Parker Norman's father, Jack, is a career technician, working for the large, multistate Deere dealership AHW LLC, with 19 stores in Illinois and Indiana. His is a profession that has provided well for his family.
Parker is in his final year of a two-year stint enrolled in the John Deere TECH Program, at Lake Land College, in Mattoon, Illinois. He plans to follow in his father's footsteps, bringing with him an associate degree in applied science as he begins working as a Deere-trained technician for AHW.
"If you'd asked me this before my grandpa (Jack Sr.) passed, I'd have a totally different answer why I'm doing this," Norman says. "But, I remember that at a very young age, my grandpa introduced me to ag, to the big tractors, to the combines. You can say that my grandpa is the reason I'm here today. At a young age, he instilled the love for ag in my head, and then also my dad and his passion for fixing broken things."
Farm-equipment manufacturers are putting great effort today into finding thousands of Parker Normans who can turn a wrench but also employ tablets -- today's digital wrenches -- to diagnose tricky problems in hydraulic and electrical systems.
"I would say that the heart of the machine is still nuts and bolts. But, there's a lot of technology in this new equipment," Norman says.
"We fix as much with a computer today as we did with a wrench 20 years ago," says Jason Kinzey, John Deere service development manager. "And, that's a different student. I need someone that wants to take apart a transmission but also someone who's really good with a laptop and voltmeter, and can diagnose the problem. We consider the John Deere TECH program our premier option for the dealers," Kinzey explains.
ON THE HUNT
To find a technician is no small job for manufacturers and their dealers. Positions offer tuition reimbursements, tool allotments and a full range of benefits.
AGCO Corp. looks to place 2,000 technicians over the next five years. "The technician population is aging, and there are a lot of new skills that are needed," says Seth Crawford, senior vice president and general manager, Precision Ag and Digital, in Duluth, Georgia. "Whether it's fertilizer or chemical applications, planting, harvesting the fields and then all of the technology that goes on those machines, that's where the demand will come from, and that's a big hill to climb."
AHW is climbing that hill, too. It sends out dozens of letters yearly to area FFA leaders and ag teachers in the two-state area looking for face time with students. "We have a lot of service technicians who are retiring. And, it's hard to take that knowledge and train [a] younger generation," says Cecilia Miller, human resources manager for AHW.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are about 35,000 farm-equipment mechanics and service techs in the U.S. In any one year, because of career changes and retirements, there are about 4,500 openings -- and by some other estimates, there will be as many as 24,000 openings through the year 2031. Salaries range from $15.23 to $32.03 per hour ($31,680 to $66,620 annually). Most mechanics and techs have at least a high school education or two-year certification from an institution such as a technical school. States employing the highest number of ag mechanics and technicians include California, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas.
John Deere TECH partners with 19 colleges in the U.S. and five in Canada, each able to support more than 40 students, such as Norman, also earning associate degrees in applied science. JD TECH is a two-year program with paid internship opportunities at the student's sponsoring dealership. The internships are critical. It is time spent with veteran technicians, giving students a real-world look at their potential career.
"There are only certain things that we can do in the classroom," says Russell Neu, JD TECH program coordinator and one of three instructors at Lake Land College. "There's not a good way for us to simulate the stress and the rigor of a service call during busy planting season or harvest."
Carlenis Jurado, Houston, Texas, has completed AGCO's Fendt Technician Academy in partnership with the Universal Technical Institute. She is a new technician at Altorfer Ag Products, in West Branch, Iowa.
Jurado learned some of her skills from her diesel mechanic father, Benigno Jurado. "He was kind of hesitant about me following his footsteps. But, I was always more of a tomboy instead of a girly girl. So, I followed him everywhere," she says.
Jurado earned technical skills in high school. She was a member of an all-female robotics team. "We built robots and raced them. We won a pretty decent amount of first-place prizes," she says.
The experience taught her career-building lessons. "I learned patience. [Robots are] not that easy, especially when you're coding the robot to make it work. I learned how to pay attention, to take things apart and put them the exact same way back together."
Jurado's first project at Altorfer was to perform multiple updates on a Fendt IDEAL combine. "At first, I was like, oh my gosh, this is a little overwhelming. But, my co-worker was such a blessing. He provided on-the-job training and helped me through the process."
SELLING THE RECRUITS
Recruiting young prospects is, at times, little different than recruiting high school football players. Think kitchen table talks with mom who wants to know why fixing tractors and combines is a better career path than a four-year degree. Tell her about job opportunity where demand has never been greater.
"There's so much pressure on young people today to go get a four-year degree, [and] that can be a huge miss," AGCO's Crawford says. "We recruit people who don't mind working with their hands. Technicians of the future must have an aptitude to learn the skills and [also] have the ability to engage and communicate with the customer. The upside is really unlimited."
PLANT THE SEED
Dealerships heavily scout FFA, 4-H, SkillsUSA and other youth organizations for prospects. SkillsUSA, for example, is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. Dealerships show up at high school job fairs -- rural and urban schools. Don't be surprised to see dealers handing out branded swag at middle school gatherings, even grade schools.
CNH Industrial's Peter Steiner is manager of the manufacturer's Top Tech program. Top Tech is a collaboration between CNH Industrial, its dealer network and leading technical colleges. The partnership provides potential technicians with opportunities to train on the newest Case IH and New Holland machinery.
Top Tech takes early aim at future techs. "By the time they get to be a senior, they've already made up some type of decision, what their career is going to look like. So, we're targeting down into the middle school to plant the seed, create awareness," Steiner explains.
Titan Machinery, with more than 90 Case IH and New Holland ag and construction locations in the U.S. and Europe, this summer completed its first Diesel Camp. At four Midwest colleges, 114 ninth-and 10th-graders were immersed in diesel mechanics.
For high school students, Titan offers an in-year EDGE program (Explore, Discover, Grow, Educate). It's a paid, extracurricular-like activity, four to 20 hours per week for 12 weeks during the school year.
Titan is expending great effort to recruit mechanics and techs with at least two years of experience, some positions offering a sign-on bonus of up to $10,000, tool reimbursements and a list of other benefits rivaling any other large employer.
"Our goal is to increase awareness of career and technical-education programs, and ensure students appreciate the income potential and lifestyle advantages of skilled trade careers," says Sarah Kenz, talent acquisition manager at Titan Machinery, West Fargo, North Dakota.
New techs don't always have farming credentials. But, if you know your way around a computer with an aptitude for running down problems, few dealers will turn you away. "The ideal technician would be a kid who understands agriculture already," says Ash Alt, manager of aftersales training for AGCO North America. "But, realistically, our scope is much broader than that. People that have a passion for STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- people who love problem-solving, using critical thinking and using their hands. If they have a passion for those things, we can teach them."
LEARN BY DOING
Andrew Ferguson, 21, grew up in central Illinois, about 20 minutes north of Champaign. A graduate of Lake Land College, he now works for AHW, in Urbana. He was recruited by a coach. "When I was in high school, I played club soccer, and one of my coaches was the service manager for the [AHW] store," Ferguson says. "My senior year he called me and just kind of told me about [Deere's Tech] program. I came into the store, my first visit in February, senior year. I liked the environment. I felt like I would fit in."
Ferguson works today with a veteran tech. "During the busy season, I'll go out with him and his service truck, so I get to experience the fieldwork. Hopefully, within the next year, they'll have me in my own truck so that I'll get to go out and do [service calls] on my own."
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