Kevin Butt, Professor of Agriculture, Ellsworth Community College, Iowa Falls, Iowa: “The biggest thing is for the companies to just be themselves. This is who we are. Don’t try to oversell yourself or make the dealership into something it’s not. Then students or graduates know exactly what they’re getting into and they’re not being promised things you can’t actually offer.
“A while back, a friend of mine went to work for a precision farming dealership and the company used a lot of catchphrases and made a lot of promises. It wasn’t until he got the job and found out it wasn’t exactly what he was told would be there. They oversold it to get him there.”
John Fulton, Associate Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio: “We know salary and location drive a lot of decisions for recent graduates. For precision farming dealers, it’s important to have a vision for how new hires can advance in the company and at least outline an idea of the potential path forward for them professionally.
“Number one, it shows longevity — are you looking for short-term or long-term employees? I would assume most dealers are looking to expand and retain quality employees long-term. Giving new hires some vision of where they’ll be in 5-10 years and how they can advance is something that will give them security.
“Potential hires will be considering where they are in relation to family; that’s a tremendous pull on them. If they can find a job in the vicinity of where they grew up, they’ll have more tendency to take it. Dealers need to ask themselves, ‘If I’m located in a rural area, how do I appeal and retain a young, energetic person to come and live in rural America when they are potentially used to being near an urban setting and have a range of opportunities socially?’ In some areas, that would be an aspect to really sell your company.
“Many students want to know what additional benefits they’ll receive beyond salary. Do I get a truck? Is an iPad and laptop provided to help support the position since I’ll likely be on the road servicing or supporting sales? If students know they don’t have to buy a car and log significant miles, but instead have access to a truck and the supporting technology for the job, that’s a significant contribution from a dealership.
“Another attractive feature is having an opportunity to participate in continuing education. They want the ability to attend regional or national conferences that provide networking opportunities and access to the latest technology. If a company can afford to take its employees and let them see what other parts of agriculture are focused on when it comes to technology, that’s motivation and a learning incentive that can pay dividends to the dealer.”
Paul Gunderson, Director, Lake Region State College Dakota Precision Ag Center, Devils Lake, N.D.: “I know our students are always curious about the salary, and that’s not a surprise to you. But separate from that, they like to see an organizational chart, and that reflects your training opportunities. Students like to see some evidence of vertical movement in the dealership or company. If they are going to be doing field service work, they want to have access to a company vehicle.
“For our female students, that organizational chart seems to be quite important. They do worry about glass ceilings and maybe that reflects the Northern Plains mindset, to some point. They tend to particularly look at the IT side or the prescription development side as two viable options rather than shop work.
“My students often ask me about training and access to seminars. We host a lot of training events here. Companies and dealerships come in and use our training space and our shop. They like using our shop because we have a fairly large one and in the winter, it’s warm. Access to professional development activities is very important to recent graduates.”
Craig Smith, PhD, Department of Agriculture, Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kan.: “Let them experience all aspects of the dealership with an emphasis in the precision farming area. I know one company in particular that wants its precision interns to complete a sale at some point during the summer, and I think that’s great. The student benefits and the company benefits, and in one case I know the company then sent the student a commission check for the sale when he was back in school.
“Obviously, competitive salary is very important. It’s a competitive industry right now. Talking with employers all over Kansas and the region, I’m hearing the same thing I’ve heard for the last 4 years — employers having a hard time getting good, qualified employees to take these precision jobs in the region. The starting salary for an ag business student is in the $44,000 range and we’ve got some starting out over $50,000. To get the good candidates, you’ve got to be in that range.
“As far as marketing themselves to the students, most colleges have some sort of career fair. Many of our instructors are open to giving a dealership a little bit of class time to get in front of the students as well. We’ve also got a co-op in the area that gives interns a partial scholarship to help cover some of their tuition with no strings attached. That’s obviously an attractive benefit.”
QHow should dealerships structure precision internships with local educational institutions and what value — short- and long-term — can dealers expect from these partnerships?
Butt: “Structure-wise, it kind of varies by the institution. Our students are required do nearly 500 hours of internship service to graduate. Sometimes, interns will go to work for a co-op and for 8 weeks all they’ll do is unload the tractors and load up the rail cars. Then the co-op gets mad because they just invested 8 weeks in someone who doesn’t want to come back.
“The same thing is true with precision farming. It’s not always installing and troubleshooting. There’s some training with the customers, doing some of the mapping and taking a look at the data. Structure an internship so a student can see the different aspects of the dealership and the operation, and find out what they truly like and build upon that.
“We’ve had it happen numerous times where someone starts with a dealership, they like it and find their niche. They’ll graduate, finish the internship on Friday, and then turn around and start full time Monday morning as an employee with the dealership. The benefit is the company doesn’t have to train the student. They hit the ground running. They don’t have to worry about putting in additional time and resources to get the employee to where they need to be because they’ve already done that. It’s a win-win for both sides.”
Fulton: “Internships are key. I don’t see that there’s necessarily a perfect educational program in place today providing students the skills and experiences to walk in the front door of a dealership and hit the ground running. There’s still some internal training that is required. Internships are a great experience for students to begin to understand precision farming and how it wraps around sales and business within the dealership. They are able to understand the technology, how it is being implemented, and the data generated from it.”
“Internships provide a real bridge between education and needed skillsets and experiences. It also gives a company a real look at individuals who are potential hires, while affording students knowledge of the company culture and actual precision farming services that a dealership is offering.
“We love to see graduates who have a few years of experience come back to talk to the current student body and get them excited about the profession they’ve chosen. That’s a good partnership.”
