Yet the equipment industry cannot fill positions. With a strong economy driving competition for qualified labor and rising business costs, dealers find challenges at every turn.
“Most dealers struggle with getting good, competent technicians, it’s been an issue for 50 years, probably even since the plow was invented,” said John Miller, CEO of Valley Truck & Tractor Co. based in Chico, Calif., who has nine John Deere dealership locations. He acknowledges the industry suffers from stereotypes. “Frankly, the industry has come a long way. A lot of people would think of a mechanic as a guy in greasy coveralls with a wrench in his hand and a corn-cob pipe sticking out of his mouth.
“That’s not the case anymore, these tractors are as or more sophisticated than the cars you drive today,” Miller said. “They are technologically and electronically far superior in many ways to other modes of transportation. It takes a higher level of education and competency for technicians today than it did 20, 30 or 40 years ago.”
And compensation has followed this trend as it’s no longer considered a low-paying job. Some techs are making six figures “because they can command that for the skills they bring to the business,” he said.
Skills Gap and Knowledge Transfer
Demographics in the agriculture and equipment industry are changing along with the rural and urban landscape. The equipment industry reflects a trend from the 2017 Census of Ag released last year showing the average age of producers increased to 57.5. Many dealers say it’s increasingly difficult to attract qualified prospects to rural areas.
Add to this a significant drop in trade school programs in the past decades as young people pursue four-year degrees in other fields. Even with education, candidates are missing the necessary skills. At the Equipment Dealers Association’s October 2019 Workforce Summit in Louisville, Ky., Debby Hughes of Entangled Solutions told dealers that 7 million U.S. manufacturing jobs remained unfilled at the start of 2019 as a result of a skills gap. With 4.6 million of those jobs to fill from 2018-2028, only 2.2 million are likely to be filled, she said.
Hughes shared how employers ranked the following STEM skills as the most problematic to find:
• 97 percent – Cybersecurity knowledge
• 95 percent – Data science & analytics
• 83 percent – Critical thinking & problem solving
• 79 percent – Design/systems thinking
• 79 percent – Innovation & creativity
• 78 percent – Global perspective
• 78 percent – Cognitive flexibility
• 74 percent – Cross-disciplinary ability
While educators say only 23 percent of graduates will have data science and analytic skills, 69 percent of employers say those are the preferred skills they need from candidates.
“Recruiting for most positions isn’t difficult, but skilled labor is tough,” said Jason Orton of Ortons Equipment, a single-store Case IH/New Holland dealer in Stratford, Calif. Like other dealerships, Ortons is working with an area community college to get a diesel tech program off the ground.
“You have to have skilled people,” he said. “To diagnose the problems, it’s challenging, they have to be able to use the service tools and plug into computers to be able to follow schematics. It’s hard to teach those skills.”
Dealers attending the EDA Summit shared their frustration about the lack of suitable hard and soft skills, including critical thinking skills and a sense of urgency.