As adoption of precision farming practices continues to grow, there is increasing pressure on dealers selling, servicing and supporting technology to keep customers satisfied. That’s created a high demand for technicians who can come in, quickly diagnose electrical and technical issues, and get farmers back in the field.

Equipment dealers know all too well that finding system savvy computer cowboys to ride herd on precision equipment problems can be as elusive as answers to the problems themselves.

“We’ve had our best success with technicians who have a good knowledge base in electronics, are living relatively close to the area where they grew up, love computers and data work and understand the importance of keeping a machine working,” says Gene Schlosser, co-owner and marketing manager at Tractor Central, a John Deere dealership in Eau Claire, Wis. “They also must have numerical skills capability.

“Our specialists have ag engineering degrees or degrees with precision farming coursework. They need to understand agriculture either through their experience or education.”

People skills are critical, too, Schlosser says. Trying to find candidates who fit all those criteria becomes a tall order. Colleges and universities with precision-based programs are finding that demand exceeds the current supply of specialists.

Big Demand, Short Supply

“The last 2 or 3 years, we’ve had 100% placement of the 30 students in our program and most students got 2 or 3 job offers,” says Terry Brase, professor in Agricultural Geospatial Technology at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Kirkwood isn’t alone. Other colleges around the country also report that students in their technical precision agriculture degree programs are in high demand. Employers ranging from equipment dealers, cooperatives, agronomic consulting firms and farmers are clamoring to hire this new breed of precision farming problem solver.

Strategic Move

Selling precision farming equipment is a very consultative process; servicing it takes knowledge, patience and experience. Successful dealers will develop and keep technicians who have all three.
Selling precision farming equipment is a very consultative process; servicing it takes knowledge, patience and experience. Successful dealers will develop and keep technicians who have all three. 

“Dealerships go out of their way to do work with precision agriculture because they see how it can help drive sales,” says T.J. Stauffer, a recruiter for Rich Connell Agri-Search Inc., a job placement firm in Arthur, Ill.

He’s also a precision farming specialist and has worked with several dealers to help expand their precision staffs. Offering precision ag services to farmers is a “gold mine” when they are staffed properly and are able to meet farmers’ needs, Stauffer says.

“Those who can’t deliver on good service after the sale will end up losing sales,” he says. “That is why it is so important to have a precision equipment specialist who can help farmers use this equipment efficiently.

“I see only about 10% of dealerships that are getting it, and those that do are seeing expanding market share and growing profits.”

Today’s successful dealerships make it a separate department, right alongside sales, service and parts, Stauffer says. They build a precision farming team that allows them to share the workload and back each other up. If they hit a challenge that they can’t figure out, the team can back them up.

Internship: A Checklist
for Precision Partnerships

Internships offer many benefits to students and employers. Students get exposed to segments of agriculture they have not experienced, and employers benefit from quality, short-term help. University and trade school professionals share some tips that can help dealers set up a mutually beneficial internship program.

“A positive or negative intern experience will no doubt be shared with his or her fellow classmates and instructors, which can affect future interns and full-time job candidates’ decisions,” says Craig Smith, assistant professor of agriculture at Fort Hays State Univ. in Hayes, Kan. “The ultimate long-term benefit of a positive internship experience is the intern moving into a full-time position upon graduation.”

Educators share some helpful tips on setting up a win-win internship:

1. Start early. “Employers should attend university career fairs in the fall when students secure internships for the following summer. If you start looking for an intern in March or April for the upcoming summer, you may find that most of the good candidates already have plans,” Smith says.

2. Add variety. “We strongly promote internships that expose the intern to a variety of roles with the company. Precision farming internships, by the nature of the position, tend to have good variety. Students often get exposed to everything from sales, equipment setup, data management, troubleshooting and maintenance,” says Smith.

“Get the intern into as many different or unique situations as you can. It’s also important to give interns some freedom so they have to problem-solve on their own and aren’t always coming to you for immediate answers,” says Brad Kinsinger, instructor at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa. “That way, you can evaluate how interns perform in a variety of areas and settings to find their strengths and how they handle adversity when things don’t go just right.”

3. Pay what the position is worth. Internships have become very competitive. Today, interns are typically paid from $12-to-$17 per hour and housing costs are covered to some degree. “Some ag businesses also pay back student loans if the intern goes to work full-time for them upon graduation,” Smith adds.

