In my conversations with dealers and manufacturers alike, I always ask what their biggest challenges are right now and in the years ahead. Without fail, the answer is always related to staffing and more specifically with finding service technicians. In fact, in Farm Equipment’s 2019 Dealer Business Outlook & Trends survey, the top concern among dealers who responded to the survey was finding and retaining new personnel (with 95.2% saying they were either most concerned or concerned about the issue). Not far behind general staffing was technician availability with 92.2% of responding dealers saying they were most concerned or concerned with the issue.

It’s not that surprising, especially when you consider that in October the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 3.7%, which means frankly there aren’t that many people looking for work. This is the lowest it’s been in 49 years. “We’re starting to hit sub 3% unemployment rates, and that means we’re down to a group of people who really don’t want to work. So now we’re having to trade employees on a regular basis,” says Clint Schnoor, president of Agri-Service, a 14-store AGCO dealer based in Idaho.

The last time unemployment was near this level until recent months was the fourth quarter of 2000. For some additional perspective, the oldest millennials were either still in high school or had just entered college in 2000 and for the most part were not yet part of the workforce. 

In Canada, the October unemployment rate was 5.9%, the lowest it’s been since at least 1990, according to Statistics Canada.

Unemployment isn’t the only thing that is down though. So is the birthrate. “I’ve studied this and we simply aren’t having enough babies,” says Mark Core, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Vermeer. “It takes about 2.1 births in the U.S. to be able to sustain population. How many do you think we’re having? It’s 1.8-1.9. We’re going backward in terms of our ability to produce enough future humans.”

What can you do when you need new good, qualified employees and there simply aren’t people out there looking for work? We’ve got to start talking to kids (yes kids, not college-aged people) and schools earlier. Go to career days at middle schools. Does your local middle and high school have a drive your tractor to school day? See if there’s a way to get involved and help expose kids to the career options available at a dealership.

Don’t just stay local though. Reach out to schools in more urban areas. In Milwaukee, Vincent Highschool’s agriculture program offers city kids exposure to 6 different pathways —  animal science, horticulture, agribusiness, culinary arts, environmental science and food science. In fact, when the school was built in the 1970s it was created as an agriculture school. Look to cities like this and expose kids to what’s available to them outside the city. These are kids who probably never gave a thought to a job in a farm equipment dealership, but if exposed to opportunity might find something that excites them.

Vermeer takes getting in front of kids early to a whole new level — newborns. The manufacturer has a STEM-based early learning center — Yellow Iron Academy — across the street from its main campus, explains Whitney Wilkinson, talent acquisition manager at Vermeer. STEM related age-appropriate activities include things like identifying numbers, observing ant farms, identifying patterns. Each day parents get an email explaining what sort of STEM activities their child participated in that day and what STEM field it correlates to, she says. This helps bring the parents into the conversation.

“The labor force is very difficult, but probably the more concerning part for me is the interest in the ag industry. We have an obligation as an industry, not just as equipment dealers, to get back in front of our youth ang get them interested in our industry, in being in agriculture,” says Schnoor.  “I don’t care what aspect of agriculture that is, it could be agricultural banking. It doesn’t matter. But get them back interested in agriculture again. If we don’t and we keep going on the trajectory that we have right now, we won’t have anybody to work for us.”

Bryndon Meinhardt, regional manager for 8-store Case IH and New Holland dealer KanEquip, is seeing the same problem. “I can’t find kids who want to work with their hands and want to troubleshoot and understand problems — and figure them out. That’s our number one issue,” he says. “If a guy wants to come to work, he gets greasy all day — and I’m not talking about overhauling engines . I’m just talking problem solving and he’s going to earn a good wage in the dealership.”

A few weeks ago I sat down to talk with Todd Stucke, senior vice president marketing, product support & strategic projects for Kubota, about some of the challenges facing the industry right now. And, finding technicians was the first challenge he listed.

“It’s something all dealers will have to keep their eye on and have a strong focus on,” he says. But, it’s not all up to the dealers to solve the problem. It’s up to all of us to attract young people into the trades, Stucke says. “When I say we all need to do it, I mean the manufacturers, the dealers and even the media,” he says.

Stucke is also on the board of directors for the Assn. of Equipment Manufacturers. One of AEM’s major initiatives is around workforce development — which includes dealer technician training. Rather than focusing on post-secondary education and training, AEM is focused on K-12 outreach. The association’s goal is to help fill the pipeline of future employees. AEM’s Workforce Development Toolkit, available free to download, offers a number of best practices that can be scaled to any size organization.

“The pipeline track in a long-term play because they realize that it's been neglected. Yes, we try to seek immediate solutions, but at least for the role that AEM plays, it's really more of a long-term game,” says Kate Fox Wood of AEM. “And the equipment industry needs to be involved in that long-term play. It doesn't have to be millions and millions of dollars’ worth of investment, but if you have it set up, at least a relationship with a single school in your community, you need to do that. That would be an ideal thing for you to do. We're trying to figure out ways to facilitate that.”

Vermeer and New Holland have been integral to AEM’s workforce development efforts and are actively involved in the strategic direction of the program,  says Wood.

Schnoor sums it up well, saying “There’s so much available to them in our industry, and we’ve got to get them excited about it again.”

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