While shippers and logistics operators are focused on getting the most out of new radio frequency identification applications, experts say they are missing a looming problem: the people factor.
These industry leaders say that the attention has been focused on fine-tuning RFID technology but that the industry faces an increasingly acute shortage of experienced professionals to install and maintain the new systems.
"I certainly feel there's a need for more experienced (RFID) folks out there," said Mark Brown, project manager, systems and services at International Paper's RFID consulting division, Asurys.
"I believe (the skilled RFID labor market) is going to take a turn for the worse," said David Sommer, vice president of electronic commerce for CompTIA, the Computing Industry Technology Association.
"The industry in 2006 and 2007 is going to see a great deal more application of RFID to the supply chain. You'll see cause and effect between the skilled labor shortage and the cost of hiring qualified people."
CompTIA surveys found that although more than half of member companies had either completed or would complete RFID implementations within the next year, 80 percent of those worry about a shortage of skilled RFID professionals and 53 percent believe the shortfall will hurt adoption.
That's a looming concern for shippers who are still being pushed into the new technology arena.
Big manufacturers and retailers - from Wal-Mart to the Department of Defense - are driving most RFID adoption, requiring their suppliers to use the robust track-and-trace technology. Brown said roughly 60,000 companies will need to implement RFID systems at the insistence of their customers in the next three to five years.
Promoters hope RFID tags and readers built on the new Gen 2 standard that offer speedier, more reliable read rates will convince non-mandated fence-sitters to install systems.
Brown said International Paper's internal and consulting RFID unit grew from four professionals in 2002 to 30 in late 2005, when the unit became the Asurys division of IP. Finding experienced personnel took longer than the company would have preferred, he said. The gap between college-educated applicants and those with hands-on experience means the company does some on-the-job training. IP also helps CompTIA formulate an "RFID Plus" certification to establish a baseline of relevant skills.
The worst shortages now are in fields requiring knowledge of hardware and physics, Sommer said.
The ability to install equipment, servers and antennas, and to place tags so they be read in dynamic working environments, "are talents unique to the installation of RFID solutions," he said. "Things like the ability to read tags on metal or where there's water content, and the orientation of products with respect to antennas, these are situations that you can only learn on the job."
Companies looking to hire RFID talent will likely have a harder time finding the right person - and will have to pay more for them - said Louis Sirico, an independent Washington-area consultant. An experienced radio frequency engineer can make about $100,000 a year.
Consultants and systems integrators have been snapping up experienced RFID hands and some promising college graduates. Yet depending on what an employer needs and is willing to pay, Sirico said, "If someone really needs help, they could hire somebody."
But that may not be so easy as the technology rollout puts more demands on providers. "A year from now I think it's going to be a little more challenging," Sirico said.
Still, colleges are adding RFID-focused classes and Asurys provides periodic, vendor neutral training courses to speed the development of less seasoned staff.
CompTIA plans to roll out its "RFID Plus" certification in coming months, and third-party providers - OTA Training, RFID4U, American RFID Solutions and so on - are proliferating for clients who want to rent but not lease their talent.