RFID expertise ranks highly with employers

With two years experience working with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in a supply chain setting, Erwin Veer is part of an elite group.

Veer is the global RFID coordinator for Ahold, the Dutch food retailer that is parent to multiple supermarket chains in the U.S., including Stop & Shop and Giant Food. Ahold, based in Zaandam, the Netherlands, is among the early adopters looking to introduce RFID technology to supply chain processes.

RFID technology isn’t new, but its use by retail and consumers goods companies to track products in supply chains is an emerging application. Adoption in these industries is on the fast track, spurred by mandates from organizations such as Wal-Mart, Target and the U.S. Department of Defense that are beginning to require suppliers to tag cases and pallets with RFID labels.

As manufacturers rush to meet mandates, and more retailers begin investigating RFID, the competition for experienced RFID professionals is heating up.

In a survey released earlier this year, 80 per cent of respondents said there’s currently a shortage of RFID-skilled professionals available for hire. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) conducted the survey, which polled 50 vendors, consultants, systems integrators and manufacturers.

These companies are having a hard time finding people who understand the science of radio frequency technology — such as how radio waves work and what types of interference issues can arise, says David Sommer, vice-president of electronic commerce at CompTIA. “There aren’t a lot of people with that knowledge at this point in time. That’s the major gap that we see.”

In a hot new market with few real-world implementations to date, Veer’s hands-on RFID experience — strategic and technical — is a rarity. “It’s on the one hand flattering, on the other hand, scary, to see after working for two years in this environment that I’m considered an expert,” says Veer, whose background is in supply chain management.

Growing into the job

As Ahold has progressed from investigating to piloting to deploying RFID systems, Veer has picked up more technical knowledge than he would have liked — out of necessity. With a mature technology like bar codes, it’s not important to know the intricacies of how a reader works, Veer says. With considerably less stability in the RFID market, technical knowledge is critical. “I must have it. Otherwise, I can’t make investment decisions,” Veer says.

Veer can attest to the skill-gap. To deploy RFID equipment in a real-world setting requires professionals to design an installation plan, as well as get the equipment operating in the field. “In creating RFID solutions, you need a combination of theoretic knowledge with some practical implementation skills,” Veer says. “In those two areas, there are definitely big shortages.”

Design plans conceived before implementation almost always need to be adjusted to on-site conditions — this makes RFID difficult. What works in a lab might not work in an active distribution center. Physical conditions, such as a metal roof over one dock door or a power generator in close proximity to another dock door, can wreak havoc on an RFID system, for example. “For every dock door there could be a reason you have to move away from theoretical model and adjust things a little bit because the practical reality is different,” Veer says.

Today, Ahold depends largely on consultants and systems integrators for each RFID project.

“We have chosen not to bring onboard a big staff of RFID specialists, but instead let consultancies and systems integrators do their job,” Veer says. “The reason is that we think within a couple of years RFID knowledge will be just as common and standard as with bar code reading. And when that’s the case, we wouldn’t need all those specialists.”

Seizing an opening

In the mean time, the RFID skill shortage could be an opportunity for IT professionals.

Among its list of 21 “hot jobs” for 2005, executive search firm Christian & Timbers included chief RFID strategist — a position made popular, in part, because of the retailers and suppliers flocking to RFID.

Christian & Timbers defines a chief RFID strategist as someone who will design and implement RFID systems across platforms and the supply chain, and drive changes to business processes to use RFID-generated corporate and partner data.

There are generally two paths to becoming a chief RFID strategist — supply chain or RFID product development (someone in supply chain management could be an IT person, though doesn’t necessarily have to be), says Umesh Ramakrishnan, a vice-chairman at Christian & Timbers. Candidates can expect compensation of between US$175,000 to US$300,000, including extras and benefits, he says. Typically, senior RFID positions report to a CIO, COO or CEO.

A good number of available positions today are with professional services firms, Ramakrishnan says. “Most are not asking for more than one year of RFID experience. They basically want a good, solid project manager or a developer who can get direction from someone who’s been in the RFID area for the last two or three years, and then grow them into an RFID expert.”

Ramakrishnan says he doesn’t expect the demand for RFID executives to abate over the next five years.

“As we move away from old, legacy supply chain methodologies, like bar codes, this is going to become widespread. It’s going to go from Wal-Mart and the other big-box retailers to manufacturing and then to every part of our lives. I really don’t see this slowing down.”

Nor does CompTIA’s Sommer. While the biggest push today to implement RFID technology is among retail and consumer goods manufacturers, Sommer says he expects other industries to follow suit such as healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, which prolongs the shortage of skilled professionals. “We believe there will be demand for some time,” he says.

For network executives, there could be opportunities to capitalize on RFID at it moves out of the pilot stage and into real-world, enterprise settings that require scalable data management, integration and storage resources.

“Eventually RFID has to be enterprise-wide. It cannot be localized,” Ramakrishnan says. This means systems must span business and partner networks. “You’re not going to do this without networks. Those who can hone their skills in this area will definitely have something to look forward to as the years go by,” Ramakrishnan adds.

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