4. Follow the school’s format. Each local community college or university already has a format they use for scheduling internships, as well as hours and eligibility requirements, says Bill Harmon, professor of agronomy at Lincoln Land College, Springfield, Ill. “Contact the school 3-6 months ahead of the season and work out arrangements for intern placement. We time internships to coincide with spring planting, summer spray season or fall harvest. The best internships are those that provide students with a variety of experiences, while giving dealers qualified workers, both now and after the student graduates,” he says.

5. Know the requirements; one size does not fit all. “Internship programs are unique to the university or college — and perhaps even the program — in which the student is enrolled. To determine the best internship structure for your dealership and the local college/university, contact the dean or program faculty at the college/university,” says Aliesha Crowe, Dean of Industry, Agriculture and Energy at Chippewa Valley Technical College, Eau Claire, Wis. “Work closely with the school to make sure your internship meets their requirements.”

6. Be flexible. Some students might be able to work full time for a limited period of time — maybe a month — while others could work part time for a longer period of time, says Bill Worthington, agribusiness instructor at Ogeechee Technical College Statesboro, Ga.

“As educators, we monitor and evaluate students’ progress during their internship and supplement information as needed,” he says. “We are restricted somewhat though in coordinating our educational schedules with the schedules of the real world. If businesses could be more accommodating to our students as to their schedules, it would open up a tremendous resource for our students.”

7. Cooperate with internship mentors. Most internships are structured as experiences for academic credit, typically 1-3 hours. Be aware that there are educational objectives that must be met.

“An instructional member of the institution may appear at the worksite several times during the internship to ensure the intern is doing work representative of that required for academic credit,” says Paul Gunderson, instructor at Lake Region State College, Devils Lake, N.D. Expect to see a written agreement between the educational institution and the dealership, he advises. “That agreement spells out the objectives of the proposed internship, student/trainee learning outcomes, expectations in terms of working hours, start and ending times for each day, shift work — if any — type of work dress expected, workforce insurance coverage matters and procedures to end an internship should intern performance or other problems emerge.”

Schlosser agrees. “Before 2009, we had one precision specialist attempting to service all our branches. We treated it like a separate business, and it wasn’t long until we realized that we needed to have it set up at all locations,” he says. “We now have an integrated solutions manager with three precision farming specialists who each support 3 or 4 locations.

Each department supports the other, Schlosser says. If replacement parts for precision equipment need to come to the field, the mechanic can bring it and help install it.

This support system dramatically helps reduce burnout and customers are more satisfied.

Structured for Success

Unfortunately, few in dealer management have any experience in servicing precision farming equipment, and when you mix in new technology, a tight planting and harvest season and impatient and inexperienced farmers, you have the perfect storm for unhappy customers, says Stauffer. That makes having experienced and confident technicians extremely valuable.

“Key leaders in dealerships are 40-plus years old who have never done the precision agriculture equipment technician job,” he says. “Most dealerships do not have a good path to develop and manage precision technicians. With no development pipeline and lack of overall management, this leads to a high burnout rate.”

With qualified precision technicians already in short supply, dealers who use them up and burn them out are making it even more difficult to replace them.

“Precision technicians have their own struggles. Although there are many employment opportunities, there is a high burn out rate,” Stauffer says. “There is a gap in the learning curve and how they are managed that it makes it easy to fail.

“If you go from school right into that environment, they go it alone and it is sink or swim. Many tend to be extremely overwhelmed.”

Recruit Early & Often

Educators and experienced precision farming dealers agree that the most successful employee feeder options begin with outreach programs that help students become more familiar with the company and the job. This outreach also gives dealers the opportunity to get more familiar with students, their capabilities and interests.

“We encourage dealers to talk to local high schools,” Brase says. “We do many career days, but when the employers encourage them to go on to school, it sticks. Many students are involved with our program because they heard about it from a local businessperson who came and talked to their high school.”

Working with local high schools and community colleges on internships or other work-study programs can be mutually beneficial. Schlosser says they like to look for technicians who grew up near their dealerships.

“We start working with them as soon as they seem to be a fit, even if they are still in high school,” he says. “We have the best success with technicians who are familiar with the local farmers. They seem to like the job better once they know their customers better.”

Internships serve as a great “test drive” for both the dealer and student to see if this is the right fit for potential full-time employment opportunities, says Brad Kinsinger, agriculture instructor at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.

“For short term benefits, students are filling an immediate need during some busy times of the year.”

Developing an internship program with a local trade school can help you develop a feeder program for your dealership, says Aliesha Crowe, Dean of Industry, Agriculture and Energy at Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) in Eau Claire, Wis.

