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Help wanted: Dealers confront ag mechanic shortage

Getting young people excited about diesel mechanics is one step to refill the pipeline, but other challenges persist.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

June 17, 2024

6 Slides

At a Glance

  • 73,500 heavy-equipment technician positions need to be filled.
  • The job-open rate is three times the national average.
  • Computer skills are more important than ever.

Fred Halbleib’s weathered hands have seen a lot in the 50 years he’s been an ag mechanic. Tractors, combines, balers, sprayers, you name it, he has probably seen it and worked on it.

“I’ve endured it, I guess. I enjoy working here,” he says, holding a light to the power steering pump of a Farmall 656.

At 68, retiring from his job at Messick’s Farm Equipment isn’t on his radar. He’s a lifer. He loves the job too much, but he knows he can’t do it forever. Someone much younger will have to replace him someday.

But who will replace Halbleib and the many lifers like him? It’s a question many ag dealerships are trying to figure out.

“I would venture to say that virtually every dealership in our region could add at least one technician, if not five,” says Tim Wentz, field director of the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association.

In Pennsylvania alone, more than 1,000 technicians are needed to replace people who are retiring, according to the association.

So, why the shortage? Dealership and industry reps point to many reasons, including a lack of interest from young people to want to learn ag and diesel mechanics, schools not keeping up with industry needs, and a much more competitive job environment where an ag technician can take what they’ve learned and make more money in other industries.

Thomas Sutter, CEO of LandPro Equipment, says there’s a widening age gap across the industry: Experienced techs who are ready to retire or do something different, and less experienced techs who don’t have the experience but aren’t lifers, leave after only a few years or months on the job.

“That’s where we’re really hurting,” Sutter says. “It seems like we get guys interested in it, and they just kind of decide that they’re not interested anymore after they’ve been in it for just a little bit.”

LandPro, a John Deere dealer, has 20 locations across western New York, Pennsylvania and in East Palestine, Ohio.

“We could easily add another 10 technicians, as far as ag technicians go,” Sutter says.

An ag mechanic’s job can be stressful. Working 55 to 60 hours a week or more is normal during the growing season, and they can be on the road a lot.

“The other thing with agriculture is, when you’re on, you’re on,” Sutter says. “A farmer doesn’t care if there’s a rain coming. He wants you to come out and fix it, whereas if you’re working for the township … 5 p.m. rolls around, you’re going home.”

Tackling the shortage

Ed Hughes, corporate service manager for Messick’s, says a once-reliable pool of future farm mechanics is shrinking: farm kids.

“Many techs have been doing this for a very long time, who have come from farms or at least had a connection to farming,” he says. “They would tinker with things and then get a job at a Messick’s or Agriteer right out of high school. That doesn’t happen much anymore.”

Hughes, who oversees all the service departments at Messick’s five locations, says three of the stores need technicians. Job openings can go unfilled for months at a time.

Once they get someone in, the next challenge is keeping them. Not only does an ag mechanic have to know how to fix a tractor, but they also must provide their own tools. That can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars right off the bat. Hughes notes that Messick’s offers a tool allowance for its mechanics.

The starting salaries aren’t lucrative, but they also aren’t bad for someone just coming out of college or high school.

Dealership reps note that pay generally starts at $20 an hour or more. And mechanics can get plenty of hours, especially during the growing season.

But Hughes has found the skills an ag mechanic gains can easily be transferred to other industries, such as trucking or construction, where pay can be much higher.

Trucking is especially tough to compete against, Hughes notes, because it can raise prices to afford better technicians. Agriculture is different. Hughes says he can’t always raise prices on his farm customers to pay for higher wages.

“There is only so far I can go with the farmer,” he says. “Let’s face it, some of these farms might be a milk check away from bankruptcy sometimes. … So, if we price ourselves out of that market, it becomes very challenging for your customer base.”

At Bane Welker, a Case dealership with locations in Indiana and six locations in Ohio, recruiting future ag mechanics is a priority. The dealership has its own tech apprenticeship program led by Daylen Fruits, who was hired two years ago specifically for the job.

“Finding people wanting to do this job, that’s probably one of the hardest things we face,” she says. “It’s that diesel mechanics isn’t the most glorious career field, when you think of diesel mechanics and all the hard work, all the dirt, grease, grime that goes into it. But I would argue that it is the most rewarding career that you can go into.”

