According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in July of this year stood at only 3.7%. In Illinois, that number was 4.2%; Iowa, 2.5%; and Missouri, 3.3%.

Those very low numbers indicate strong competition between companies for available employees. That competition exists for nearly every business, including local ag equipment dealerships.

“Hiring and retaining good- quality employees is a major issue,” notes Rodney Mathews, store manager at Alliance Tractor in Casey, Illinois. “In the farm industry, in particular, it seems to be a real stumbling block for dealers.”

Alliance Tractor, like many farm equipment dealerships around the country, uses creative approaches to identify potential employees.

“Of course, we go to college job fairs,” says Mathews. “We also spend time with families of 4-H’ers and visit high schools.

“Once we get a potential employee interested, we offer a very competitive wage, along with a family-friendly benefit package,” continues Mathews. “But in the end, the reason most people choose this type of profession is that they love interacting with customers, working with their hands, and feeling that sense of accomplishment from a job well done.”

With today’s high-tech equipment, specialized training is a key piece for attracting new dealership employees. To that end, John Deere recently announced it has received approval from the U.S. Department of Labor for its new Registered Apprenticeship Program and is making it available to its Agriculture & Turf and Construction & Forestry dealers.

According to the company, the program will help address a widespread shortage of service technicians, especially in rural areas across the country, by providing dealers with a formalized on-the-job and technical training plan to help them develop more highly skilled employees.

“The new Registered Apprenticeship Program complements our existing John Deere TECH program,” says Grant Suhre, director, region 4 customer and product support for John Deere Ag & Turf. “In addition to the on-the-job training experience, an apprentice will receive technical instruction and be assigned a personal mentor as a part of the highly organized training structure. Upon completion of the apprenticeship, he or she will receive a nationally recognized journeyworker certificate.”

Through participation in the apprenticeship program, dealers formally commit to developing additional talent. A participating apprentice receives structured, on-the-job training in partnership with an experienced mentor. As training progresses, apprentices are rewarded for new skills acquired.

According to Tim Worthington, manager, customer support for the John Deere Construction and Forestry Division, participating dealerships will see numerous benefits.

“Because of the earn-while-you-learn nature of the program, it will help dealers more easily recruit new employees and further develop a highly skilled workforce,” Worthington says. “This can improve a dealer’s productivity as employee turnover costs are reduced and employees are retained longer. In addition, John Deere customers benefit from access to more highly skilled dealer personnel who are servicing or supporting their equipment.”

John Deere dealers can collaborate with any number of local organizations as part of the Registered Apprenticeship Program. These organizations include, but are not limited to, the John Deere TECH Program, K-12 schools, community colleges, labor organizations, economic development groups, foundations and workforce development boards.

Dealerships also can select other occupations for the apprentice program, including sales professionals, parts professionals, accountants or many other occupations and develop appropriate work processes for those jobs.

Other manufacturers have developed a wide range of training programs, as well. For example, AGCO opened its Applicator Training Center in Bloomington, Illinois, two years ago. The Applicator Training Course is a four-day program to educate individuals with little or no background in the application of crop protection products and plant nutrients.

The comprehensive course uses practical learning experiences that range from basic math and measurements for proper pesticide mixtures, to hands-on training in the safe operation of application machines while maneuvering field entrances, railroad crossings, overgrown entrances, roads and a variety of field conditions. The course also includes fundamentals of machine maintenance, understanding sprayer components and systems, proper tank cleanout procedures and the importance of recordkeeping.

From service techs to sales professionals to custom applicators and more, ag machinery companies and their dealerships continue to offer outstanding opportunities for those entering the workforce or wanting a career change.

Michael Gustafson has written for and about farm equipment companies, their products and dealerships for more than 40 years, including 25 years with John Deere. He lives on a small acreage in Dennison, Ill.

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