Gunderson: “Our internships are all placed in the summer between the first and the second year. We’ve done a few variations on that, but that works well for us. The difficulty we have, frankly, is our semester system dismisses our students about May 15. That’s awfully late for some of these dealerships and companies that are well into springtime when it’s crazy. To absorb an intern or two at that time is a tall order. We still need to work that one out.
“We are thinking about splitting the winter semester into two, 8-week units. This could be a registration challenge, but that would mean interns could start in mid-March. There’s enough time for 2-3 days of orientation if necessary and enough time for an intern to get his or her feet planted on the ground and get to know the first names of those they’ll be working with for the next 3-4 months. If dealerships are willing to be a little flexible and structure their internships that way, that’s clearly the direction we’re going to go.
“Secondly, dealerships need to provide the intern with a broad array of experience. That’s really crucial. It makes little sense to put an intern whose been through a year of a precision ag program back on the family farm to move grain most of the summer. What we’re aiming for is internships that provide a variety of experiences technically and a variety of exposures to customers.
“The dealerships get a good look at a prospective new employee, and that could be important. The second thing they can expect from these partnerships is a relatively close relationship with the educational institution they are partnering with. We have a dealership that has made it very clear they’d love to share their staff in our mobile training unit for a week at a time. During the wintertime, this dealership has said we can part with X, Y or Z staff for a week.
Smith: “It’s making internships attractive and the way they do that is have a plan in place and structure it so the intern sees all aspects of a dealership’s business. Responsibility is key along with treating interns like permanent, full-time employees.
“Tuition compensation and a housing allowance are additional perks that definitely help. Dealerships have to realize it’s competitive. There are a lot of good internships out there. We’ve got lower commodity prices, but the job market is still strong and the internship market is very strong. I would encourage dealerships to understand that and know that they’re going to have to make an attractive offer and sell themselves to the employees just like the employee needs to sell him- or herself as well.
“Partnering with universities and colleges is also helpful. We’ve got several companies that partner with us by providing loaner equipment and some service. This can be beneficial for everyone involved. From our standpoint, technology in the precision farming field is changing so much and so rapidly that we, as schools, need to be tied in with the industry and those people who are working daily with the technology to stay abreast.”
QIn 5 years, how do you see the required skills and qualifications of precision farming specialists evolving?
Butt: “One of the biggest things is the precision hardware industry has evolved from being an accessory or aftermarket product to almost integrated into machinery.
“We can do great things with this technology, but the question is ‘What should we do with it?’ We need to maximize profit…”
“Integration has made me change some things around and make sure my students are prepared to meet that need. It’s more than just bolting it on now. When the directions say jack up the cab to run new hydraulic lines, that’s a whole new realm that I never had to tackle before.
“The precision farming industry has gotten to the point where we’re starting to segment out a little bit. Before, basically you had a precision technician who was the salesperson, the technician, the troubleshooter and usually the one making maps from the data. Now it’s transitioning to where we segment that out and we see a dealership with a sales department, not necessarily doing a lot with the training and the installation. These employees still need to know a little about that, but we also see employees who are just technicians and don’t necessarily do a lot with sales.
“It’s the same thing with data. Dealerships have a department for mapping and just taking the information off the displays or cards and making effective maps and prescriptions. That’s what is causing me to take a look at our degree program and say, ‘OK, do we need to segment some of this out and come up with some career option tracks?’ If students want to go into sales, we probably need to give them some more ag business courses like marketing and sales.
Fulton: “We know precision farming is definitely evolving along with the offerings of dealerships. Precision ag technology is mature with wide adoption today. There will be growth of new sensor systems, including remote sensing and UAVs along with data analytics.
“Giving new hires some vision of where they’ll be in 5-10 years and how they can advance is something that will give them security…”
“For young employees, it’s about understanding and articulating the value of technology plus data services directly to clients. Not only do we need to understand technology, but we also need to communicate how it might benefit an individual farm business and the relevance data can play in decisions and input selection.
“As an industry, we’re starting to tackle the value component by bringing marketing and information back to growers about what the tangible benefit is to their individual farm operation. The whole data piece and how it’s going to fit in at the dealer level is still advancing. New hires are going to have to have a pretty broad mind about how that all fits together in what they’re trying to sell to a grower or client.”
Gunderson: “The first thing that comes to mind is wireless and use of the cloud. Clearly, that is where we’re headed. So all of the knowledge and requisite skillsets that are associated with information technology on farms and ranches looks really crucial going forward.
“We harbor the perspective that as technology improves and we move toward segregated seeding and precise seed placement in some of these emerging technologies, we believe precision farming technologists are going to have to know more about agronomy than they typically do now. Dealers still want to see more shop work. They’re worried about the emphasis we put on crop science and agronomy. They’re also wondering about the chemistry and biology that we require. My response has been, you really want someone with a reasonably well-rounded academic exposure. You get an employee who has been trained how to think.
“Thirdly, we work extensively with providers of remote sensing technologies and unmanned aerial vehicles This year we launched ‘ground school’ training compliant with the FAA’s suggested new requirements for UAVs. We sent our second-year students through a ground school unit. It’s another emerging field that doesn’t require any brawn. It’s another potential opening for women who wish to function within a production ag environment, but who are doing something kind of different.”
Smith: “When people think of a precision farming specialist, they think of a techie who loves working with computers and mobile devices. And it’s true, but it’s so much more. When it comes down to it, they need to know agronomy, economics and business. Whether or not dealerships have an in-house agronomist, they’re going to need to be able to work with other agronomists to fully service the farmer.
“We can do great things with this technology, but the question is ‘What should we do with it?’ We need to maximize profit. It’s more than just a computer guru. Dealers need people on their team who are skilled in agronomy and business, as well as the technology.”