COVER STORY: Dealer group links shops with potential mechanics
WAHPETON, N.D. -- Agriculture constantly needs a new crop of farm equipment technicians, as surely as it needs a new crop of seed every spring. One of those who hope to step into the field is Sheldon Brandt of New Salem, N.D. A student at North D...
WAHPETON, N.D. -- Agriculture constantly needs a new crop of farm equipment technicians, as surely as it needs a new crop of seed every spring.
One of those who hope to step into the field is Sheldon Brandt of New Salem, N.D.
A student at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, he also is among the first to take advantage of a new program that links students with agricultural equipment dealers who will pay off up to $20,000 to offset student loans, if a student remains as an employee with the dealership for up 10 years.
The program is called PLOW, developed by the North Dakota Implement Dealers Association a year ago. That stands for Post-secondary Loan Obligation Write-down, and it so far is available through 73 dealers of the association's 123 member dealers.
Marc Taylor, owner-general manager of Northern Plains Equipment, the Case-IH dealer in Mandan, N.D., says the program is another tool for agricul-
ture dealers to get their share of the talent in an increasingly competitive environment.
In 2006, there were some 1,007 diesel technicians working in agriculture, construction or over-the-road truck shops in the state, according to Job Services of North Dakota. In 2016, the state will need 1,117 technicians, or a 10.9 percent increase, according to the agency. That's a 110-job increase, but with an expected loss of 259 lost because of retirement or other employment, the state will need to replace, 369 new technicians.
There are several manufacture programs for would-be technicians.
Deere & Co. has a widely known John Deere Tech program, a closed admission program NDSCS that involves students with a dealer sponsor. The program also requires mechanical aptitude scores and ACT scores of 18 or higher. Similarly, Caterpillar has a "Cat Think Big" program, which includes an interview process with Butler Machinery, references and mechanical aptitude tests.
And Case-IH has a program through the Minnesota Community and Technical College in Moorhead.
But the NDIDA's PLOW program is a different twist -- geared toward anyone who wants to work in any farm equipment dealership as a diesel equipment technician. The dealer makes a decision whether the student is the right match.
"We have 73 dealers throughout the state who are participating in this PLOW program," says Matthew Larsgaard, executive vice president of both the NDIDA and the separate but similar Automobile Dealers Association of North Dakota.
The association gradually is getting the word out to potential participants. Brandt so far is its only enrollee on the ag side, although several more may be coming into the program. The similar program for the auto technicians has nearly a dozen participants.
After a student inquires about PLOW, the association provides students with a list of participating dealers.
When a dealer is matched with a student, the responsibility and administration of the program rests with the dealer, who is free to customize the program to fit their needs and the student. Typically, a student will study within the state, at institutions such as Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, Williston State College or at NDSCS in Wahpeton, but arrangements can be made for students to study elsewhere.
The selling point for PLOW is that it eases the burden of paying back a large portion -- potentially all -- of an individual's student loans.
A perfect fit
Sheldon, 21, is the younger of two children of Paul and Cindy Brandt of New Salem.
Paul milks about 80 dairy cows and farms. Cindy is a registered nurse and commutes to Medcenter One MRI Center in Bismarck. Sheldon's sister, Heidi Reiter, about four years older than Brandt, is a part-time high school agriculture teacher in Mandan, N.D.
After graduating high school in 2006, Sheldon initially pursued an education in law enforcement.
"The Highway Patrol was going to be my profession," Sheldon says. "I planned to start two years at Wahpeton and then transfer to North Dakota State University and then try to get into the police academy."
In fall 2006, he started at NDSCS, partly to take advantage of more affordable living and tuition costs there. The law enforcement program is a liberal arts program, with an emphasis on criminal justice.
Meanwhile, he and a friend and fellow NDSCS student from New Salem had worked for a farmer in Casselton, N.D. The first summer after starting college, Brandt stayed in Wahpeton and commuted with his friend to do fieldwork on corn, soybeans and wheat, both for planting and harvest.
About halfway through the law enforcement program, Sheldon started to change his mind about the career. Significantly, he became more aware that the Highway Patrol might not put him close to his home area of New Salem so that he could pursue his dream of raising cattle part time.
