Monday 28 October 2013

What price cartography?

An advert caught my eye this morning for a 12 month maternity cover post as a Cartographic Assistant in Cambridge UK. Salary? £14,000 (maximum) per annum plus a few odd benefits like a clothing allowance (map ties?). Now before I get carried away I appreciate this is for the post of 'assistant' and it's a non-permanent contract but...

That salary is derisory. In my last few years as a lecturer at Kingston University it was becoming increasingly difficult to attract wannabee degree students to courses that blended GIS with mapping and computer science.  Mapping has become so pervasive that so many presume it's largely something that just 'happens' and the job market reflects that; there can't possibly be a worthwhile career to be had; and surely it's not worth dedicating three years of study on. We also worked closely with the geo-industry and the story we got from them is that they were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit graduate level talent with geo-skills. Sure, plenty of geography graduates who can staff the local McDonalds but not that many with the skills for a modern mapping job.

When you see derisory salaries such as this you can easily see why the industry is not attractive to people deciding what to choose for their degree and possible career path. A quick look at what graduates earn reveals an average graduate salary of £21,762 and an average non-graduate of £14,801. Geography graduates slightly below average, Computer Science slightly higher. Big bucks for Engineering, Medicine, Dentistry etc... There's clear value in getting a University education and that's without taking account of future earning potential.

Why then, is cartography relegated to the non-graduate pile, particularly as the world now more than ever needs people with skills in understanding and communicating spatial information and who can both build and harness the amazing new mapping tools we have? For what it's worth, my perception is still that far too many sorely underestimate the value they place on quality mapping. They don't really understand what it means to be a cartographer, what it entails and see it as a relatively low-skilled position. We've all heard the jibes about "hasn't the world already been mapped" and that attitude pervades but if companies really want to get serious with their mapping they need to hire people who know what they are doing and can do it well.

So the company advertising this position clearly sees cartography as a non-graduate role. Little wonder, then, that it's tough to persuade people of the value of a University education in GIS/Mapping or a related subject. Cartography, then, will continue to be classed as a largely unimportant and poorly paid job. I pity the person who takes this...a quick look at the Cambridge rental market reveals an average rent of £1,135 per month. Good luck living off your spare £380 for the year...oh, wait, that rent doesn't include Council Tax, Utilities and lattes...debt here we come!


  1. I've often noted that cartographers need to have much of the same skill set as GIS folks and graphic designers, and yet we get paid far less than either on average.

  2. Perhaps we should describe ourselves as Spatial Engineers? Experts who engineer spatial information and it's representation...

  3. It's difficult to overcome the ingrained perception that it's just "colouring in with computers"

  4. I think a big part of the problem is the recruiting people often have no idea what GIS/cartography is. Often they've shelled out a load of money for some software then realise it doesn't work all by itself. So they know they should use GIS/mapping for something but haven't the foggiest of what it might be used for within the company. So either the job advert is incredibly vague, or asks for a list of skills/programming languages as long as your arm. Then in turn that job description has to get through a HR department who have even less of a clue what the job is, hence some of the salaries.