The scene was the ag shop at Southwestern High School in Shelby County. Every table was filled with students, with tools and engine parts scattered about. Thirteen teams of two students each from six different schools filled the shop. When Joe Park, the contest superintendent, said “Go,” each team had 75 minutes to assemble the 5-horsepower engine. Before time expired, several engines fired, and a few actually ran.
A similar scene was repeated a couple of weeks later when teams from all over Indiana gathered at Central-Nine vocational school in Johnson County for the state FFA small-engines contest. A mainstay in certain areas for decades, the contest is catching fire in places like central Indiana, and for good reason.
“Watching those kids go after their tasks with enthusiasm reminded me that there are still plenty of students who enjoy working with their hands on mechanical things,” Park says. He taught agriculture for more than 40 years, and is now director of the Indiana FFA Leadership Center.
You hear more about new courses for precision agriculture training, and those are definitely warranted, but Park emphasizes there’s still a place for kids who want to get their hands dirty working on engines and other things that still require knowledge of basic mechanics.
The FFA District 8 small-engines program was so small a few years ago, there wasn’t even a need to have a contest to determine who could represent the district at state. Two years ago, four teams from three schools competed. In 2016, some eight teams went through the competition, held each year at Southwestern High School.
“The interest is definitely growing, and it’s exciting,” says Pam Meyer, longtime ag instructor at Southwestern High School. She is instrumental in promoting the small-engines contest in her area. This year, entries swelled to 13 teams competing at the district level.
The contest involves more than just knowing how to put an engine together and get it to run, Meyer observes. Other sections of the contest involve taking an exam on basic knowledge of engine operation, identifying tools and engine parts, knowing how to use a service manual and how to find parts numbers, and demonstrating skills such as measuring clearance gap on piston rings.
It’s a challenging contest, she notes, and one that requires study and preparation. It also requires having an aptitude to complete mechanical tasks.
All this matters because there’s a need for students who can learn and master these skills. An owner of a hardware outlet and small-engine repair business says there is a shortage of trained people for these kinds of positions. He would love to hire someone with these skills now, and there’s a widespread need across the industry, he notes.
Someone with the proper training could start at $17 per hour, with room for advancement, he says. However, reaching that level requires training. Small-engine companies offer training courses in various aptitude areas related to small engines. Passing the tests isn’t easy, the businessman says, but it’s doable for someone with interest and a desire to succeed.
There is no question agriculture is embracing technology. But this example reminds everyone that there’s still a great need for training students so they have basic skills common to mechanics.