Dealer Takeaways

  • For dealers of scale, starting your own academy may be the future of tech recruitment.
  • Larger upfront investments will be a growing necessity to keep your talent pipeline flowing.
  • Listen to your technician candidates: never assume today’s solution will work tomorrow.

Everyone is looking for more technicians, and that’s nothing new. Almost 85% of dealers in the most recent Farm Equipment Dealer Business Outlook & Trends survey said they want to add technicians in 2023. 

Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners, a 27-store Missouri and Illinois John Deere dealer — and Farm Equipment’s 2021 Dealership of the Year — decided if they couldn’t find the techs they need, they’d create them. In September 2022, the dealership announced the launch of its SNP Career Academy in Wentzville, Mo., focused on the technical training of service technicians for John Deere Ag & Turf equipment. The academy’s first group of students began classes on Sept. 1, 2022.

Ted Briscoe, SN Partners CEO shares the curriculum of their new SNP Career Academy and the return on investment the dealership expects from their first group of students.

Can you provide a brief overview on what the career academy and its curriculum are like?

About a year ago, we got tired of feeling sorry for ourselves in our struggles with the lack of qualified technicians in our area. We worked through an analysis and decided to start our own technician training program. And it’s more than training: this is a tech college. We call it our career academy. This is not to replace but to augment the work we’re doing with the John Deere tech training program as well as the state of Missouri. 

We bought a facility that has about 10,000 square feet for what we call our lab space, our hands-on training space, and about 5,000 feet for the classrooms that we set up. We’ve got a 10-month curriculum for getting students through the program. 

What we’ve created is a shorter curriculum where we can get people to work back in our shops as quickly as possible. Instead of the Deere program where you rotate back and forth, we have 10 months of continuous training for these students. And when they graduate, they will come out certified either for a large ag track or a small ag track. We’re not trying to teach them 2 years’ worth of everything.

As these students start, the first 3 months will be some standard curriculum. That would be SNP Service 101, where we’re teaching our business processes, John Deere Service Advisor, the standard business tools that they need in terms of how they conduct their business. That’s followed up with a module on engines and transmissions, and then a module on components. That will be approximately the first third of the curriculum.

After that, we move into month long blocks that are product specific. Upon completion of the program, these students will all have gone through the core curriculum and then 4-5 different product-specific blocks, with the idea being they’ll come out ready to be productive in the shop, either on turf and some of the smaller equipment or specialized on large ag.

The way we’ve set this up is that this isn’t a “one-and-done.” They can go through the program and if they go through a small equipment track, they can come back later to what we’re calling “summer school” and learn about planters or sprayers so they can augment their initial training.

 We provide housing for the students. This is all in a centralized facility in the geographic center of our footprint, so right outside St. Louis. When they come to work, we’re paying them as full-time employees. Their training is their job, so they’re on our payroll. They’re expected to show up just like it’s their job. I’d say 80-90% of them know exactly where they’re going to be upon graduation.

How many students do you have in your first class?

Our original thought was to have 15 students the first year, 20 the second year and 25 in the third. And with the space we have, we think 25 is the maximum number of students we’d ever want to have in given time.

In our first year, we actually ended up with 26 students, so we hit our year 3 goal in the first year. And the interesting thing is this system will perpetuate itself. These guys are all from local communities. In some ways they’re local success stories, so the program is feeding on itself. We already have more applicants for next fall’s class than we have spots available.

We’re going to be in a little different position for the second year where we’re going to be selecting students, working through some interviews and picking the best available as opposed to year one. Truthfully, we took everyone who applied. It’s a nice position to be in, to be a little bit more selective. We were glad to be filled to capacity right away.

How did you find your first applicants? Where did you advertise the academy?

We’ve always had a pretty active presence in our local communities, either through the high school, 4-H programs or college fairs. Really this was all about putting an offering out there and continuing conversations we were already having.

What we found is that for a lot of students, it’s a lot more attractive to have an official job right away and be able to go to work in 10 months as opposed to 2 years. Some people are more inclined to want to do that. Honestly, some people just need to do that. They need to be making money sooner.

We found we had a unique offering for a subset of students who were already predisposed to want to enter a path like this. It’s a pretty fun, easy story to tell, and we’ve had a lot of fun with it.

For our student signing days, we’re taking fun pictures of people with their families back at their high school, just like they’ve signed up to be a linebacker at the University of Alabama, so it’s neat. These guys are proud, their families are proud. It’s a fun way for us to celebrate success back in their local communities.

What are your expectations for your return on investment?

We really did this for strategic reasons and securing the pipeline of technicians. We do though have a return on investment model, and we have to keep ourselves honest about the economics. At full population with 25 students, it costs us about $65,000 per student to get them through the program. That is with all costs, everything being fully allocated from the utilities to the instructors, to the tools we provide — every student gets a $10,000 set of tools that’s theirs after 2 years.

All this is part of the initial startup cost. We’ve made a $65,000 commitment for each student. A combination of saving the tuition reimbursement expense   if we were sending them to a John Deere school, internal training that we will save on and improving productivity in their first 2 years in the shop are where we will see the return.

We have assumptions primarily tied to how much more productive they can be when they get into the shop after we teach them our way. This is the big unproven factor. The big bet we’re making is we believe that coming to our program, teaching them our processes, teaching them the SNP way will not only help us with retention of technicians but also improve their productivity for the first couple years. If we’re even close to our assumptions financially, this will start being very attractive for us [financially] in addition to securing the technicians. 

For dealers who might be considering starting their own training program, where do you recommend they start?

If our financial assumptions are correct, it’s a no-brainer for dealers of scale that can afford to make this kind of investment. We already have had several dealers approach us who are already willing to take the risk. The larger group will be people who pause a little bit and wait to see how this goes, to see if we can change the productivity curve enough to make this work.

“We're learning a lot by listening to what these technician students want and need …”

I think some version of this will be around for a long time. Whether or not we have this nailed perfectly has yet to be seen — probably not, but we’ll change it. We’re committed to this, and we’re going to make it work. We know there’s a lot more right about it than wrong.

I don’t see the tech shortage going away. There’s going to have to be creative solutions like this to allow us to secure our own future.

We all have to keep looking outside of the traditional tools that we have, whether it’s recruiting our local communities or counting on John Deere or other manufacturers to help us recruit and train technicians.

We believe the more we can do and the more we can learn and listen to these students, the more effective we are going to be. We’re learning a lot by listening to what these technician students want and need instead of just assuming that what worked yesterday is the right answer for tomorrow.

Click here for more Industry News.