Two weeks ago, I joined my dad, Frank, on a trip to Lancaster County, Pa., where he received a soil health award from a farm association and spoke at its annual field days event. We added a day to our trip to see three farm equipment dealers in the highly competitive, and concentrated, area. 

It was an interesting trip in numerous ways, including the diverse equipment and number of shortlines carried, unique territory assignments and varied customer base (Amish farmers next to sophisticated corn growers and animal producers). But it was the drive out to see longtime contributor Dave Dum and Don Hoover at Binkley & Hurst (B&H), that proved the most thought-provoking for the flight home.

When we arrived at the Lititz, Pa. store (B&H has 6 ag locations), Dum met us in the parking lot and said Hoover wanted to meet with us before we toured the shop. 

Usually, these site visits consist of us asking a few questions to get a feel for the market before a tour. But at this meeting, the tables were turned and we were being interviewed on an industrywide topic that this group of managers had been rolling up its sleeves on. And we spent 90 minutes or so on it.

Hoover called his Executive Leadership Team together to meet with us along with a few others, including nephew Kurtis Eby (a college junior and B&H intern representing the student’s viewpoint), to talk to us about future talent — a topic that can be easily dismissed when layoffs at manufacturers and, to a lesser extent, dealers, continue to make headlines. Hoover and his team are concerned about where tomorrow’s talent (in all job functions) will be drawn from. They wanted to know how much of a concern it is for dealers in other states and also what progressive dealers (like our Dealership of the Year Alumni) are doing to contend with it.

Fewer independent farms today mean fewer farm kids in the talent pool. And even when remaining farm kids do come of workforce age, many have seen enough of their parents’ toilings to desire a different lifestyle; more in line with their millennial peers. Those workforce preferences (B&H even had an applicant ask for the entire summer off) are going to be harder for a dealership to satisfy.

Outdated views of the industry and its advancement and earning power contribute to the problem, including unforeseen spots. Hoover recently discovered a community college’s report of industry positions was citing income for a farm equipment tech that was decades old — about 50% of what today’s techs are earning. “No wonder some haven’t been looking at careers in farm equipment,” he says, noting the myriad industries, including large companies, competing for the very same talent. Cautionary note: Check and correct the numbers used by instructors in your area. 

With several acquisitions since the new management group took over in 2006, Hoover says the company survived on hard-working and capable techs who farm themselves, and who appreciate the scheduling flexibility and freedom B&H affords them to look after their own farms. But, he knows this model isn’t a long-term solution for the next-level support that’ll be required. “The technology will move faster than a dealership will be able to keep up.”

Asked about the age breakdown on his payroll and when the situation is going to hit “code-red,” Hoover answered in the past tense. “It was about 2012,” he says. “A lot of people have about 10 years left.”

With a talent vacuum just years away, perhaps our recruiting pitches should talk about the amount of gray hair in the industry. While it’ll be hard to compete with big business on wages, retirements will bring quick advancement opportunity to those willing to grab it.

In our previous careers, Executive Editor Dave Kanicki and I served at separate times on a board of trustees of the Foundry Educational Foundation (FEF), an organization created to address the same issues we’re talking about here and to proactively work to get a shot at attracting talent to a comparatively smaller industry segment competing with higher profiles and sexier industries. 

The FEF began with a small campaign of pledges from companies in 1947 to attract technical manpower to the foundry industry, and grew into a fully supported, North American association (in an industry with fewer enterprises than the dealer industry). Not only does it present scholarships to students at 19 colleges and universities at a unique national event each year that exposes the top industry executives to students and faculty, but it also provides support for the instructors that helps create and protect practical, job-ready curriculums. And while scholarships certainly don’t ensure career choices, a significant number of today’s contributors had earned scholarships and learned about the industry through the organization.

Companies with vision end up creating their own problems to solve, and B&H is “on it.” Not only are they brainstorming out-of-the-box ideas, but also how to collaborate with the very dealers they compete with for both sales and talent. The three competing dealer groups in the area met on the issue, and agree a unified effort has merit. “We’ve got to find a better path,” says Hoover. “It’s a crisis and it isn’t going to get any better.”

Is it time for our industry to organize around this issue and get serious — with an industrywide effort — about securing the next generation workforce? Let’s get some dialog going on what our industry can and ought to do today, to be prepared for the needs of tomorrow.