A close partnership between Case IH dealership group Birkey’s Farm Store and Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., has proven successful over the years in pumping out new service technicians.

About 10 years ago, Birkey’s realized it was facing a serious workforce gap in the service department.

The business needed trained diesel technicians. Older farm equipment technicians with multiple decades of experience were eyeing retirement, says Birkey’s Education and Recruiting Specialist Travis McClure. At the same time, public high schools were cutting back on technical and vocational education programs, says Steve Hancock, diesel instructor at Parkland College.

“Whether it was auto mechanics or welding, those classes have kind of been pulled out over the past 20 years because of the expense,” he said.

At the same time, technical and community colleges weren’t — and still aren’t — numerous enough to fill in the gap, Hancock said.

“There’s only 8 diesel community colleges in the state of Illinois,” he said.

Working Together

Dealer employees and Parkland officials worked together to fill the gap, Hancock says. The dealership and college had an existing relationship from restarting the college’s diesel program in 2000 but launched a new program in 2010 specifically for CNH technicians as a means of closing the gap.

Over the years, McClure says Birkey’s has close to 100 individuals  who have been through the Parkland program. 

“Out of those, we have technicians. We have assistant service managers. We have 4 service managers that have come out of this program. We have 2 regional service managers. We have people in administration. We have store managers, so it’s kind of our developmental first step, and the possibilities are endless once they get through the program,” he says.

Now the school has two programs: a broader general diesel technician program from which graduates can move on to trucking and other industries, and a dedicated program for CNH equipment. The college accepts 20 students per year for each of the programs, with the potential for more.

The program’s hands-on nature naturally limits capacity to some extent, Hancock says.

“The easy part is I can honestly say I can lecture to 1,000 students,” he said. “What I can’t have is 1,000 students in a lab situation.”

Originally CNH’s 2010 program, called “Forging The Future” sponsoring dealers provided a $500 scholarship per semester for the first year a student enrolls in the CNH Service Technician Program at Parkland, and $1,000 per semester for the second year. 

The program furnished students with a toolbox and tools worth approximately $6,000-plus.

However, Birkey’s has moved to a U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship program, McClure says. Under the new program structure, Birkey’s provides their apprentices $6,000 in tuition support over the two-year Parkland AAS degree program. 

The apprenticeship includes the two years in school plus an additional year working full-time at Birkey’s and results in a USDOL journeyworker certificate in the occupation of Ag and Construction Equipment
Service Technician. 

The Birkey’s apprenticeship guarantees a minimum wage of $16 per hour in the first year, $18 per hour in the second year, $20 per hour on successful graduation and completion of the full Parkland CNH program, and $22 per hour when journeyworker status is reached and the apprenticeship is finalized. Enrollees are still furnished with tools, toolboxes and work uniforms.

To enroll in the CNH program, students must be sponsored by a Case IH, CNH or Case Construction dealer.

Following full graduation of the CNH program, the students who are sponsored by Birkey’s may be offered jobs at the dealership. After the first two years of employment, students have the option to buy their tools at reduced rates. After completing three years, the tools are available for purchase at $1 

“Right now, we’re at about 164 techs. We’d like to be at 185 by the end of the year…” – Travis McClure, education & recruiting specialist, Birkey’s Farm Store

The program comes with certain risks for the dealership, McClure says. “Companies looking for technicians have made the market extremely competitive. Everyone is looking for someone to hire with the right skill set for their organization, and often we see individuals wanting to pursue the promise of higher wages without looking at the full compensation package. 

“Unfortunately, that may mean we lose someone we put through an apprenticeship program, prior to them actually speaking with us about going elsewhere. That’s particularly common, given high demand for trained farm equipment technicians in today’s market,” he says.

Apprenticeship Tax Benefits 

“The US Department of Labor has invested heavily in apprenticeships and that’s extended by the State of Illinois through the Illinois Apprenticeship Education Expense Tax Credit Program, which provides Illinois income tax-paying businesses a huge benefit for adopting an apprenticeship model,” Hancock said.