Although Bane Welker employs 100 technicians, Fruits says it could use at least one tech at each of its locations, or more, just to balance out the workload and keep the customer service it is known for.

She goes mostly to high schools, giving talks and attending career fairs. But she’s finding that getting to kids even younger than high school is even more important.

The company’s efforts appear to be working. When Fruits started, there were only two students participating in the tech apprentice program. Now, 12 students are in the growing program.

The company offers a tuition reimbursement where a student can get money back for their schooling. In return, they must stay with Bane Welker for five years. The company even offers money for tools.

Computer skills a must

Yes, having the right tools to fix a machine is critical. But with the sophistication of machines, and having the ability to remotely diagnose a problem, computers skills are a must for incoming ag techs.

“The most important tool for a new technician today is their laptop,” says Sutter, of LandPro. “They have to have that laptop and all their EDLs in order to plug into the machine, in order to pull the codes, and then with our service adviser software, it will kind of help walk that technician through a series of steps to ensure that we find what’s wrong with the piece of equipment as quickly as possible.”

Wentz, of the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association, says not enough schools are teaching current technology. It’s one thing to be able to teach how to fix an engine or transmission. But teaching Canbus and electrical systems is critical.

“If you look at our machines, they’re technologically advanced,” Wentz says. “When you look at what a combine can do today, it’s just utterly amazing. Much less a planter or a sprayer. If you look at the AI involved to identify what plant and what weed is there, and it is supposed to spray just to that plant, well, who would have thought that was even possible?”

Inside Andy Anderson’s ag diesel mechanics classroom at the Franklin County Career and Technology Center in Chambersburg, Pa., students get a certification through John Deere by completing online training modules on a computer.

In another building on campus, a 2023 John Deere loader can be used by students to hook up their laptops and practice remote diagnostics.

It’s all part of a partnership set up between local dealer Atlantic Tractor and Anderson’s class.

“They want students and tech kids that are ready to work,” Anderson says. “Ultimately, that’s what these companies are looking for. They want them to do warranty work. So, until they get their certifications, they can’t do warranty work.

“When they go out, they’re not diagnosing a $200,000 tractor. But my goal is to get them where they can go out, take the computer, hook in and communicate, pull the codes out of it, go back into the shop, and let the seasoned technicians take care of it,” he adds.

Anderson grew up in ag. His dad was an ag equipment tech, and he grew up working on his own stuff. Along with teaching, he owns his own business, Greenline Ag Repair in Greencastle, Pa.

He is head of ag diesel mechanics at the school. The curriculum combines classroom and hands-on work. Anybody can bring in a tractor, lawn mower or other type of machinery and pay a nominal fee for the class to fix it up.

By the time his students are seniors, they are expected to go out and get a co-op job. Dawson Diffenderfer, 17, from South Mountain, Pa., is one of them. Most school days, he works at nearby Atlantic Tractor making $14 an hour. But on a recent day, he was in the school shop working on a Ford 8N tractor, converting it from a 6-volt to a 12-volt. “I’d like to become an ag mechanic somewhere,” he says.

He loves the real-life experience he is getting. “It’s not just tractors; it’s more than just that. You get construction, everything else. I think it’s a better-paying job opportunity, too,” he says.

On the other side of the shop, Dawson Poe, 18, is busy replacing hydraulic hoses on a Farmall 300. He has no background in agriculture, but he loves machines. Detailing cars is his first love, something he hopes to do when he graduates. “I enjoy doing that. That’s what I really like,” he says.

Therein lies the conundrum for Anderson. He would like all his students to become ag mechanics, but he knows that’s unrealistic. Many can get a job at a nearby warehouse making more than $20 an hour.

Wentz says that while the industry needs to expand its outreach to women, veterans and second-chance people, planting that “coolness” seed early in kids’ brains is crucial.

Back at Messick’s, Fred Halblieb’s detective work on that oil leak continues. He hopes someone comes along someday with the same love of ag machinery he has.

“They’ve got to be ready to get dirty. It’s a lot of challenges. You never know what you’ll need to fix,” he says with a laugh.

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Human Resources

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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