Thanks to an initial $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), students at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) are part of a prototype program that is training workers in geospatial technology. DOL has determined that geospatial technology is one of the top three in-demand areas for trained personnel.

“We are developing a model curricula and are creating courses, certifications and degrees that can be copied at schools all over the U.S.,” says Rodney Jackson, director of CPCC’s Geospatial Technology Training Center and the school’s Geospatial Technology Education efforts..

Geospatial technology encompasses anything you can measure on the earth, then analyzing the data and representing it, whether through maps, photography or charts. It includes both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS).

The driving directions systems now available in many cars use geospatial technology, as do Google Earth and Google Map and the land records departments of local governments. Local governments also use the technology to map their sewer and storm water lines, down to the location of every manhole.

“We need a lot of people building and maintaining the quality of the data,” Jackson says.

Geospatial technology also offers a lot of diversity in terms of the kinds of jobs available. Jackson says someone could “sit virtually motionless in a dark room for significant amounts of time” or “spend 95% of your time in the field” and “everything in between.” A high degree of manual dexterity is required for a number of positions, which might require manually running installations from a keyboard without being able to look at it, or having to make drawings from a map.

The field also plays an important role in many Homeland Security concerns, such as mapping escape routes in case of a disaster, mapping water supplies in case of contamination, or mapping out gas dispersal if radiation is introduced into the atmosphere.

“It’s about spatial relationships,” Jackson comments. “It’s about applying long-time geographic principles and the using computers to analyze the data to problem solve — at about 100 times the speed.”

Jackson says he has helped place students in internships that pay $10 to $11 an hour, and he estimates the annual starting salaries for many program graduates could be about $25,000.

Courses are available online and in the classroom for students looking to earn an associate degree or a certification. Continuing education course are also offered. More than 50 different students are enrolled in the 10 courses being offered this semester and being taught by five instructors. Last fall, only two courses — both part of the degree program — were available. Certificates were added in the spring, and the first ones will be awarded at the end of the current semester.

Jackson would eventually like to see the Geospatial Training Center take on projects for local businesses so students can get some hands-on experience during their training. They are already working on an infrastructure project for CPCC.

Hired in January, Jackson attends conferences and visits local governments in the area to make them aware of the program, an effort he calls a “multi-peer recruitment effort.”

An associate degree requires 70 hours of class credits; the certificate programs, 15 hours. Students in both programs can specialize in tracks focusing on databases, programming, cartography, utilities, land records, geodetics and photogrammetry. Thanks to the federal grant, the continuing education courses are free, and scholarships are available for the other programs.

Jackson, 40, came to CPCC from East Carolina University, where he was teaching GIS and where he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees. Previously, when he was teaching at Johnston Community College, he built the first GIS program in the state.