Hidden Geographers

Remarks given at William Patterson University by Mary Lynne Bird, November 18, 2002

This morning, as you had your breakfast, if the jam you spread on your toast was Smuckers jam, it was the perfect way to get ready for what I have to say.

The fruit that went into making that jam was selected and purchased by a geographer.

Reid Wagstaff, a PhD in geography, is the fruit buyer for the Smuckers company. He is the fellow who makes the deals to buy all the various kinds of fruit from all over the country that Smuckers uses for its products. When you stop to think about all the issues that go into determining the quality of the produce the company uses: soil, climate, irrigation, distance from the field to the plant, transportation options—it makes a lot of sense that a geographer is in charge of those decisions. But who would have guessed it was a geographer in that position without hearing about it?

Dr. Wagstaff is not the only geographer, however, to turn up in a surprising career. I want to talk this morning about some of those hidden geographers.

This is Geography Awareness Week—or close to it–but let’s think about it instead as Geographer Awareness Week That might give us a more realistic, hands-on take on just what the discipline of geography and those who practice it mean to our economy and our society.

It would be a rare and wonderful thing if we could scan the help wanted ads and see Fortune 500 companies advertising to hire people identified as geographers. The fact that we seldom see such notices, however, is misleading. There are numerous geographers ensconced neatly in what might seem like unlikely corporate berths. There are many other geographers doing nicely as well in other non-academic but non-corporate positions where one might never think to look for them.

There are brochures about careers in geography that have been put out by various organizations or counseling centers, but the categories of employment stated in them are so broad that they may not be very helpful to someone who really needs to figure out where the jobs are or—equally important–where they could be. This is a case where real-life examples, rather than impersonal generalities, can be a lot more useful and more likely to make one think creatively about yet other possibilities.

At the American Geographical Society we enjoy taking note of geographers in unusual places. AGS has traditionally been the bridge between the academic geographical community and the outside world. So the Society has always had an especially strong relationship with individual geographers in business and government. That pattern goes back to 1851, when AGS was founded by people in business, law, finance, journalism, and government.

But we started paying particular attention to geographers out in the non-academic world over a recent fifteen-year period when we recruited many of them for a volunteer, business-geography teaching program in their local schools. To find potential volunteers, we asked geography departments around the country to identify their geography majors who had wound up in the business world so that we could contact them. We wound up with some 85 volunteers over the course of the program, but in the process we learned about and were in touch with many more.

In addition, for some years AGS held networking meetings in New York City for geographers in business and government in the Tri-State area. Those gatherings put us in touch with more geographers in a wide range of positions.

It was a revelation to find out just where some geographers had landed. In addition to all the obvious places you would expect to find them, there are some truly unusual careers to take note of, and those are what I thought you might find interesting and thought-provoking to hear about this morning.

No one has much good to say about meals on the airlines these days, when a pretzel and a soft drink pass for lunch, but I’ve been willing to look with more tolerance on American Airlines because, for several years, the Vice President in charge of their food service operations globally was a geographer. Rob Britton, with a PhD in geography from the University of Minnesota, was the person who dealt with the logistics, sources of supply, and quality issues involved in serving millions of passengers on flights around the world. A most logical challenge for a geographer, when you stop to think about it. Dr. Britton has since moved on and up in the company to a position where he is dealing with other airlines–the code-sharing program frequent fliers have encountered. His job involves the coordination of flight schedules of several of the largest airlines as well as business arrangements among those airlines.

American Airlines also had the services at an executive level of another geographer, Donald Lloyd-Jones, with a PhD in economic geography from Columbia University. He was the Chief Financial Officer of American Airlines for many years and later moved on to American Express, where he bought airliners and on behalf of AmEx leased them to most of the larger airlines. Dr. Lloyd-Jones got his start at American Airlines dealing with very geographical challenges: the economics of alternative routes and the logistics of staffing. By the way, he served as President of the American Geographical Society for several years.

