Building the next generation of leaders is the key to any successful dealership. That leadership journey can start during a recruit’s education as an internship opportunity.
More and more dealerships are offering precision farming internships to both high school and/or college students to give them a taste for what working at a dealership entails.
Nebraska Equipment, a single-store Case IH dealership in Seward, Neb., is one of those dealerships that has successfully developed a precision internship. Kenny Pekarek, sales manager with Nebraska Equipment, says that the dealership is looking to expand their internship program to include an intern for the service side.
“Especially in recent years, I’m seeing dealers seem to be more proactive in going beyond just their local colleges and trying to set up more formal partnerships to get student interns,” Pekarek says.
- Try to recruit college students and farm and shop hands and then mold them into an ideal precision salesperson.
- Ideally, precision interns should have a willingness to learn, some farm background knowledge and the ability to understand multiple brands and platforms.
- Leverage the advantage and experience the younger generation has with technology to attract high-quality interns.
Nebraska Equipment has partnerships with Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., and Southeast Community College in Milford, Neb. The dealership has partnered with Southeast Community College for nearly 20 years.
Structure for Success
Pekarek recognizes the challenge of making sure leadership within the dealership are on board before beginning to put together an internship and starting the hiring process.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the general manager,” he says. Once leadership buys in, it’s time to formalize the structure of the internship, to include defining goals and setting expectations.
“Interns have to have a willingness to learn and some farm background knowledge,” Pekarek says. “It’s nice if they know different brands, but they’ve got to be open-minded. An intern might figure out that he or she likes sales or working with a specific brand or product.”
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Nebraska Equipment’s first intern, Brennan Roth from Milford, Neb., took precision farming-focused classes during the 2018-2019 school year, which should benefitted him as he returned to intern with Nebraska Equipment for his second internship in summer 2019.
Roth has completed an Associate’s degree in Agribusiness from Northeast Community College and will be finishing an Associate’s degree in Precision Agriculture, also from Northeast Community College, during the 2019-2020 academic year.
“My ideal position would be something working in precision ag and ag sales,” says Roth.
“It will be interesting to see what he learned,” Pekarek says. “He’s one of those hands-on kids who is pretty knowledgeable and learns quickly. He wants to go into precision, so we encouraged him. Just because he’s going into precision doesn’t mean that’s where he’s going to end up, because a lot of things change.”
Roth acknowledges the course work has lessened the precision learning curve during his internship. “Knowing all the components in the system is really important.,” he says.
Pekarek says that providing a quality precision internship experience means providing multiple learning opportunities and letting the student indicate what they want to learn about.
“Since planting season was about over when Brennan started, we still went out and talked to farmers and got him those interactions,” Pekarek says. “He helped me with inventory and invoicing and tasks like that. If we’re going to have a slow period in the summer, then that’s when we use the intern for other things. It would be nice to have a dual role for an internship, and that’s what we’re thinking down the road.”
“Be open to what that student might be interested in, which might be sales, irrigation, tractor sales, etc. Or they might not like the hardware, but they might like the software side..." — Kenny Pekarek, Nebraska Equipment
Some dealerships opt to keep a running list of projects that an intern can assist with any time or take some time prior to the intern starting to create a list of projects.
Riesterer & Schnell, a 14-store John Deere dealership in Wisconsin, tries to work with the schools on the local level. Integrated Solutions Manager Joe 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.
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,” he says.
“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.”
Seeking High-Quality Candidates
Pekarek recommends that students interested in an internship have a dual major, with at least one of them being in ag business or business. “Any kind of agri-science would be a good idea to go along with precision,” he adds.
Pekarek also points out that collegiate programs training future employees should be sure to train students on being able to work with multiple brands of equipment.
“That’s pretty important, because we go to a farm and the farmer might have two or three different brands, and not everybody runs the same thing,” he says. “Be open to what that student might be interested in, which might be sales, irrigation, tractor sales, etc. Or they might not like the hardware, but they might like the software side.”
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.
Meaning is Essential to Managing Millennial Employees
A report by the Pew Research Center indicated that as of 2015, the millennial generation represented the largest labor force in the U.S., at 53.5 million people.
This figure probably isn’t surprising to many farm equipment dealers who are populating their precision farming departments with employees born in the 1990s or early 2000s.
But this growing workforce represents a cultural shift from past generations in terms of motivation, career objectives and management needs, says professional ag recruiter, T.J. Stauffer.
“The number one thing millennials are looking for in their career is meaning. Not money,” he says. “I believe they are going to be the least money-motivated generation we’ve ever seen in this country.”
With that in mind, dealers are wise to evolve their approach to training and retaining this segment of their precision staff. As the most tech-savvy generation, millennials hold tremendous potential, and tapping into it requires a mix of patience, personal attention and leadership.
