As RFID technologies improve, costs come down and drug and other manufacturers reach a comfort level with piloting radio frequency identification (RFID) in plants and along their supply chains, they are being met with the realization that there are not enough workers skilled in the nuances of RFID to suit their needs. Now, they rely heavily upon vendors, consultants and other solution providers to do their RFID dirty work, but this must change if anti-counterfeiting, inventory management and other RFID-dependent initiatives are to be sustainable or profitable.
By some estimates, it will take manufacturers three to five years to get their staff adequately trained to handle their RFID needs in-house. A certification initiative undertaken by CompTIA (www.comptia.org; Oakbrook, Ill.), in conjunction with 22 companies within the RFID sphere, will assist in this challenge. Educational programs designed to prepare students and professionals for the certification testing are cropping up and will support the effort as well.
Pharmaceutical Manufacturing spoke with David Sommer, vice president of electronic communications for CompTIA, about the significance of the organizations RFID+ certification program, and what it might mean for pharmaceutical manufacturers and other companies.P.M.: How significant is the lack of skilled RFID technicians in the marketplace? How about in the pharmaceutical industry specifically?D.S.: About two years ago we began hearing anecdotal information from our members about a lack of RFID talent in the marketplace. Early in 2005 we surveyed our members who were active in or contemplating entering the RFID market and found that 80 percent of companies surveyed did not believe there were sufficient numbers of professionals skilled in RFID to hire from; and 66.7 percent said training and educating their employees in the technology is one of the biggest challenges they will face in order to succeed in the RFID market.
We repeated the survey early in 2006 and found very little had changed: 75 percent of the companies participating in the 2006 CompTIA survey said they do not believe there is a sufficient pool of talent in RFID technology to hire from. Among companies that believe there is a talent shortage, 80 percent said the lack of individuals skilled in RFID will impact adoption of the technology. The figure is significantly higher than a year ago, when 53 percent of responding companies said the shortage of talent would have a negative impact on RFID adoption.
Various industry estimates place at about 60,000 the number of companies facing RFID mandates from their customers and trading partners over the next few years. Given the large number of RFID deployments that are likely to occur in 2006 and beyond, we feel the market needs hundreds of systems integration companies with RFID capabilities; and hundreds of thousands of individuals knowledgeable in this technology to meet current and future demand.
While our RFID skills survey did not address specific markets such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, clearly this industry will be impacted by any skills shortage. FDA directives regarding use of RFID has supported the growth in interest in RFID for the pharmaceutical and healthcare markets. Industry participants expect these vertical markets to have the highest growth rate over the next several years.P.M.: You've just begun certification testing this past March how many people have gotten certified so far? How many do you expect by, say, the end of the year?D.S.: As a practice, we do not publicly disclose anticipated numbers of certifications attained over the course of a month, quarter or year. The certification has been available for just a little over one month, and training and courseware related to the certification are just now entering the market, so the numbers right now would be relatively small. But with the support and backing we received from many of the major players in the RFID market, we expect strong interest in and usage of the certification in the coming months.P.M.: How can someone get the training they need to prepare for certification? What are the options?D.S.: Several of our partners in the training community are rolling out classes and courseware that map to the objectives for CompTIA RFID+ certification. These training organizations include American RFID Solutions, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM Global), Briljent, LLC, OTA Training, and RFID4U (a division of eSmart Source, Inc.). P.M.: How tough is the test? How do you balance the need to get people certified with the need to have stringent requirements?D.S.: The skills and knowledge measured by this examination are derived from an industry-wide job task analysis (JTA) and have been validated by RFID subject matter experts from around the globe.
The RFID experts we brought together described nine different specific skill/knowledge areas radio technologists need to have expertise in. Some of the specific areas include the physics of radio frequencies that is, how radio waves work, frequencies, interference, backscatter, etc. Radio technologists also require knowledge of RFID standards air protocols, data coding, EPC format, etc. They need installation and maintenance skills regarding readers/integrators, antennas, printers, etc. and how to hook them into a network. The radio technologists need testing skills to test tags and labels, ensuring their readability under varying conditions.
In looking through these radio technology skills and the underlying knowledge requirements, these skills are not in the bag of tricks of many systems integrators, VARs or systems consultants today.
The second type of skills, and jobs, that exist are focused on RFID software, business process re-engineering, and data architecture skills.
In examining these two types of skills and discussing them with industry subject matter experts, the greatest and most immediate industry need is for the first category of skillsthe radio technologist skills. CompTIA RFID+ certification is therefore focused on the radio technologist.P.M.: Does the test favor those who've had on-the-job experience with RFID, coursework, or both?D.S.: The CompTIA RFID+ certified professional candidate will have foundational RFID knowledge, typically 6-24 months of experience in the RFID industry or related data collection technologies and performs the following tasks as part of his or her job:
- Installation, configuration and maintenance of RFID hardware and device software;
- Site surveys/site analysis;
- Tag selection, placement and testing.