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Radio-frequency identification networks are the next big thing in retail, distribution, inventory tracking and nearly every other corporate operation that involves moving things from here to there and keeping track of them once they’ve arrived.

RFID systems use smart tags that can be attached to cases, pallets or individual items, and they broadcast their data on short-range radio frequencies. The tags contain product data, a chip and an antenna.

But most VARs and integrators lack the skills to install and service those systems, according to a recent report from IT trade association CompTIA.

An RFID network within a single warehouse, for example, requires the installation of dozens of short-range radio receivers to track the tags, a network to connect them, data-collection software to correlate all of that information, and middleware that can translate the RFID for back-end inventory and supply systems.

They also require the ability to get around RFID weaknesses such as an inability to transmit through either water or metal. And there’s the problem of how to pick up a faint signal from a package in the middle of a palette as well as a strong signal from one on the outside, while the palette trundles past on a forklift.

To address this dearth of RFID skills, CompTIA is partnering with as many as 20 organizations in the RFID market to help get VARs up to speed on the technology. CompTIA and its partners will develop certification tests that VARS and integrators can show customers as proof of their RFID competency.

“There’s a significant need to educate a significant number of resellers if this technology is going to take off,” said Bobby McLain, vice president of marketing at Greenville, S.C.-based ScanSource Inc., a distributor specializing in automatic data capture, point-of-sale and wireless technologies. ScanSource is one of six partners that have already signed on to the CompTIA certification initiative.

With more than 60,000 businesses facing mandates to adopt RFID technology, CompTIA identified the need for VARs and integrators to develop RFID skills as urgent, said David Sommer, vice president of electronic commerce at CompTIA, which already has several other programs aimed at RFID training.

Driving much of the demand are mandates that such retail giants as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, have given their supply-chain partners to adopt the technology.

“There is recognition out there that this is a growing market,” Sommer said.

But in a survey conducted last month, CompTIA found that 80 percent of the 51 respondents see a shortage of RFID skills needed to deploy, service and support the technology. Two-thirds of the participants said they view training employees in RFID technology as one of their biggest challenges to succeeding in the RFID market space.

More than half of the respondents were channel companies, including VARs, consultants and integrators.

Defining the certification.

Besides ScanSource, other partners CompTIA has recruited include AIM Global (the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility); FC Business Systems, a provider of RFID integration services; Intermec Technologies Corp., a manufacturer of RFID products; OTA Training, an RFID training company; and Texas Instruments Inc., a builder of RFID transponders and reader systems.

“What these companies are going to do is to really define the content of the certification, what it covers and how it’s targeted at the right individuals, so they have the right kinds of skills necessary to deploy RFID solutions,” Sommer said.

ScanSource Inc., which does not sell directly to end users, launched a marketing and training initiative called RFID Edge last year, after identifying an acute need for training among its reseller base. The distributor opened a Web portal, kicked off a seminar series and hired RFID presales support specialists to address the need.

“Essentially, we’re trying to make sure we’re able to help prepare our solution providers to take advantage of RFID,” McLain said. He predicted that RFID will be a big channel opportunity in 2006, but said that to take advantage of it, resellers need to start getting up to speed immediately.

Dallas-based OTA Training already offers RFID training and certification through a curriculum with one-, three- and five-day classes, said its president, Rob Sabella.

But his company is working with CompTIA because he said it needs not only to address the skills shortage but also to establish a vendor-neutral standard of knowledge.

“We’re very enthused that CompTIA has stepped up to offer the industry a common standard for what it means to be certified,” Sabella said. “RFID is actually used fairly pervasively, but its being applied to the supply chain is what’s relatively new.”

The supply chain-driven demand is pulling integrators from different backgrounds into the mix, he said. Some integrators have a wireless background but aren’t familiar with supply-chain integration, while others have the exact opposite experience. A third group has experience with such RFID applications as toll-booth passes and animal tracking, he said.

Sommer said the process leading up to the formal launch of the RFID certification will take at least eight months. With the help of its partners, CompTIA will prepare a blueprint of the certification exam, develop the appropriate questions, test the questions, make whatever adjustments are necessary, and then make it available to those seeking certification, he said. The association already offers 11 vendor-neutral certifications.

Most of the individuals who will seek RFID certification already will have experience in IT network implementations and software integration, Sommer said.

Eighty-two percent of the participants in the CompTIA survey said they expect to offer hardware installation and maintenance services in the RFID space in the next three years, 61.5 percent said they expect to do software implementations, and 51.3 percent said they expect to do other RFID-related services.