Common section

Chapter 20

Ten Interesting Geographical Occupations

In This Chapter

bulletMapping a career in cartography

bulletPlanning a job in the health services or transportation fields

bulletAnalyzing employment prospects in marketing

H undreds of geography departments in colleges and universities around the world offer courses and degree programs that prepare people for exciting and rewarding careers. Here are ten examples of how geographic education gets put to work.

Air Photo Interpreter/Remote Sensing Analyst

Aerial photographs and satellite images are key sources of information about Earth’s surface and, therefore, important tools for geographic analysis. Numerous government agencies employ thousands of interpreters and analysts to monitor goings on in foreign countries as well as to keep tabs on domestic agriculture, forestry, and other items of environmental interest. City and regional planning authorities, as well as civil engineering and consulting firms, also hire specialists who use these tools to acquire information about their employers’ respective areas of interest and provide input into maps and databases that aid planning. Indeed, nearly all maps produced under government auspices these days are based on information provided by air photos and satellite images.

Area Specialist

An area specialist is a person who possesses a high degree of expertise in a particular part of the world. Latin Americanist, Africanist, and Sinologist (China expert) are typical job titles. Government agencies and international business concerns are the principal employers. Virtually hundreds of such people are hired by the U.S. State Department and Central Intelligence Agency to “keep current” on their region (mainly by reading newspapers and government reports printed in the region of expertise) so as to be able to provide the best possible information and advise to policy makers. In the business world, area specialists act in much the same capacity, focusing particularly on economic geography, human/cultural geography, and climatology. As the global economy becomes more interconnected, job opportunities for area specialists in the business world are likely to grow.

Cartographer/GIS Specialist

Cartographers and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists are concerned with production of maps, which are indispensable tools for displaying information about places and regions. Government agencies of all kinds use them for analytical and display purposes — ditto for construction and utility companies, architectural and engineering firms, and a host of other employers. The U.S. Defense Mapping Agency alone has thousands of cartographers in its hire, and that is just the tip of an employment iceberg that keeps growing. Nowadays, professional cartography is largely computer-based and complemented by GIS, which facilitates storage and mapping of a wide range of information about places.


The prospects for landing a job as a geography teacher in this country are the best they have been in at least 30 years and keep getting stronger. Sure, a long time ago geography largely disappeared from the curriculum as a stand-alone subject and became submerged in that academic goulash called social studies. Times have changed. The National Standards movement has not only resuscitated the teaching of geography, but has also mandated in many states that those who teach it have solid academic preparation in the subject. Sadly, the number of people who are so qualified is rather slim. The positive flip side of that statement is that opportunity awaits tomorrow’s teachers who specialize or major in geography. Also, growing awareness of the importance of geographic perspectives and technology by the government and business communities bodes well for future prospects in college teaching.

Environmental Manager

Environmental managers monitor and protect natural resources. Environ-mental protection agencies hire these professionals, as do public and private enterprises involved in waste disposal, water supply, forest conservation, wetland and coastal zone management, and other resource-related pursuits. Monitoring compliance with environmental laws is a major concern of environmental managers, as are preparation and review of environmental impact statements. Because environmental phenomena characterize different parts of Earth’s surface, they are an important field of study for geographers. Geo-graphy programs in colleges and universities offer a range of environmentally related coursework. Also, expertise in cartography, geographic information systems, air photo interpretation, remote sensing, and/or spatial data analysis greatly enhances career prospects in this field.

Health Services Planner

These planners seek to optimize delivery of and access to health services. Some of these professionals analyze and recommend locations for clinics, hospitals, and emergency response units. Others help to decide how to allocate specialized services (such as coronary care and burn units) among existing hospitals and health facilities. Still others analyze patterns of disease and health risks with a view to geographically targeting outreach and education programs aimed at prevention. While most of these planners have degrees in public health, many also turn to geography programs to acquire critical skills in cartography, geographic information systems, and spatial statistics.

Location Analyst

An old proverb says that the three most important determinants of the success of a business are location, location, and location. Although this is not literally true for every kind of business, the right location is often the difference between success and failure. Location analysts identify the factors that most affect (for better or worse) the success of a particular business, evaluate the viability of prospective sites with respect to those factors, and recommend a site to decision-makers. Many large (and not-so-large) retail chains maintain in-house think tanks of location analysts to help make all-important decisions regarding the locations of future stores. Numerous generic consulting firms do the same. Location analysis is an important component of economic geography courses.

Market Analyst

No, not the stock market, but instead, the prospective buyers of particular goods and services. People have different tendencies to purchase different things. Such variation may be a function of age, culture, race, ethnicity, income, or some other factor that may vary geographically. Determining the geography of the market for particular products and allocating merchandise accordingly is the job of the market analyst. You think this isn’t important? Some time ago, a nationwide retailer (that shall remain nameless) sold decent merchandise, but nevertheless went belly up, in part because of poor market analysis. Thus, they would open a 10,000 square foot store in a city that could easily support a 50,000 square foot store, while opening a 50,000 square foot store in a town that could only support a 10,000 square foot store. In other instances, they would allocate significant floor space to maternity clothing, baby goods, and toys in towns with a high percentage of retirees. Mind you, their location analysis was great. They had nice stores in superb locations. They were just the wrong-sized stores (in many instances) with the wrong product mix in the wrong locations. Good market analysis, a staple subject of economic geography, could have made a difference.

Transportation Planner

Transportation concerns movement of goods and people from one location to another. Thus, transportation planning is inherently geographical and attracts people with training in geography. Several specializations are involved. Sur-veyors who plan for future road construction typically are well-grounded in modern cartographic skills. Route planners concern themselves with devising optimal itineraries for public buses and planning for evacuation of areas in the face of diverse emergencies. Meanwhile, in the realm of manufacturing, appreciation is growing for “just in time” planning, which seeks to bring together product components at a factory . . . well, just in time for assembly, thus reducing significant warehousing costs. All of this rightly implies that the job outlook for transportation planning specialists is excellent.

Urban Planner

Cities consist of countless land parcels devoted to residential, commercial, industrial, cultural, recreational, transportation, governmental, sanitation, and other uses. Urban planners geographically allocate the various kinds of parcels in ways that promote orderly development of cities and enhance their attractiveness as places to live and work. Virtually thousands of counties and municipalities in the United States employ urban planners. Governments of nearly all major cities include a department of city planning that employs dozens of specialists in the field. The fact that cities keep growing and that 75 percent of Americans now live in them bodes well for the future of urban planning as a career field. Cartography, geographic information systems, air photo interpretation, and analysis of spatial databases have emerged as critical tools of the planning trade.

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