The following article is based on Arik Witker, Seth Conway and Joe Sinkula's presentation at the 2019 Precision Farming Dealer Summit. To watch the presentation, click here.
Finding good employees — and retaining them — is a challenge for all farm equipment dealership departments, but it is particularly challenging for the precision farming department where burnout rates are high. Add to that a 4% unemployment rate in the U.S. and 5.8% in Canada, and there just aren’t that many potential employees in the pool.
Before you do anything, make sure you are clearly defining the role you are trying to fill, stresses Joe Sinkula, Integrated Solutions manager for Riesterer & Schnell, a 14-store John Deere dealership in Wisconsin. “I think a lot of us talk about what the precision farming technology coordinator role looks like. Figure that out for your dealership making a hire. We had to let someone go, and it was really nothing against him,” he says. “We hired for a role we thought we needed, but didn’t actually end up needing. He had the wrong skill set because we were transitioning as a dealership.”
Young people are interested in getting into precision farming, but they don’t necessarily fully understand all the different avenues the can go down, says Arik Witker, precision farming manager, Redline Equipment, a 12-store Case IH dealership based in Ohio.
Arik Witker | Precision Farming Manager
Redline Equipment, a 12-store Case IH dealership in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana
Seth Conway | Precision Product Manager
Monroe Tractor, a 7-ag location Case IH dealership in New York
Joe Sinkula | Integrated Solutions Manager
Riesterer & Schnell, a 14-store John Deere dealership based in Wisconsin
He poses this question: Do you hire good employees when they come around, even if it’s not the right time or you don’t have a specific position open? Or, do you hire people just when you’re in a pinch? “The timing of your recruitment is vital, and it’s the same with internships. The cream of the crop is getting recruited earlier and earlier ever year. By fall semester a lot of the good talent already have job offers on the table,” he says.
Before you can train and retain employees, you’ve got to find them.
Finding the Right People
Working with local schools can be helpful in recruiting interns and employees, but Sinkula says simply providing schools equipment is not enough. “We offer to come teach classes on the day they start planting. We typically try to make sure we have somebody out there. As an instructor, there’s nothing worse than having that tractor out there from Brand X, Y or Z. I’ve got 20 students staring at me and I’ve got a 4-hour lab and the tractor will not do anything I want it to do,” he says.
“Having a good employee with good retention practices by their manager or their leadership might still result in them being recruited away if you don’t give them an advancement opportunity…” – Arik Witker, Redline Equipment
Riesterer & Schnell tries to work with the schools on the local level. Sinkula has formed relationships with the instructor aides at some of the state technical or vocations schools. “What I’ve found is when I’ve had openings, I call the aides because they work with the students almost as much if not more than the instructors. They tell me who to hire and who not to hire,” he says.
Monroe Tractor, a 7-store Case IH dealer in New York, has established a relationship with State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill. “We were pulling service technicians out of there left and right,” says Seth Conway, precision product manager. “We actually tried to dive a little bit deeper into that and we found ag finance majors, ag equipment technicians, ag science, diesel techs and ag engineering. We’re trying to find the diamond in the rough. There’s no cookie cutter person out there, so we set out to build off a foundation that we deemed appropriate.”
Developmental Guidelines Detailed
- Move through certification outlined by service manager
- Complete training sheet attached as quickly as possible
- Gain opportunities in other certifications once one area is completed
- Demonstrate application of knowledge gained in those trainings
- Demonstrate increased communication skills
- Demonstrate pride in work spaces and company vehicles
- Conduct yourself in an appropriate manner while at service training
- Move to Class II technician
- Pay scale increases based on training and performance
- Once Master technician is achieved, billable hours will be at a premium therefore increasing opportunities within the guidelines of the Monroe Tractor technician incentive (Class I)
He says the relationship with Cobleskill has a two-fold benefit for the dealership. First, they had established a strong rapport with one of the advisors who essentially handpicked interns for Monroe Tractor. Secondly, the dealership also sends equipment to the school, which can then be sold as used equipment, Conway says.
He says they try to recruit college students and farm and shop hands and then mold them into an ideal precision salesperson. “I think Dr. Jim Weber would call these people field marketers. These are important people to have in your business,” he says.
In all of this, Witker stresses dealerships need to become the employer of choice, and that goes for internships as well. “We used to hire interns because it was cheap labor and not for the experience they got. I was surprised how many students go back to school and tell all their classmates not to come work for us because they had a bad experience,” he says.
Redline has changed how it works with interns to become an employer of choice. “One of the guys we hired was an intern. He went back and told everybody what a great internship he had. We actually have it planned out now, and I can tell you what an intern is going to be doing next July 17th for us. We try to plan their summers to that point so that they always have something to do. I’m not just saying, “Go ride with a salesman or go install this hardware on a planter.”
