Equipping the technical workforce

The agriculture equipment industry is clamoring to staff its technical workforce. But it’s becoming more and more difficult for agriculture teachers to help these students connect with the industry that needs them. Enter AgCentric, a Minnesota-based center that promotes agricultural education by connecting education and industry. And the center’s director is Keith Olander, who has had a long career in agricultural education — teaching at both the secondary and postsecondary levels.

Under Olander’s direction, AgCentric conducted a survey of high school agriculture programs in Minnesota and found that the pathway with the highest student enrollment is also the pathway that teachers reported feeling least comfortable teaching: agricultural mechanics. And there are several reasons why.

  1. Fewer teachers come from an agriculture production background, so they may not have had the opportunity to work with ag equipment.
  2. Giving students hands-on experience with equipment requires expensive tools, access to equipment or parts, and a lot of lab space.
  3. Equipment technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, which can make keeping current feel like a Sisyphean task.

Blue and orange graphic reads, Equipping the Technical Workforce

An opportunity to grow the technical workforce

“Educational systems are notoriously slow,” said Curt Yoose, an agriculture instructor who specializes in agricultural mechanics and precision agriculture at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota. “Industry says ‘We need this.’ And it might take a year or two, by the time you get through all the approvals and curriculum is developed. Now industry says, ‘That was good two years ago, but we’ve moved on to something else.’”

Leaders at the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education (CASE) heard this same message from all corners of their stakeholder groups. They realized the agricultural mechanics pathway is full of opportunity — not to mention industry demand. There didn’t seem to be a good solution for students who want to pursue agricultural mechanics but who don’t necessarily want to become engineers. So CASE created Technical Applications in Agriculture (TAA). This new course will establish a well-defined pathway into careers as equipment technicians.

In the CASE ecosystem of courses, students complete the foundational Ag Power and Technology, then Mechanical Systems in Agriculture. After that, they can choose from either Agriculture Research and Development or Technical Applications in Agriculture as a capstone course.

CASE and AgCentric received a grant from the National Science Foundation to fund research and development for TAA.

“My hope is that the curriculum will give teachers without a mechanics background the confidence to dive into a course like this. Because the industry is starving for for technicians,” said Chris Smith, an assistant professor and program coordinator of the John Deere Agricultural Technology program at SUNY Cobleskill. “Equipment is becoming very complex. Previously there has not been a good pathway for students to get there. They didn’t even realize those jobs existed.”

The development process

With a team of stakeholders that included secondary and postsecondary educators as well as industry partners, CASE held a two-day meeting to gather input. This group included technical workforce representatives from Kubota, Case IH, John Deere and other influencers in the agriculture equipment technician space.

“We had a hydraulic group, an electrical group, powertrains, precision and diesel. We asked each of the groups to identify things that we must cover throughout the course,” said Carl Aakre, assistant director for CASE. “Electrical came up in every group. And so did the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus.

“Someone from Kubota said, ‘I teach CAN bus all the time. Here’s an easy way to teach it.’” Without industry groups at the table, Aakre said the CAN bus concept may have been left out of the curriculum altogether, simply because others weren’t aware of how that component plays into the work performed by agricultural equipment technicians.

Once core concepts were identified, the CASE team integrated them throughout the course and began writing lessons. “TAA really focuses on technical skills,” said Aakre. “The value of CASE is how we scaffold technical skill in a purposeful way. Everything is meaningful for students. For instance, most technical problems are electrical. So, we have electrical analysis and troubleshooting spiraled throughout the course.”

Training and teaching the technical workforce

CASE Institutes lead teachers through the curriculum lesson by lesson, wherein teachers become students and actually complete labs during the training. The intent is to help them feel confident with the content and delivery as they prepare to implement the curriculum.

“They have to build a curriculum that can be taught in any location, at any time of year, with resources we aren’t sure everyone has,” said Smith. “I’ve been impressed with how they were able to keep materials and resource costs down (for TAA) but bring practical skills and knowledge to students.”

CASE set a goal to connect every teacher teaching TAA with an agricultural equipment dealership near their program. Julie Davis, senior director of workforce development with AEM, has been instrumental in making this happen, beginning with the 15 teachers who signed up to pilot the course during the 2021–22 school year.

Industry connections can grow into opportunities for students and teachers too.

Even teachers who felt comfortable teaching agricultural mechanics before TAA have seized the new opportunities. Mark Meyer is a 34-year veteran agricultural educator who was involved in the development of the course. After piloting TAA, now he teaches the revised version at Marion High School in Marion, Kansas. “There was a gap before, between what I wanted to do and what I could do. I just didn’t have the time. But the TAA curriculum is so well-written, in the way that it builds on concepts. This is something I can teach and feel comfortable with.”

Real-world impact on the technical workforce

Grace Godfrey, an agriculture teacher at Worland High School in Worland, Wyoming, also helped pilot the TAA curriculum. And she said, of the things she appreciates most, the lessons about employer expectations resonated strongly — another piece that would not have been possible without help from industry partners.

“That’s really important for kids to know,” she said. “Things like how to fill out a work order. Are they on time? Are they safe? These things can be hard to evaluate in a classroom setting, but now I have a form I can fill out to give feedback. ‘You did a good job, but you need to work on your team-building skills.’”

The Technical Applications in Agriculture course has been a success with teachers and their students.

After completing the pilot phase of development, CASE launched a training open to teachers from around the U.S. That Institute filled so quickly they added another, which also filled immediately. TAA gives students who are interested in agricultural mechanics one more path into this growing career field. It gives teachers one more block they can use to build their own confidence in teaching this popular pathway.

Additionally, students who complete the course may earn an equipment technician certification offered by AED. “We aligned our curriculum to those standards so when students complete the course, they can show proficiency and receive the credential from AED,” said Aakre. “Our next step is to tie it to dual credit at technical colleges.”

“We’re looking at where we are and building forward,” said Olander. “Technology is accelerating at a tremendous rate, and the demand for highly skilled graduates is there. We’re creating a complete pathway.”

Julie Fritsch is a freelance writer who specializes in the agriculture industry and agricultural education. She resides in Paris, Kentucky.

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