Duane Bouska has a better grasp on the technician shortage than most. He’s spent the last 26 years as an instructor at the Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar, Iowa, working the school’s John Deere TECH Program. In that time, he’s seen the needs and wants of his students change dramatically.
“It’s like day and night,” he says. “I had 18 years in the shop before I started here. When I first got hired I said, ‘Oh, wow, you’re going to hire me? That’s cool. Oh, you’re going to pay me, too? That’s even better.’”
Bouska currently has 64 students, 31 freshmen and 33 sophomores, in his program, and these are the highlights he shared about how this next generation of techs needs to be brought in.
How Does the Program Work?
Bouska says his program works a little differently from others, in that students require a dealer sponsor in order to join and have usually trained for a few months with their dealer sponsor beforehand.
“When they’re starting the program, they’re getting familiar with the dealership,” he says. “They’re getting a feel for whether they want work there or whether the dealership wants to hire them at the start. Many of these dealers are paying the tuition. Some of them pay it in advance and some do reimbursement afterwards.
“They are buying some tools depending on which group it is, but some of them are $2,500. Some of them are buying their complete tool set. They’re using that as an attraction when they do their recruiting. We’ve had pretty decent enrollment. We could actually take 40 students each year, and we have 28 signed up for fall right now.”
How are the Dealers Recruiting?
When bringing in potential technicians, Bouska says many of their dealers are visiting high schools, which he says is very effective. One thing he points out, however, is that where 90% of their recruits used to be farm kids, now they’re seeing around 40% of their new students coming from non-ag backgrounds. “Maybe they’ve been on grandpa’s farm, but they’ve never been to a dealership. They didn’t even necessarily know that dealerships exist.”
Another recruitment tactic Bouska mentions is dealers bringing ag mechanic classes and FFA groups into their stores for tours. However, Bouska says it needs to start happening sooner in the kids’ education than it usually does.
“These schools are pushing for kids to make up their mind pretty early,” Bouska says. “You don’t necessarily go out there and grab a junior or senior. If the dealership can get in there earlier or get involved with FFA events, that’s all exposure.”
Another potential avenue Bouska suggests is dealers attempt to actually teach classes on agricultural mechanics in local schools and bring equipment to the school for students to learn on.
“If I go out there and talk to a group of students and I’m just somebody from a college, of course I want them to come to see us, because I want their money, right?” says Bouska. “They see that all the time. But if a representative of the dealer comes and says, ‘We’ve got these jobs open,’ that is going to carry more weight than my visit.”
Bouska is a believer in training up young students as technicians vs. “poaching” techs from other dealers or industries.
“I think you’re better off recruiting and then training them to your needs,” he says. “Sometimes dealers will reach out and hire somebody from another competitor. That technician left that job for money, and that’s all it’s going to take to take him away from you next. If you grow them up in the business and make them feel part of what they’re doing, your longevity would be there.”
What’s Drawing in Technicians?
Money still remains one of the big draws for technicians looking at working at a dealership, says Bouska. Another element that Bouska has seen change over the last 20 years and has grown in importance, however, is the first impression. Students want a clean, professional environment to walk into when determining if they want to begin a career in ag equipment repair, he says.
One word Bouska hears from his students when asking what they want out of a dealership is “happiness.”
“They want to walk through the shop and see people are happy,” says Bouska. “I thought it was interesting that this came up really early in the conversation I had with my sophomores today [on this topic]. The other thing was that qualified managers are extremely important. Some of them have worked with managers where they didn't feel like they were being directed as well as they should have been, and that was a definite turnoff.”
Another aspect of attracting technicians Bouska points out is the nuances work-life balance. He says the shop truck used to be a big draw for students looking at tech jobs, whereas today their reaction is mixed.
“I was talking to the students about this. Some of them are really excited about getting a big new truck so they can go out and service equipment. Others would rather stay in the shop,” he says. “You have to sort through the group you have and feel what their needs are if you're going to retain them.”
The Future of the Tech Shortage
As far as the future of agriculture’s tech shortage, Bouska isn’t optimistic.
“It’s going to get worse, because there are quite a few technicians out there who are seasoned,” he says. “When you get to be 50 plus years old, a lot of times, they look to move somewhere else or maybe move somewhere else in the dealership. And there’s quite a few of those guys out there.
“And then the problem always is how do I attract somebody to come here and then have time to train them beforehand? I think it’s definitely going to get worse.”