Drive to roll out new technologies makes retail a hotspot for IT job opportunities

Demand for IT staff in the retail sector has risen 25% since the end of 2003l Chip and Pin and RFID projects are driving need for...

The roll-out of chip and Pin technology, radio frequency identification tags and the rise of wireless networks have fuelled demand for IT professionals in the retail sector.

Aidan Anglin, head of sales in recruitment consultant MSB's technology business, said he has seen demand in IT recruitment increase by about 25% since the end of last year.

Jon Butterfield, managing director of the IT business at recruitment consultancy Spring, said IT recruitment has been rising in the retail industry for the past 12 months.

"There is good job security in the retail sector, with an exciting range of technologies to manage.

"The only threat to it seems to be higher wages in the financial sector, which is also doing well, so retail IT directors may see staff tempted by that sector," said Butterfield.

The switch to chip and Pin card authentication at the point of sale is helping to drive jobs growth.

Anglin said, "The roll-out of chip and Pin has stimulated demand for system design, and banks and retailers need to ramp up for this."

Retailers are also starting to use RFID tags - which some believe could eventually replace barcodes - and they will need IT staff to make this fledgling technology work.

But what skills are retailers looking for from IT professionals?

David Weatherby, RFID programme manager at supply chain standards organisation e.centre, said the spread of RFID technology has created a demand for staff with experience of integrating IT systems.

Experience of some of the newer network and security technologies is also needed.

Carphone Warehouse, for instance, has installed security systems built around tokens.

It allows staff to access the corporate wireless network from any location using passwords randomly created by the key-fob style security tokens carried by employees.

Elsewhere, biometric technology has also started to make it onto the shop floor.

The Co-op has begun trials of a payment system that scans a customer's finger at the point of sale.

Providing the scan matches the biometric record stored on the Co-op's system, payment is automatically debited from the customer's bank account.

Retailers may be testing the water with new technology, but there will continue to be steady demand for IT staff with more traditional skills.

Morrisons for instance, fresh from its acquisition of Safeways, is looking to hire distributed systems engineers, systems programmers, mainframe developers, operations support analysts, and helpdesk operators.

Morrisons may not be at the forefront of retail technology, but it is expanding its IT department.

Not every retailer is planning increased headcounts though. "

Our focus is to ensure all systems are delivering a solid, reliable service - maybe not the best functionality, but consistent," said Andy Billington, IT director at clothing retailer Burberry.

"To this end, we are not starting new developments and will be scaling back staff."

The supply chain will also remain a key area for IT investment.

"Shaving costs in the supply chain is key to most retailers, including the likes of Marks & Spencer, which are now making a big thing about it," said Sean Quinn, associate director at recruitment consultancy Hudson.

Hudson is currently recruiting SAP enterprise resource planning specialists and Microsoft .net developers to enable Black & Decker to improve its supply chain.

"Shaving just 1% off supply chain costs can mean massive savings for large companies, and this type of aim fits in with the current IT investment prerequisite - all IT investment must have a proven payback period," he said.

The retail industry is investing heavily in complex new technology to complement tried and tested systems.

IT professionals keen to transfer to the sector will need a broad base of experience and a healthy scepticism about the promises made for new technology.

"It takes a brave IT director to go for bleeding-edge technology - pioneers tend to get arrows in their backs," said Quinn.

"A key attribute for anyone wanting to go into this sector is to have the right timing, to know when to invest in specific solutions after first finding out if they are proven."

Key retail IT skills

Enterprise resource planning

Customer relationship management

Supply chain management

Database management

Chip and Pin

RFID

Security/biometrics

Next Steps

retail aided by Conductive ink technology

This was last published in June 2004

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