would be created. And automation would not supersede humans, but compliment them. Though we need to buckle up and focus on upgrading existing skillsets. Leading industry titans have often reiterated that AI would be overall beneficial to the society and massively increase productivity.
As far as the fear of job cuts due to automation goes, the views presented by the industry professionals and leaders were highly contradictory. When asked if increasing automation will lead to massive job cuts, 54% of professionals said yes, while 16% weren’t sure (Graph 4). On the other hand, 66% of business leaders felt that AI and automation will in fact create new jobs, rather than taking away the existing ones. Only 17% of the industry leaders thought that the number of jobs will reduce (Graph 5).
Contrary to the common perception, there were industry leaders who said that the frequent technology advancements did not have an adverse impact on their hiring policies. “Actually, technology is not adding complexity to our hiring strategies. We are continually transforming our employee base through acquisition of capability, new hiring as the result of attrition and an active internal training program. This is a normal evolutionary response to a changing world landscape,” says Trimble President and CEO Rob Painter.
The next wave of the Industrial Revolution, which is often termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will drastically change our world. The fact that machines, devices, sensors and people will be able to communicate with each other, will create different levels of interoperability and connectivity. In such a progressively interconnected world, the most powerful way of exploring the physical and digital landscapes for individuals, businesses and governments will be through the ‘where’ dimension. Regardless of the veracity of that statement that “80% of all the data in the world has a spatial relation”, there world has seen an exponential increase in the amount of spatial information in the last few years. From smartphones, self-driving cars to machines that think, the sheer level of ubiquity is subsuming geospatial systems into common everyday processes.
In such a scenario, for the geospatial industry to have the desired impact, it would require the availability of a highly skilled and dedicated workforce. While there is certainly no dearth of talent, the onus is on all stakeholders to make new professionals more employable and reskill the existing staff to stay relevant. The current skill gap can be mitigated by following a comprehensive approach that takes into the account the changing industry dynamics, specific needs of businesses and the skillset imbibed by the workforce. Because as American lawyer-politician Brad Henry says, “No other investment yields as great a return as the investment in education. An educated workforce is the foundation of every community and the future of every economy.”