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Wireless World: A shortage in RFID skills?

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI   |   March 11, 2005 at 1:39 PM   |   Comments

CHICAGO, March 11 (UPI) -- A shortage of workers skilled in radio frequency identification technology may hamper the industry's ambitious plans to deploy the wireless tags for homeland security, retail and other applications in the coming years, experts told UPI's Wireless World.

The skills deficit is remarkably similar to the one that appeared in the computing industry in the late 1990s during the boom in demand for Internet and computer programmers, which resulted in huge growth in hiring and salaries.

"Any time that there is a new technology with an opportunity for mass adoption that requires a specified technological skill set to implement -- and where there is high demand for quick implementation -- it will create a talent shortage," said Simon Billsberry, chief executive officer of Kineticom Inc., a technical staffing firm in San Diego.

A survey released last week by the Computing Technology Industry Association, a trade group headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., near Chicago, revealed 80 percent of company officials responding said there are not enough wireless-tech workers available today.

"We believe the market needs hundreds of system-integration companies with RFID capabilities -- and hundreds of thousands of individuals knowledgeable in this technology to meet current and future demand," said David Sommer, CompTIA's vice president of electronic commerce, in a statement.

CompTIA's research on the skills shortage was released in Dallas at the RFID World 2005 conference.

Industry executives foresee the need to train many new workers in networking, software architecture and engineering, and database management to continue the growth of the RFID sector.

"If you look at the world of RFID, the technology piece of the equation is relatively straightforward," said Tom Miller, president of Intermec Technologies Corp. in Seattle, a company involved in the wireless industry. "It is not all that complicated. It does involve proper site engineering, but customer applications also have to be redesigned to take advantage of the technology. There is a question of how the industry is training enough talent on the reseller level to handle the demand."

Miller said new workers coming out of college probably will be tapped to fill the new jobs, while older workers also will have to be retrained to meet the demand.

"That involves network design," he said, "what the proper architecture is and how much data ... you keep locally and how ... you filter the data so you don't bring the network down."

Major computing companies such as Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Oracle Corp. and SAP all are getting involved in the wireless RFID trend, because of the requirements for network design, Miller said.

Software firms in the supply-chain-management business, such as Provia, also are becoming involved in RFID.

"There is a lot of expertise that is involved properly configuring an RFID system," Miller said. "You have to take into account product attributes. For example, a pallet of bottled water has different propagation characteristics than a pallet of toilet paper."

In other words, wireless readers have to be placed differently to accommodate different products, he explained.

Billsberry said companies may have to "incentivize" the talent pool for the RFID market to address the shortage of skilled workers.

"Training is the most obvious solution," he said. "It's important to assess which segment would be most effective and to identify the ideal candidates to be cross-trained. Another way to go is to look for a talent surplus in another area of (radio frequency technology) where it would make sense to poach talent. In certain talent shortages, it may be worth pursuing an emigration strategy."

An array of companies in the market -- from systems integrators to manufacturers and distributors and customers -- are going to have to get involved to solve the talent deficit.

Thus far, the CompTIA survey found, customer adoption of RFID is relatively modest. However, other surveys -- such as one conducted by Capgemini, the consulting firm -- predict that 2005 will be the break-out year for the technology, particularly because major retailers have required their suppliers to equip shipments of products with RFID technology, which enables customers to track what is in a particular box, when it was shipped, and where it is headed.

CompTIA survey respondents predicted around 60,000 companies will face RFID mandates from their clients or other trading partners in the coming years. Companies that were big in the bar-coding business, such as Zebra Technologies, today are offering RFID solutions and "jockeying to find and keep good RFID talent," said Suzette Sexton, a Zebra spokeswoman.

One major customer requiring RFID technologies is the U.S. government, primarily for homeland security. This week, the government awarded Intermec a blanket purchase agreement to provide ultra-high-frequency RFID tags to support the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard. The purchase agreement is part of the government's Automation Information Technology RFID initiative. The project is "mission critical" for the government, Miller said.

Just as during the first Internet boom during the 1990s, many books are appearing on the market to train workers in the new skills needed. Prentice Hall last month published the "RFID Field Guide," co-authored by Manish Bhupanti, president and co-founder of Cleritec Systems Corp. in the San Francisco Bay area. Bhupanti has provided "RFID training for businesses and technical professionals," he said.

Workers with RFID skills are now considered "must see" for employers during the job interview process, said Owen Murphy, a spokesman for Spencer Stuart, a search firm in Philadelphia.

"They are extremely valuable and there are too few of them," he said.

--

Gene Koprowski is a 2004 Winner of a Lilly Endowment Award for this column for United Press International. He covers telecommunications technologies for UPI Science News. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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