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RFID's Impact on Employment

Some jobs may be eliminated as adoption grows, but far more will be created than lost.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 09, 2010I was speaking to a privacy consultant about Wal-Mart Stores' use of radio frequency identification on some apparel items, and I had just managed (I think) to convince him that the retailer's approach didn't threaten consumer privacy when he said, "But it's going to kill jobs."

I guess some people believe that any new technology must bring with it negative consequences, but it's worth looking at whether RFID will, in fact, lead to layoffs. The issue is complex. In my view, the company's use of RFID on clothing is unlikely to affect employment very much.

The RFID system Walmart is using is designed to enable the retailer to track individual apparel items from the time they are received at a distribution center until customers pick the items off shelves. Handheld readers will make it possible for Walmart's store associates to quickly scan the shelves, determine what's missing and replenish those items.

The system is designed to increase sales (since items are in stock), not lower labor costs. It is highly likely that Walmart's employees will spend less time checking shelves for missing jeans of a specific size; instead, they'll be asked to spend more time assisting customers, refolding items and performing other tasks. But it is possible that Walmart might slightly reduce the number of hours for which part-timers are needed.

As RFID adoption expands, it is also likely there will be some reduction in the workforce required in warehouses, distribution centers and the backs of stores. At the same time, there will be an increase in jobs that involve creating, installing and maintaining RFID systems, plus an increase in IT jobs, because of all the additional data that the technology will generate. And, most important, there will be an increase in jobs for those who design, manufacture and sell products, as well as those in jobs that support those individuals.

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