ABOVE: (l to r) Steve Kaufman, integrated solutions manager, PrairieLand Partners, John Fulton, associate professor, Ohio State University, Ken Diller, precision farming manager, Hoober Inc.

Finding the next generation of precision farming specialists is a challenge that almost 40% of dealers reported was among their most important issues in the Precision Farming Dealer 2015 Benchmark Study. First, dealers must identify the traits they’re looking for in potential candidates for their fast-paced, rapidly evolving precision farming departments. Then, they face the challenge of actually finding these recruits.

After dealers find the perfect recruit, they have a whole other battle in front of them: how to keep that employee interested and thriving at the dealership.

The panel included Ken Diller, precision farming manager for Hoober Inc., the 2016 Precision Farming Dealer Most Valuable Dealership, based in Intercourse, Pa.; Steve Kaufman, integrated solutions manager for Farm Equipment’s 2014 Dealership of the Year PrairieLand Partners based in Hutchinson, Kan.; and John Fulton, associate professor at Ohio State University. They provided their ideas and suggestions for finding — and keeping — the next generation of precision farming specialists.

What to Look for in Recruits

While precision technology is constantly changing and progressing, Diller says what he looks for in a precision farming specialist has changed little over time.

“When I look for new precision farming specialists, I look at the same things I would look for in a shop service technician,” he says. “I’ve developed a list of attributes that I refer to when we’re looking for a recruit. The attributes are prioritized by those we think are absolutely necessary and those we can be flexible on. Not every candidate is going to meet every criteria we have, but we want to make sure they fit the primary attributes we’re looking for.”

At the top of Diller’s list of necessary attributes is the potential employee’s attitude and willingness to learn and work. “There’s no part of agriculture that’s going to be a 7-5 job. If the guy’s not willing to work, if he doesn’t show me that he has a self-motivated attitude, then he’s probably not going to fit in a precision farming role,” he says.

Next, a new recruit needs to have good social and communication skills to be a successful precision farming candidate. “Precision specialists often fill a combination of roles all wrapped up into one,” Diller says. “They have to be technicians, but they also have to be salespeople.”

Kaufman adds that he also looks for good communication skills in new employees for the precision department at PrairieLand Partners. “They need to be able to communicate with the customer and the customer’s trusted advisors to be part of the solution for customers,” he says.

Having some background in agronomy or knowledge of agronomic terminology is also a plus for precision farming department candidates because it helps them communicate with customers and develop a deeper understanding of their operations. PrairieLand Partners recently hired an agronomist for its precision farming department and Kaufman says his knowledge makes him an invaluable communication asset to customers.

“I farmed my whole life, but I could not talk to a customer like the agronomist can,” Kaufman says. “They bring instant program credibility and an agronomic knowledge that we didn’t have before as a John Deere dealer. He helps link the agronomics to the equipment at our dealership, and he’s able to better communicate with our customers and their agronomists.”

Seeing the benefits of having an agronomist on staff, Kaufman says he looks for an agronomic background in all of his incoming recruits for the precision farming department.

Both Kaufman and Diller also look for tech savvy candidates with an aptitude for machinery and say a passion for agriculture is absolutely necessary. “I look for whether applicants have a farming background,” Diller says. “It’s not a deal breaker, but it does tell me from the start that they understand the time commitment and workflow in the agriculture industry.”

“We have to make sure employees can have a family life so they don’t burn out in 18 or 24 months…”

Do Recruits Need a Degree?

“We struggle with knowing what kind of degree recruits should have,” Diller says. “As time goes by, I’m seeing more technical schools or 2-year degrees that fit the bill for what we’ve been looking for in a person with a 4-year degree. The technical degree gives them the basic hydraulic, electrical and schematics experience that they won’t get in a 4-year degree program.”

Fulton says at the collegiate level, they recognize this conundrum. “Dealers are looking for a new breed of student,” he says. “For precision farming, we’re looking for a student who potentially has some business background, maybe some sales background, technology experience and agronomic knowledge.

A 2-year program is probably going to be very technical, while a 4-year program is probably going to be more general in terms of technology.

“Today in Ohio we have 11 colleges and universities offering some kind of precision class or program, but they may not be what you would normally think of when I use the term precision ag. We typically think of GPS guidance and precision technology, but those topics may or may not be extensively covered in all curriculums,” Fulton explains.

