Farm equipment these days is more high-tech than ever, so if something breaks, farmers depend on highly skilled technicians to get them up and running again in a hurry. Because of this, demand for trained technicians is projected to reach 10,000 over the next 15 to 20 years.
The John Deere Agricultural Equipment Technology degree program was created to help meet that demand. The program – a partnership between the John Deere Company, John Deere dealerships and select universities across the country, entered its 19th year at Arkansas State University-Beebe in 2013.
The Ag Tech program is open to high school graduates who meet basic college entrance criteria and demonstrate mechanical aptitude. Prospective students must also secure a sponsorship from a John Deere dealer, which usually involves a paid internship and often includes partial or full payment of the tuition.
“John Deere realized in the 1990s that dealers were going to have to grow their own technicians,” says Rick Bormann, senior vice president of Greenway Equipment Inc., which has 21 dealerships in Arkansas and southeast Missouri. “When we say sponsorship, we add in their tuition, which right now is about $17,000 to $18,000 plus room and board, so it’s about a $30,000 per student total cost.” Since 1995, Greenway has sponsored 57 students in ASU-Beebe’s Ag Tech program.
“We currently have 35 freshmen and 17 sophomores; it’s a little larger this year,” says Roger Long, an instructor and the department head of the Ag Tech program at ASU-Beebe. “The program was developed to get qualified technicians into the dealerships. Any John Deere dealer can participate. For students, it opens up a career opportunity.”
Students Curtis Arnold, Hunter Owen and Cody Jackson are all in their second year of the program. They agree that the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“I’ve pretty much known since I was a kid that I wanted to work for John Deere,” Arnold says. “[The Ag Tech program] is just a good opportunity for anybody who has mechanical skill and really does love to work on stuff. The teachers really know what they’re talking about, and they’ll do anything to help you.”
Cody Jackson agrees, “I’ve always liked working on farming equipment, and then I found out about the program and took up the opportunity.”
Over the course of the two-year associate degree program, students learn the basics of hydraulics, electrical systems, air conditioning and safety. They study controls and instrumentation, small engines, large equipment and diesel engines, and harvesting. Their final semester covers advanced diagnostics and certifications.
“The guy today that’s working on this equipment has to be trained to use a laptop with his tools now. Without their laptop, they can’t diagnose the problems of these tractors, combines or equipment,” says Tommy Hall, vice president of service operations for Greenway Equipment Inc. and program advisory board member. “A lot of the training is geared toward diagnostics of the equipment, which is actually very deep in the technology piece.”
Today’s computer-savvy students are primed to grasp the technology aspect. “I’ve learned a bunch about all the satellites and new technology on the equipment,” says Hunter Owen, one of the students sponsored by Greenway.
For dealers, the program represents a significant investment – and significant returns. Technician retention rate is high, and their training provides a customer-service advantage. “It gives us a leg up on taking care of our customers,” Hall says. “And we get highly trained individuals who aren’t afraid of today’s technology.”