Let’s get out of the air and back down to earth now to talk about a geographer whose research on the environmental history of plots of land led to a nicely remunerative job at a law firm doing work in real estate. Craig Colten, with a PhD in geography from Syracuse University, published an article in the Geographical Review about how to track down and fix legal responsibility for the pollution of a piece of property. Just who is going to pay for the cleanup of that plot of land and any affected property in its vicinity is obviously a major issue when a piece of real estate is being sold. The Geographical Review has a readership that extends considerably beyond academe. So Dr. Colten’s article was read by a lawyer at a law firm specializing in real estate. She concluded that he would be a significant asset to their firm. He was hired and worked at the firm for several years. Dr. Colten says it was a great break for him and that he could have made a very rewarding career for a lifetime, doing environmental legacy research for law firms fulltime if he had not finally chosen to go back into academe. He is now the chair of the geography department at Louisiana State University, but his lengthy stint at the law firm left him well positioned to continue to do consulting on environmental real estate issues for other law firms at his convenience for many years to come.

Law firms are not the only places where real estate questions call for the expertise of geographers. We have been surprised to discover how many geographers wind up working at large banks–in the mortgage and real estate investment divisions. We found them in particular at Citibank in the Northeast and Wachovia in the South, but there were geographers at other banks as well. In the case of the banks, their interest in employing geographers probably has to do with real estate development forecasting instead of the pollution liability issues that concern law firms. One geographer at Citibank, Rick Nesper, however, was not in the real estate division. He was involved instead in research and planning for the placement of branch offices.

As you might guess, we found geographers working directly for land development and large construction companies rather than for the banks that finance them. They are surely dealing with the same issues, however: logistics, environmental questions, and forecasting. Anyone who rearranges the landscape or alters land use has good reason to seek input from geographers. Development and construction companies seemed like fairly predictable places to find geographers, however. It was the banks that we had not expected.

A few of the less surprising perches for geographers that we encountered were the environmental consulting firms that advise land development and construction companies and local governmental offices. Add to those the several waste management companies with geographers on staff. And a traffic management consulting firm on Long Island whose entire professional staff is made up of geographers. These seem like more familiar haunts for geographers.

But back to the not-so-obvious. We discovered a program manager for a national public radio station whose only degree was a bachelors in geography. She contended that the study of geography is the best possible preparation for anyone doing serious journalism. She may be right. There is a geographer at the New York Times, Seth Feaster, who started out doing maps for the newspaper but whose byline as a reporter is appearing on more and more stories.

Now for a hero—someone’s friendly neighborhood firefighter, who is a geographer. He turned up at one of our networking gatherings and said that there were more firefighter geographers where he came from–somewhere in New Jersey. He spends a lot of his time actually fighting fires, but one of his responsibilities at the firehouse has been to create a GIS database that enables the emergency vehicles to respond to a fire alarm via the fastest route. His database takes into account all the factors that affect traffic and the choice of routes: day of the week, time of day, weather, construction impediments, parades and other events, one-way streets, and so on. The database has to spit out that route within seconds from the time the call comes in and make it available to be read on the screen in the cab of the fire engine. Quite a challenge. I think we have all heard about police departments—in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere–making some use of Geographic Information Systems for smarter policing—If you watch the District television series, you get a taste of that—but we had not heard about the fire departments. And it was interesting that a real geographer, able to conceptualize issues that might not occur to someone who is simply a GIS practitioner, had been given this assignment.

As for other folks who keep society functioning, we discovered geographers working at the telephone company—what is Verizon now but was Nynex then. It hadn’t occurred to us to find them there, but, of course, it made all kinds of sense once we did. They were involved in assessing and predicting geographical patterns of the growth in demand for services. That could range from something as simple as where to place and maintain pay telephones to questions of where to place cellular towers.

We found a few geographers in positions with power companies in New York City and Long Island. Like the geographers with the telephone company, they were involved in forecasting and planning for changes and growth in power demand, but they were also dealing with questions of energy production. The placement and impact of power plants are quintessentially geographical questions, whether it be windmill farms, nuclear power plants, dams, or fuel burning facilities.

One geographer who came to our networking sessions, has since relocated but was then in charge of the economic development office for the state of Connecticut. We are not sure how unusual that was, but it would be interesting to find out how many geographers hold similar positions in other states.

