The Coming RFID Skills Crunch

By Bob Violino

Suppliers are scrambling to figure out how to tag pallets and cases for retailers. But where will companies find qualified experts to install RFID systems? Some experts are predicting an expensive war for talent.

By Paul Prince

July 28, 2003 - Successfully implementing an RFID system is no simple matter. Just ask CHEP, a global provider of shipping pallets and containers to Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and many other corporate giants. Over the past several years, CHEP has equipped about 250,000 pallets with RFID tags and

John Greaves

installed about 50 readers in its Florida service centers in a pilot involving some of its manufacturer, distributor and retailer customers. But CHEP found its pilot was slowed down at times because the installers lacked the experience to foresee potential deployment snafus.

In one case, a reader mysteriously stopped working. It turned out that an employee had sat down on some steelwork to have a cigarette and accidentally knocked an antenna array out of alignment. John Greaves, CHEP’s director of RFID at the time and now an independent RFID consultant based in Chicago, Ill., attributes the root cause of the problem to a shortage of installers with the experience needed to do the job correctly the first time around. "The deployment failed to protect against it against that possibility because the deployer failed to recognize the possibility," he says.

Following Wal-Mart’s June 11 announcement that its top 100 suppliers need to put RFID tags on pallets and cases starting in January 2005 (see Wal-Mart Spells Out RFID Vision), companies are scrambling to learn how to deploy RFID. If Wal-Mart's announcement spurs other retailers to follow suit -- and most experts believe it will -- then suppliers could be faced with a huge shortage of people with the expertise needed to deploy the technology. Some people predict that the shortage of trained engineers and technicians will be so severe that it will bust the RFID industry just as it starts to boom. Others experts say that technicians and engineers can be drawn from other fields -- such as the once-hot telecommunications industry -- and can be quickly trained by companies offering RFID deployment and integration services.

John Greaves recently cofounded the ePC Group because he has years of hands-on experience and recognized the need for experts who can help companies deploy RFID systems successfully. He believes that 50 percent of RFID implementations will fail due to an insufficient number of qualified RFID system designers and installers. "Demand for RFID deployments will skyrocket in the next two years," Greaves predicts, "and disappointments in deployments will skyrocket exponentially, too."

Some companies will just have to learn the way CHEP did — on the job. "We had a lot of pioneering scars along the way," says Brian Beattie, CHEP’s senior vice president of marketing. "We learned a lot about the tags and a lot about the readers—where you place the readers, which types of readers to use. You can use a wall-mount reader, a fork-lift-mounted reader, a hand-held reader, and there are circumstances where some of those are efficient and where some of those aren’t."

That kind of learning takes time, and with Wal-Mart's deadline just 18 months away, many suppliers just don't have the time to go to the school of hard knocks. So is there a crisis looming?

It's still too early to tell for sure. Even companies that have already started deploying RFID say they have a lot to learn about what kinds of skills they’ll need to achieve success. "It’s something that we’re conscious of as part of our pallet- and case-tracking field

Tony Woo

trial program, but it’s too early in the program to give anything definitive," says Paul Fox, Gillette’s director of global external relations. "I think the field trial program will clearly roadmap some of the challenges that lie ahead, so we’ll have a better picture toward the end of 2003."

All of the experts that RFID Journal interviewed for this article foresee a shortage of qualified RFID system designers and installers — at least in the short term — but few see cause for alarm. That’s because most believe that the supply will quickly swell to meet the demand.

"I think the US is abundantly endowed with bright, goal-oriented people," says Tony C. Woo, University of Washington professor and the director of the university’s industrial engineering department. "Recall the optical communication business in the mid-1990s. There were a lot of optical engineers to meet the surge in the demand. A short-term switch-over [of engineers] will take place — if and when the RFID thing catches on."

Some people believe the most likely source of engineers will be those who have served the telecommunications industry. Jack Bourque, the president and founder of RFID Careers, says that he’s been a recruiter for RF-related businesses for nearly 20 years and helped a lot of companies hire talent for cellular telephone companies. Bourque believes that the same engineers who developed and deployed cellular systems in the 1990s are exactly the kind of engineers that can help these companies develop and deploy RFID systems within their own facilities. And there is no shortage of talent, he says.

"With RFID, you’ve got to have an antenna system set up around your facility to read the tags and setting up that RF system is very similar to setting up a mobile cellular system," Bourque says. "It’s just on a smaller scale."

Because of the complicated and sometimes unpredictable nature of radio waves, the job of setting up an RFID systems needs to be done by an engineer and not simply a technician or electrician, according to Bourque. "RF engineers will tell you that there's a little bit of black magic with RF and that it doesn’t work the same way all the time," he says. "I don’t think that an electrician or technician can do it; it’s not your cable guy. Maybe eventually — after the thing has been set up and tuned right and the system has been perfectly working — you can train the technician to make it fully operable, but in setting up the system, you’re going to need some specialized RF talent."