At least $3,500 per apprentice, and up to $5,000, businesses spend per tax year on education at Parkland for their apprentices can be claimed on the tax credit through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, he says.

Parkland officials and dealers are working to get the word out about the program’s new emphasis, Hancock said.

“It’s such a new program that I think our goal here this spring is to get more decision-makers at the dealerships involved so they know about it,” he says. 

“Before this, the dealers were taking a monster financial risk by sponsoring a student. If they’re forking out 12 or 13 grand over a 2-year period on somebody they might not know anything about, it’s a large risk. This is taking some of that risk away on the financial side.”

Hancock and McClure have also begun reaching out to high school students, as much as the ongoing pandemic allows, and have seen positive results.

“I think we saw 62 kids, and 14 of those kids have already been here to visit since just going in the classroom and talking to them, telling them to come down and see what goes on, see what they like,” McClure says. 

“I’m not big on pushing kids to do something they don’t want to do. I’ll tell them ‘Go visit a couple schools. See where you think you fit the best.’ I know what education they’re getting here. The students are out there. It’s just finding them.”

Parkland’s program currently has enrollees from as far afield as Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, apprenticeship programs benefit all involved. Opening employment opportunities for less-skilled individuals and providing training at no expense to the employee opens the talent pool significantly for employers. 

Institutional knowledge can be passed on from more experienced workers to the next generation. Apprentices are assigned mentors to help them learn the company culture and grow in their career field, which helps employees feel they belong and increases retention. 

School-Dealership-OEM Benefits

The college also benefits through the partnership with both the dealers and the manufacturers by gaining access to the latest equipment, McClure says.

“With the other diesel programs that I go see, all their equipment is very dated,” he says. “It’s something a farmer’s donated or something that they can’t work on. We’ve got equipment at Parkland that’s brand new through 40 years old. We’ve got equipment here at Parkland with only three hours on it.”

Those include a 340 Magnum tractor with 12 integrated computer systems, and a Case IH 6150
Axial-Flow combine. 

The dealership aims to increase hiring for service technicians by 13% by the end of the year, McClure said. “Right now, from the Birkey’s side of it, we’re at about 164 techs,” he says. “We’d like to be at 185 by the end of the year.”

Both say similar programs were worth investigation in other states and for other environments. Current demand is fierce, Hancock says.

“I tell everybody, when I talk to groups, ‘For every one of you sitting here, I’ve got 15 or 20 locations of jobs that you could go to,’” he says.

For example, one student asked if it would be possible to move out to Montana to pursue the diesel technician trade there.

“I said, ‘I’m going to make three phone calls off of the internet. Every one of those dealers are going to need somebody and they’re going to hire you sight unseen. 

“It’s just going to come down to who’s willing to pay you more money,’’ Hancock says. 

“So we’re in that type of situation. We’ve been at 100% job placement ever since we started here 21 years ago. I could take 1,000 kids a year and have jobs for every one of them.”

McClure says he’s encouraged by the students he’s seen.

“They don’t want to listen to Steve lecture for an hour,” he says. “They want Steve to tell them what they need to do and they want to be out there doing it. That’s the type of kids that do well in the program. Typically, they learn best ‘hands-on’. We don’t have classroom kids. They’re not going to sit in a lecture hall.

“They may be B/C students and then they come here and they get straight A’s because they want to be here and they want to work on things. It’s something they’re interested in.”

Sounding the Alarm: Technician Shortage Hurts the Bottom Line

Putting Technicians in the Pipeline

AGCO Partners with Universal Technical Institute for Fendt Ag Tech Training

KanEquip Takes New Approach with Tuition Reimbursement for New Techs

Titan Machinery Takes Grassroots Approach to Technician Recruitment

State Apprenticeship Program Bolsters Birkey’s Recruitment Efforts