Stauffer notes that millennials often seek out guidance and direction, but also want to work in a collaborative environment. “Millennials do not want a boss, they want a mentor,” he says. “The challenge and goal for dealers is to be the leader that they never want to leave.”
Simple practices including taking an employee out for coffee and asking about their life can be impactful interactions and foster a sense of purpose. Stauffer says millennials also aren’t looking for promotion, as much as progression in their careers. “Progression means there are literal goals planned out for achievement and accomplishment,” he says.
However, some dealers say their experience with supervising millennials has been centered on compensation. A couple feel that getting millennials to work was not the main issue — it was the feeling that they should be paid more. One dealer mentioned that after giving a millennial employee a $12,000 raise at the end of the year, the employee said it was not enough.
Although it may appear that millennials are focused solely on what they’re earning, others say there are other motivating factors. “Money may drive some of them but, if so, it’s only for a period of time,” says Gary Mach, owner of Lone Star Agronomics in Hillsboro, Texas. “Money gets them there and it’s the flexibility and lifestyle that keeps them.”
“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.”
The relationship with Cobleskill has a two-fold benefit for the dealership. First, they established a strong rapport with one of the advisors who essentially handpicked interns for Monroe Tractor. 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.
Successes & Challenges
Although Nebraska Equipment just started their internship program in 2018, Pekarek notes that it was a huge learning experience for both Roth and dealership staff.
“One thing we’ve learned is not to throw an intern out there with a customer when he’s green,” Pekarek says. “I noticed with students that they tend to get a little embarrassed or scared, but they won’t admit to a customer that they don’t know something. They may act like they know what they’re doing, but they don’t. Encourage them to say, ‘I don’t know’, ‘Let me find out,’ or ‘Let me get somebody else that does know.’”
Roth concurs that the learning curve can be steep.
“Learning the computer system with the inventory was the biggest challenge for me,” he says. “Without knowing how to navigate through that, it was hard to help customers get the parts they need. I also got the chance to install auto-steer on a Case IH 470 Rowtrac tractor. It was so satisfying to know that I could do it myself, with only minimal checking after I was finished.”
Young people today have an advantage in their ease for working with technology, according to Pekarek, and that can be an attractive quality for dealers when seeking precision interns.
“We were demonstrating a new Case IH AFS Connect Magnum 340 tractor that came with factory guidance and the new AFS Pro 1200 on it,” Pekarek says. “I showed this young guy — he’s probably 21 or 22 — how to run it. I checked back with him in an hour, and he knew how to run that monitor.”
Teaching young people how to build relationships in the business has been one of the big takeaways for Pekarek from the dealership’s internship program.
“That’s one thing that intrigued me because we talked about that a lot with our intern,” Pekarek says. “That’s very important. He always has a lot of questions and it’s amazing what goes through kids’ minds, because they’re always thinking. He was wanting to learn as he went along and it helped us grow, too.”
“Learning about building customer relationships was the most valuable thing I learned during my internship,” Roth adds. “Talking with customers is the biggest part of sales and precision. Having that face-to-face interaction with them is huge.”
Two-Way Trust Critical to Success of Precision Internships
Taking a precision intern and turning them into a productive employee can be a daunting task. Doing so takes trust, communication and a solid plan for interns to follow.
Having an intern program is often viewed positively because it gives dealerships the opportunity to see who is worth hiring. Before worrying about hiring interns, you first need to get them through the door.
When hiring interns, the approach should be the same as for any other position. Dealers should trust their gut instincts and set high expectations right away which helps to set a certain standard for them. “Never view an intern as anything different from a temporary employee,” says one dealer.
Diversify responsibilities and give new hires a taste of different departments — sales, service and maybe even parts. But wrap this around their education and development as a precision specialist.
If they understand what everyone else at the dealership does, and others know what they do, that will avoid confusion and help everyone know where they should go for not just answers, but the right answers.
“Don’t just use the interns as hard labor,” says Alee Larson, precision ag specialists with Crystal Valley Cooperative. “Get them involved in the process and with customers. The goal is to make it educational.”
Dealers have found that it beneficial to give interns a project to complete throughout their time with the company. At the end of their internship, have interns present their projects to the entire staff. This shows the company what the intern has learned and allows the individual to get a feel for being a part of and running and meeting.
One dealer mentions that his dealership recently had an intern they enjoyed working with so much that they hired him and are now helping him finish school before he begins working full-time.
At the end of an internship, this dealer says he gives interns a review of the work they did and their progress. “We look at what they did well and what they were weak on,” he says. “We also talk about what they can do to improve. I’ve had students change their entire next college semester schedule based on the feedback we give them on the things we think they should be working on.”
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