Labor Pains

By Bob Violino

With Wal-Mart and its top 100 suppliers about to begin deploying RFID systems, the industry could be facing a shortage of qualified implementers.


By Mark Roberti

July 28, 2003 – I’ve been saying for some time now that RFID is not a plug-and-play technology — at least not yet. Because the industry is still relatively young and immature, there aren’t a whole lot of people with the skills to evaluate the RF environment in warehouses and distribution centers, to install and tune readers, to tag products with

water and metal and so on. With Wal-Mart and its top 100 suppliers about to begin deploying RFID technology, there could be a shortage of skilled workers needed to implement these systems.

This week’s Featured Story shines the light on this potential problem (see The Coming RFID Skills Crunch). The experts are divided on how severe the shortage might be, where potential RF implementers might come from and how long the shortage might last. But there is one thing they do agree on: the most critical shortage will be of high-level executives with a deep understanding of RFID and the seniority to lead a company-wide effort.

There are a few senior people who have already established themselves in this area. Rick Schendel at Target, Simon Langford at Wal-Mart and Dick Cantwell at Gillette are among those who come immediately to mind. There are, no doubt, other senior executives with the knowledge of RFID and the clout within their organization to get things done. But the population is small, and the competition for them will likely become fierce. Anyone remember when big companies were offering boatloads of stock options to lure senior executives that understood selling on the Web?

I’ve always anticipated that eventually there would be a demand for people with a wide variety of RFID skills. When we relaunched the RFID Journal Web site in January, we added a job board. We haven’t promoted it, because up until now, the job market has been pretty stable. That’s starting to change. Vendors have been staffing up their sales operations, and end user companies are beginning to hire. We also launched an RFID University program to help senior executives and project managers to get up to speed quickly on RFID (to learn more, visit RFID U.).

I agree with those who say the shortage of skilled implementers will likely be relatively short term. There are two reasons. First, the products are going to get better. RFID vendors have been steadily improving their products for years, but as adoption ramps up, greater sales means there will be more money to invest in R&D. Plus, the companies can take the lessons learned from major implementations and refine their products. RFID readers may never be plug-and-play, but they will certainly get to the point where you don’t need an engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology to install one.

The second important factor is the mobility and flexibility of the global workforce. North America, Europe and Asia have large pools of highly educated workers, many of whom have computer and engineering skills. These people will be drawn to opportunities in the RFID industry, and the supply of workers will expand to meet demand. In the meantime, the shortage of labor will benefit those who have already paid their dues.

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