"I missed farming, and the stuff at home," he says. "I've always been interested in farming and working on ag equipment."
About this time, he heard about the PLOW program.
Turning toward ag
Sheldon's sister, Heidi, also had pursued an ag-related career.
She started her education degree at Dickinson (N.D.) State University and finished it at South Dakota State University in Brookings. She later married an Iowan, who moved to New Salem. He works for Northland Dairy, a dairy supply company, and she is a part-time ag teacher in Mandan.
"At work, she gets all of these e-mails, and so she forwarded this it to me," Sheldon says of the PLOW program "She told me I should look at this."
Sheldon has been paying for his own college, taking student loans, primarily through the Bank of North Dakota.
Sheldon contacted Larsgaard in Fargo, who gave him the list of participating dealers. Also, Larsgaard contacted several participating dealers in the Bismarck-Mandan area, notifying them of Sheldon's interest.
When Sheldon went to a career day at NDSCS, Northern Plains owner, Taylor, and Casey Rose, his service manager, were there to meet him. "They (Taylor and Rose) must have sensed that I was really interested it, because they offered me a job that summer -- before I was even in the diesel program," Sheldon says.
In fall 2007, Brandt decided he'd officially switch to NDSCS's diesel technology program, but in May 2008, he graduated with an associate's degree in liberal arts and an emphasis on criminal justice.
But he was planning to come back, as a way to go home.
A recruiting tool
Northern Plains operates in six assigned counties and has a staff of about 25 people, including seven in the service area.
"We actually need two more," Taylor says. "That's one of the reasons for our being in this program."
Taylor says the market for technicians and salary levels changes depending on what else is going on in the economy. There is competition in the energy fields -- both coal and oil.
"It's extremely competitive," he says.
Sheldon knew other people who worked at Northern Plains.
"They knew my family and background. They knew kind of what they'd be getting into," he said.
Taylor, a past president of the NDIDA, says his dealership has looked at various ways of recruiting employees over the years. He's participated in the NDSCS internship program, but the PLOW program offers "a little more of a sure thing."
He says PLOW seems especially effective if a local person wants to stay.
"This really seemed to catch our eye. We thought it would probably do a better job of meeting our goals, long term," he says.
The company especially appealed to Sheldon because he was familiar with it, and because he's a fan of red machinery.
"Case is what I grew up with," Sheldon says. "We had a 915 conventional combine -- old Internationals, old Cases -- but I've always been a fan of the Case-IH rotary combine. That company put millions and millions into making that right. The new machines generally use the same principle."
Another thing that appealed to Brandt about Northern Plains. an independent, family-owned dealership, Brandt says.
"Marc works there, and I like that. It's like working in a small-town dealership, but it's actually a pretty big dealership," he says.
As a summer employee, Sheldon started to learn the ropes.
He did some of the entry-level things, like washing tractors and odds and ends around the dealership. Eventually, he started shadowing mechanics, and would go with an individual for a week at a time.
"That helped a lot," he says. "I always had a 'tech' with me when I went on a service call."
Some of the work was expected, but there were surprises.
"It's a lot more complex than you think it is, especially nowadays with computers," he says. "I guess I knew it was complex, but I didn't know it was that complex. It just amazes me, still, how these technicians can rip something completely apart and put it back together again so quickly. Right now, I can probably rip it apart, but it would take a lot of time to put it back."
One of the things Sheldon likes about NDSCS is that its prepares students for the time deadlines they live under in a real-world work environment. He says one advantage for the PLOW program and the general NDSCS diesel tech program curriculum is that it offers exposure to a number of makes of farm equipment and trucks. He also likes studying in a smaller town atmosphere.
Sheldon expects to graduate from the diesel program in May 2010.
He'll go back to the dealership in Mandan and commute from New Salem, where he'll continue helping his father with the farm. He has his own herd of about 20 beef cows that he expects to expand after graduation.
And after a year on the payroll at Northern Plain, the PLOW program checks will start coming in, paying off the school loan. That will continue for up to 10 years.
"It doesn't force you to stay, but if you do stay, it's a nice perk," he says.
Sheldon expects to continue to live in New Salem. His girlfriend, Marci Gilstad of New Salem, is a year younger and a business major at North Dakota State University.