That approach may be unrealistic, according to Greaves, because engineers will be too costly. "The vast majority of implementers are not going to be engineers," he says. "They are going to actually be implementation specialists similar to electricians. But where are we going to get these people? Who’s going to get them up to speed?"

Greaves believes that to meet the huge demand for RFID installers, there needs to be a "mega-deliverer" — a national company with branch offices across the country that hires and trains workers to install RFID systems of any make and model. But given the high start-up costs of setting up such an enterprise, Greaves believes that attempts to create such a mega-deliverer will fail.

Not everyone agrees with Greaves’ dour assessment. Bill Anderson is the director of research and development and a partner at Genesta, a Rockwall, Texas, company that designs RFID systems and integrates them for the manufacturing and transportation and logistics industries.

Joe Tobolski

"RFID is clearly an extension of automatic data collection, which started with bar coding and has moved into other forms of data collection — speech-based, key-based and text-based data collection," says Anderson. "There’s a large pool of talent devoted to that industry. Companies like Symbol Technologies, Intermec Technologies and Handheld Products have traditionally implemented these types of systems for inventory control and inventory management. We’ve got to draw from that talent base."

Anderson says companies will be able to quickly retrain and ramp up their worker to install RFID systems. He also believes that the consulting arms of companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard and some of the big accounting firms will redeploy their technicians to offer RFID deployment services. These people will face a steep learning curve, but they should be able to climb it fairly quickly.

"We’ve been involved in some proposals for fairly large international rollouts, and everybody has been able to say, `Yes we can do that in a six-month timeframe'," Anderson says. "I guess the big question is, How many of those could you stack up before it would be an issue?"

No one really knows the answer to that question, but many experts believe that if it does become an issue, it’s not likely to remain a problem for long because RFID systems will become simpler to implement.

"Manufacturers of RFID equipment are going to make it easier and easier to install and manage systems out the box," says Joseph Tobolski, a senior manager in Accenture Technology Labs. "Someone's going to come up with automated tools for installation, for tuning and that sort of stuff, so that you can tune the field of an RFID reader, understand where it’s at and automatically make adjustments. The products themselves are going to evolve for more mass-market installation."

Tobolski likens the RFID situation to the advent of e-commerce. "Think about the early days of Web applications," he says. "It was really difficult to get a Web server up. E-commerce suites were unheard of, and you needed a lot of specialized skills, a lot of integration to pull off even a rudimentary e-commerce site," says Tobolski. "Now, you can buy Microsoft FrontPage for $250 and, with very little effort, put an e-commerce solution on a Web server that sits in your basement."

Genesta’s Anderson agrees. "Today, these systems are science projects, so when you roll them out, it’s a one-time deal and 100 percent custom," he says. "You need a very sophisticated person to implement something like that because they have to be aware of all the nuances. Over time, the pool of technicians will grow — not because there will be that many more folks who have become RFID experts but because the technology will be that much more attainable, useable and implementable."

Even if the technology gets easier to deploy, there's one staffing challenge that manufacturers, retailers and other companies will surely face: finding senior executives who can lead their company's RFID efforts.

Jack Bourque

"To have a leader in your company who can help your company cost-effectively qualify and deploy the right RFID technology is going to be of paramount importance," says Bourque. "You’re going to need a leader who, first of all, understands your company’s needs for an RFID deployment and then goes out and evaluates the different vendors to see which will provide the best return on your investment."

The fear is that without a strong leader who understands RFID, companies will waste time and money deploying the wrong technology or deploying it incorrectly. "We’ve seen that in our practice," says Anderson. "We’re in the process of implementing a project tracking engine blocks with Mack Truck. Mack Truck had gotten partially down the road with implementing another company’s RFID solution and, lo and behold, it turned out that the technology was incompatible with the process. But nobody had asked the right questions, like, 'Is the tag and the reader compatible with our environment and when we get the tag and reader into our environment, is it going to succeed?'"

But that leader needs to be more than just someone who understands technology and asks the right questions, say Bourque and others. That leader needs to champion the technology. Some large companies — such as Gillette, where vice president Dick Cantwell has been heading multifunctional team to test and deploy RFID technology — already have leadership in place that’s in tune with the technology and driving its acceptance throughout the organization. But Bourque says there's a critical shortage of strong candidates who have a strong technical knowledge of RFID and can effectively drive the adoption of a new and disruptive technology.

"When you combine a general shortage of leaders with a shortage of leadership in a technology area, you’re really talking about some war for top people," says Bourque. "That talent war is going to become guerilla war as companies fight for good talent."