A couple of years ago the AGS Council had a whole day of private briefings from a dozen geographers working in the research division of the Central Intelligence Agency. One of the most riveting presentations was from an unnamed key person in the CIA section that tracks the global illegal drug trade. She spoke about the flow and volume of the drugs, sources and destinations; the impact on economies, social structure, health, and corruption; the environmental impact of drug production, narco-terrorism, and governmental stability around the world. It was a blockbuster presentation and we left impressed and pleased that it was a geographer who gave it.

Another geographer with an offbeat career comes to mind. With a PhD from Rutgers and based in New York City, for several years this geographer ran an independent consulting business, organizing and marketing conferences for corporate and organization clients. Before she struck out on her own, she worked for a consulting company that did just that on a larger scale.

AGS takes interns, and occasionally they land in places we would not have thought of. One of the young geographers who did an internship at AGS has wound up in the promotions department of Madison Square Garden, where you can be sure he is applying what he knows about geographical segmentation of markets.

AGS takes interns from abroad as well as from all parts of the United States. They often find careers we never would have predicted. One of our international interns returned home to Singapore to put her geographical training to use as a navigator for the navy of Singapore. When she first told us about it, the Singaporean navy sounded like a joke. But, of course, Singapore was founded and developed as a port, and its role as a port is still a crucial part of its economy. The flourishing of pirates in the South China Sea means that ships going to and from Singapore are passing through a very bad neighborhood. The small but scrappy Singaporean navy is tasked with keeping the pirates from destroying this important part of the Singaporean economy. And the one-time AGS intern, is making sure her ship knows where it is going.

Now consider this. Speaking only about those sectors where we encountered these individual geographers, I have touched upon the travel industry, communications, energy, marketing, the military, public safety, food production, banking, the law, environmental protection, real estate development, the media, the commercial world of sporting events and conferences, local economic development, intelligence gathering and analysis, and traffic management and planning. And these have been just the offbeat venues of a few geographers who have struck off on different paths to do something away from the rest of the crowd. Think how much of our economy and society is being informed and enabled by just these few geographers.

If we add to that the more usual sectors where geographers can be found at work, we see that the role of geographers in the structure of the economy and society in this country is already truly pervasive. As the range of activities for geographers is expanded through the use of such technology as GIS and GPS, that role is only going to grow.

Recognizing that is an appropriate way to mark Geography Awareness Week.

It is also a realistic way for undergraduate geography majors to think about their future.

There is almost no part of the economy, the government, or society at large where a geographer cannot make a professional contribution. The trick is to identify what a geographer could do in any given situation and to persuade others to give the geographer a chance to do it.

We have so many inquiries at AGS about job possibilities, so many requests for career counseling… We have found that the most genuinely helpful thing we can do is to get someone to think out of the box, forget looking for a specific job description that they think fits them and look instead for a job where they can be creative in putting their geographical knowledge and training to work. That is pretty much what the individuals I’ve been talking about this morning have done. They have been creative and imaginative. And every individual geographer who does that, who blazes a new trail, expands the outreach of the discipline while doing very well for herself or himself.

I would also humbly suggest that any geographer planning to reach out beyond academe become familiar with the American Geographical Society and with its publications. The society has always had an especially robust relationship with geographers outside of academe as well as a healthy relationship with academic geographers.

Finally, to suggest the breadth of sectors that geography touches on, I could do worse than to cite the professional identities of the members of the Council, i.e. board of directors, of the American Geographical Society. It includes eleven academic geographers—all members of university faculties, as well as the senior science correspondent of the New York Times, an archeologist, an architect, the owner of a gas and oil exploration company, a partner in a Wall Street law firm, a senior executive of ESRI, the owner of a theater supply company (who has a PhD in geography and markets worldwide), the recently retired president of Texaco Far East/Middle East, a senior staff member of the U.S. Geological Survey, a consultant to companies in the minerals industry worldwide, the retired chief executive of a global electronics corporation, the chief risk officer of Delta Air Lines, the owner of a map and globe store, and the president of the New York Society of Security Analysts. What an assortment! But the discipline of geography is of vital interest to all of them. Just as the discipline of geography and the contributions geographers have to make are essential to this country, its economy, its polity, its environment, and its society.

That is what Geography Awareness Week should make us realize and should make us remember.

Mary Lynne Bird
Executive Director
The American Geographical Society