While more universities are working to create this “new breed of student” with both business and technology knowledge, Fulton says they won’t likely be offering a specific precision agriculture degree any time soon. “We want to give the students the skills and exposure to some of these things so they can plug into an equipment dealership and dealers don’t have to spend so much time training them internally. This is a big ship, though, and we need some time to build it,” he says.

Finding Recruits

Once dealers know what they’re looking for in potential new precision employees, they need to go out and find candidates.

Diller says word of mouth has been the most effective way Hoober has been able to find candidates for its precision farming department, though he tries to avoid hiring the children or relatives of customers. “When you hire a customer’s relative, you run the risk of alienating a good customer if the recruit doesn’t work out. You have to be very careful in those situations,” he says.

Hoober also recently partnered with three area dealerships to go to local high schools and work with the FFA programs to give teenagers exposure to farm equipment dealerships. “We wanted to show the kids what kind of career paths are available to them so they have a better idea of what they’d like to pursue in college,” he says.

Fulton adds one of the key limiting factors for the number of new recruits interested in the farm equipment industry is that many students at the high school and even college level don’t know anything about the positions available at farm equipment dealerships. To remedy this, Fulton encourages dealers to be active on social media and promote their companies and the kinds of work they do.

“Students spend a lot of time on social media and dealers need to get them excited about working in a dealership,” he says. “A lot of students are very excited about working with technology and while they might not be farm kids, they are very passionate about agriculture. They want to feed the world and it’s up to us to let them know that positions with dealerships are out there.”

Precision Internships

Fulton encourages dealers to develop relationships with universities, but cautions that dealers need to start looking for possible interns sooner rather than later because talented students are often hired quickly. “My best students are already taken for the summer season,” he told attendees in January. “These students are bright and get a lot of opportunities, so if you want to bring in talented students for a summer internship, you need to start recruiting in August of the prior year.”

Internships can be an ideal method for recruiting new precision farming specialists, Fulton adds. “From student feedback, internships are not only a great way to expose students to what they would be doing full time with your company, they’re also a way for you to see what the student can do for the dealership,” he says.

Diller adds that at Hoober they use internships as a way of evaluating students still in college and says they also help students understand what the expectations are in a dealership setting.

“You need to be honest and realistic with the intern,” Diller says. “Don’t sugarcoat the job. Tell them upfront that this job might entail 17 hours a day during planting season. They need to know that and they need to know what the expectations are for them when they come in.”

Fulton recommends dealers look for students in their second or third year of college because by their fourth year, they have likely already had a few internships and may already have full time job offers from prior internships.

The number one complaint Fulton hears from students about internships is that they didn’t get to do the kind of work they expected going in. “Students start internships thinking they’re going to be doing installations and service, but sometimes all they end up doing is grid sampling, which wears kids out very quickly,” he says.

Retaining Employees

Finding quality precision employees is only half the battle. Next, dealers need to be able to hang on to them. For Hoober Inc., retaining employees is a part of the company culture that starts when the employee begins at Hoober.

“Dealers need to instill the team concept and make the new employee feel like he’s contributing to the team from day one,” Diller says. “Reward him along with everybody else for meeting team goals.”

This team concept also includes allowing employees to speak up and contribute their ideas. When PrairieLand Partners recruited an agronomist for its precision farming department, it didn’t matter that he was a new employee. They took his ideas and let him help design the department. “With his help and by bringing him on board, we were able to paint a picture of a precision department he wanted to be a part of,” he says.

Another key factor for dealerships to retain top employees is salary and compensation. At PrairieLand Partners, Kaufman says they’ve found success in combining a base salary with an incentive system that allows employees to increase their pay based on their performance. “We pay incentives based on new acres added to our precision program in a year, for grid sampling and labor hours charged. We also have end-of-year team incentives,” he says. “When employees have the opportunity to earn more from performance-based incentives, it gives them the flexibility to increase their pay if they work hard.”

Providing employees with flexibility and adequate work/life balance are also important factors in employee retention. “I have 5 employees who rotate being on call on weekends,” Kaufman says. “Before we implemented that system, I had employees who were answering calls on their cell phones all the time. Now employees can go on vacation and know they have a team behind them to back them up.”

Diller adds, “Somewhere along the line, we need to figure out how to give employees their lives back. We have to make sure employees can have a family life so they don’t burn out in 18 or 24 months.”