“Internships are critical and they often turn into full-time employment opportunities,” she says. “We work with dealerships that offer paid internships, which expose students to companies and allow those companies to see our students’ capabilities.”

CVTC also taps local dealerships to equip its labs with state-of-the-art precision farming equipment on which students learn.

“We are very fortunate to have a relationship with a local Case IH and John Deere dealerships that share their staffs’ expertise to help train our teachers,” Crowe says. “Although many things are proprietary, the skills we train go across brands, such as troubleshooting and other basics.”

The Right Choice

After connecting with a local high school, community college or land grant university, and communicating precision needs, dealerships are ready to interview candidates for a part-time position, internship or full-time job.

What skills and traits should they look for in candidates?

“Ag-savvy people from a farm or rural setting or who worked for a custom operator are in demand,” says Mike Cattelino, associate dean, Manufacturing and Agricultural Technology Division at the Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis.

“After that, they need reasonable computer skills, and most important, critical thinking and customer relation skills.

“For every 1 good precision equipment person you have, you should have one or two part-time workers who are learning how the systems work and can help with the minor tasks such as uploading data or updating operating systems. If you develop that talent early, it is an incredible investment.”

Stauffer also believes developing the talent early can pay dividends in the years to come. “If you start working with them when they are 16 with a part-time position, then help them through college, you will have an employee with 6 years of experience. They become 22 year old rock stars,” he says.

While technical skills are important, colleges are finding employers want good communication skills as well, Crowe says.

Dealers often have success with precision technicians who have a good understanding of electronics, love computers and data work and understand the importance of keeping a machine working. ?
Dealers often have success with precision technicians who have a good understanding of electronics, love computers and data work and understand the importance of keeping a machine working.

“When students graduate, they will work directly with customers and they need to be able to communicate effectively,” she says. “We are finding that employers from all fields are interested in graduates who possess both technical skills and soft skills.”

The education experts report good training programs also develop critical thinking and troubleshooting skills.

“The coursework is not about button pushing for specific equipment,” Brase says. “We train across a wide variety of equipment on the principles of how it works so they have the skills to work with any brand or model of equipment.

Crowe says the CVTC curriculum is designed in a similar fashion.

“Students need advanced troubleshooting skills. They are not there to make a quick fix, so they need a broad understanding that includes electronics and software training,” she says. “This technology is a learned skill and we work to equip them so they can work with advanced technology with a variety of computer skills.”

Beware of Burnout

Although the experts say there is a great employment opportunity for anyone with training in precision farming equipment, they caution that the probability for employee burnout is high. Long hours, high stress, demanding customers and lack of backup or support takes its toll on too many new precision employees.

“Most new precision farming technicians get one day in the office for paperwork or dealer-specific training, then it’s into the field with a vehicle and a cell phone,” Brase says. “Often, they seem to be fed to the wolves.”

It is rare to find a technician with more than 5 years on the job, says Stauffer. Part of it is because the dealership has no career track for precision technicians like they have in parts, service or sales.

“When they are selling $1 million in precision equipment, then see the equipment salesman selling twice that amount, but working half as hard and having half the stress, it’s very tempting to go sell farm equipment,” Stauffer says. “Few are content to remain precision technicians.”

Tractor Central has found a way to reduce precision technician burnout by implementing a 24-7 service line that piggybacks on the local dispatch service. Schlosser says they have worked closely with the company to develop a process to handle farmer calls for service.

“The call center finds out the problem, then selects the best on-call technician for that problem who also has four levels of back up,” he says.

The call center approach has worked at greatly reducing burnout.

“We all need breaks from this,” Schlosser says. “We can tell when someone is close to burnout; they get edgy. This applies to precision technicians as well as the mechanics.”

Consider Proximity

Finally, the precision experts say the proximity of the territory to the prospective employee’s family home can greatly affect the long-term likelihood of employment.

“Look in your own backyard for potential employees,” Crowe says. “In 2012, we found that 89% of CVTC graduates are employed in Wisconsin and 69% are employed in the technical college’s district.”

Crowe says they are also finding that graduates like to be involved with their communities and engaged with community events and programs, so they encourage employers to add this to their mix of offerings to employees. When they are involved in the community, they are more likely to stay, she says.

In Iowa, the story is much the same.

“Most students head back to live near home,” Brase says. “Even though we get recruiters from out of state, most students like to stay near their home. We encourage them that this is the time to go and explore the world, but most stay close to their roots.”

Selling precision farming equipment is a very consultative process; servicing it takes knowledge, patience and experience. Successful dealers will develop and keep technicians who have all three.