“We’ve been very concerned about the whole situation with workforce, particularly in agriculture,” said Scott Sheely, Special Assistant for Workforce Development, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “We’ve done some studies of our needs going forward, and we are anticipating a need for some 75,000 workers in the ag and food industry between now and 2027.”
Filling in the blanks, Sheely said this equation involves the need for skilled people, those who get degrees in agriculture and ag science. There is also what he calls a broad base of production in which there are concerns about the supply of workers. “But we are most concerned about that middle level where we’re beginning to see folks who require some kind of skill training. This is not necessarily training that comes with a college degree but rather through some other kind of training that is more skill-oriented.”
Having outlined this parameter, Sheely outlined a new program wherein graduates can transition out of high school, enter a training ground that is like a traditional apprenticeship, yet different. This apprenticeship, Sheely says, “allows apprentices to work with their employers while developing skills on the job; and at the same time, they can get some related training in several of our educational institutions.”
“These are both exciting and challenging times for the ag equipment industry,” said Jay Gainer, General Manager of Messick’s Farm Equipment, one of the founding dealers of the apprenticeship program. “When I first came to our dealership 40-some years ago, I would have never guessed that manufacturers would be producing self-propelled sprayers…with 120-foot booms, GPS-controlled steering and individual nozzle shut-off; or planters with automatic seed compensation for turns in the field.”
Today’s burgeoning technologically-advanced equipment enables one person to accomplish in a day that would have taken weeks to do not so long ago.
Customer success, says Gainer, depends on his equipment and its ability to function at full capacity. In other words, service has become a top priority. “That is why we have invested in over 30 fully-equipped service trucks so that our technicians cannot only get work done in the shop, but can also make the over 7,000 service calls for on-site repair that we’ve done this past year,” he added. “It has been very difficult for farm equipment dealers to find fully qualified service technicians.”
For Gainer’s company, he says that he simply cannot ensure that he has the right people in the right place at the right time unless there is a pipeline of new fully-qualified service technicians to enter the ag industry.
“The pace of change is just amazing,” said Tim Wentz of the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association. “…who would have imagined a self-driving tractor, much less an autonomous tractor? I believe that within five years we will see autonomous tractors working in the fields.”
What this means is that there will have to be a special work force, one that can’t rely on the local mechanic’s shop helping out on farm equipment as their time allows, and which many of them are not qualified to service. If such a work force does not exist, the problem can expect to be of crisis proportions. “You’ll have a $400,000 piece of equipment on which there will be no return on investment. If that piece of equipment doesn’t work, there’s no investment return,” Wentz stressed. It is nothing more, he says, than adapting to inevitable change.
This is a registered apprenticeship through the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Sheely noted. “We are hoping that this is just a pilot for other areas of the Commonwealth to adapt this similar structure,” said Eileen Cipriani, Deputy Secretary for Workforce Development, Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. “This model is ‘Earn while you learn,’ where you can go to school while you’re earning a living.”
About 86 percent of Pennsylvania employers complain that workforce is their biggest hurdle to having a successful business. An alliance of the business, agriculture, education and labor communities is the hope to resolving the issue of lack of skilled farm equipment workers.
Apprentices who successfully complete the program will receive U.S. Department of Labor certification as a journey person, without the time and debt of a formal college education. Registered apprenticeships offer a diverse group of non-traditional students a framework for hands-on learning in high-demand sectors of the economy. Apprentice programs also can open up new access for women, minorities and military veterans who might not have considered these opportunities in the past. The program includes a pre-apprenticeship option for students enrolled in FFA’s agriculture education programs that offer agriculture mechanics and supervised agriculture experience programs. High school students in these programs may request credit to be applied to the classroom and on-the-job training portion of the apprenticeship.
In addition to establishing entry points on the career pathway, developers hope to collaborate with postsecondary institutions to create certificate and degree programs for agricultural engineering.