When recruiting, don’t just focus on what a candidate will bring to your dealership. You also need to sell them on what you can offer them as an employer. “I like to turn the table and think I’m selling Redline when we’re trying to get candidates in the door,” Witker says. “I always owe that candidate a clear job scope, whether it’s face-to-face at a career day or a job fair, or even in an interview. Expectations can go two ways. It can be day-to-day expectations or season-to-season, as well my expectations for how we operate and how I run the team and our core values.”
Above all else, Witker says don’t sugarcoat it. Share the tough stories, but then also the rewards. “You might be able to get a glimpse into that person’s personality if they sit up with intrigue when you tell them those stories,” he says.
Properly on-boarding new employees — whether full-time staff or interns — helps set them up for success. Sinkula says he treats on-boarding as a two season process. “I’m not working in a call center where every 5 minutes, I get a new opportunity to redo everything I’ve done wrong. We’re working in experience where basically you have once a year,” he says.
He breaks on-boarding down into 4 areas: pre-work, first day, first week, first 2 months and ongoing. (See below for details on how Sinkula sets a plan for new hires.) During the first week, make sure you provide as much detail as possible. With a recent hire, Sinkula identified a mentor that wasn’t part of the department to help answer questions. In this case, it was someone from the sales department.
4 Steps for Employee Onboarding
- Set them up for success
- Clean vehicle with necessary parts
- Working computer – with software installed and logins/passwords tested
- Working phone – activated with basic software installed
- Setup schedule for week 1
- Identify mentor
2) Day 1
- Greet them
- Get acclimated with systems
- Review & tweak onboarding plan
- Company vision and core values
- Go through expectations
– Work hours
– Company policies
3) Week 1
- Focus on getting to know systems and company structure
– Set up short time with other departments
- Give them a project to complete
- Have a clear plan and clear expectations
- Give employees projects they can handle
- Start with smaller goals – grow them over time
- Spend more time in other areas or departments
The mentor served as a source for questions on company policy and was in the new employee’s local store. “He’s not calling me every time he has a question now. I’m spread out, with a bunch of guys. I don’t have time to necessarily be with each of them every day. So, I want our new hire to have that resource so he’s not calling me every time he has an internal question,” he says.
Retaining the Good Ones
You’ve got an employee assimilated with the dealership and he understands his role. Now, how do you keep him? “Specialists do one of two things. They either don’t cut it and they get out, or they make themselves a reputation and they become a highly sought-after individual, so they’re going to move on and progress somewhere,” says Witker. To make sure those individuals stay within the dealerships, he says make sure there’s a clear career path for them from day one.
Witker provides a simple graphic (see Fig. 1) to help his team understand how they may grow at the dealership. “Nothing is set in stone with career paths with my guys, but it’s something we discuss. I currently have a specialist who came from the service department and I also have a specialist who just recently transitioned to be an equipment salesperson, so they actually followed this path pretty closely. Although it is a simple plan, I think it shows very well the baseline of knowledge that these individuals would have once they get to that point, if they did progress through all of these phases,” he says.
Monroe Tractor sets interns up for success by giving them a personality test to help evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. This also helps Conway understand how to work with each individual in a way that will help them the most.
“I had my own opinions of the interns. Then we pushed them through the evaluation and the evaluation nailed them to a T,” Conway says. “It’s not something I’m putting a whole lot of weight against, but it certainly does help me pay attention to how I can coach them, how I can address them and where to push and where to retract a little bit.”
Conway has created a visual aid for some of Monroe Tractor’s service technicians to help highlight their potential career paths (See Fig. 2). “Trying to keep good people was the challenge, but losing a hopeful internal advocate was something I didn’t necessarily want to do,” he says.
FIG 2: Monroe Tractor created this simple graphic to show a new hire the steps he would need to take to become a product specialist. It outlines the basic job descriptions for a technician, Class II/I technician and a product specialist/PSR.
He shares this example of an employee who expressed interest in an open position within the dealership. “We had a discussion and I basically told him I didn’t think he was ready. He’d only been with the company for about 2 years, but it was very important to me that we didn’t just shut the door on him. I presented him with a simple graphic. I said, ‘Here. Listen, you want to get to be a precision specialist role, here are your steps.’
“What was interesting to me was I really didn’t care if he threw it out or not, because if he tossed it out, I would be reassured in my gut reaction that he wasn’t ready. If he kept it, I would be reassured in my gut reaction that we were on the right path. If he continues to examine this or keep it somewhere where he can kind of look at it from time to time, I know that he’s somebody we need to develope.”
A clear plan for expectations and career growth — both for the employee and the manager — will help in creating depth and longevity for precision farming department.
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