Career Profile: James Higgins

With more than 18 years' professional experience, Jim Higgins has witnessed the maturation of the GIS industry into a "bright outlook" occupational field.¹  In a typical day, more than one million people representing 350,000 organizations worldwide use his company's software. But when Jim was completing his master's degree in geography  during the mid-1990s, desktop GIS applications were just emerging. Fortunately for him and his classmates, West Chester University of Pennsylvania had one of the first site licenses for Esri products, and students were encouraged to experiment with the software both inside and outside of the classroom. Jim soon found that GIS "was all I wanted to do," and he eventually abandoned his plans for a career as a resource economist to pursue his newfound interest.

As Regional Manager of Esri's Philadelphia office since 2005, Jim's primary role is to demonstrate how geography and GIS can enhance the operations of businesses throughout the Central-Eastern U.S. while supervising the region's sales and technical teams. He is also one of the company's first "sector managers," leveraging his previous employment experience to provide technical expertise to customers within the water and wastewater industry nationwide. While he notes the relevance of specialized skills to his work, Jim stresses that general skills are essential to his daily interactions with colleagues and clients. In his opinion, "Time management is the most important skill for any entry-level position at Esri." In addition, successful applicants also need to be effective writers and speakers. "If a candidate has those three high-level skills, domain-based training can fill any remaining gaps," he explains.

Jim describes the field of GIS as "strong," "growing," and having "more opportunities than ever." Sharing lessons learned from his own career trajectory, he suggests that job seekers attend relevant conferences and events to expand their professional networks and that they seek out mentors to advise them in their career preparation. Reflecting on the many job candidates he has encountered, he notes, "smart individuals at all levels can be very focused on their own needs versus the organization's needs so they miss opportunities right in front of them." Jim recommends that applicants consider the many ways in which they might contribute to organization rather than focusing on a specific role or title, pointing out that "I never, ever imagined myself coming into sales or managerial positions, but I grew into it." 

Despite the growing appreciation for GIS within a variety of academic disciplines, the field requires an understanding of the geographic perspective. Therefore, geographers are uniquely positioned for success within the GIS job market, and indicators suggest that there are not enough qualified graduates to meet projected industry demands for the coming decade. As Jim concludes,  "There's no better time to be coming through a geography program... This is the most exciting time that I've ever seen to be a geographer." 

This profile was published in 2011 by Dr. Joy Adams.

¹ The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the designation "bright outlook " for occupations that "are expected to grow rapidly in the next several years, will have large numbers of job openings, or are new and emerging occupations." [Source:]