‘Fix it or make it’ mentality sought by employers

The drive, innovation and hands-on abilities of so many teenagers around the country who grew up on farms with a ‘fix it or make it’ mentality are exactly what employers want, according to a lecturer at Munster Technological University (MTU), formerly Tralee Institute of Technology.

“We train apprentice agri mechanics; agri technicians; and agri engineers for Ireland. With a qualification, young people like that would be set up for whatever pathway they so chose later in life,” said Fergal O’Sullivan, who lectures in the agricultural engineering department.

MTU has links with employers and former students in all the Irish manufacturers and farm machinery dealers including: McHale; Tanco; Samco; Dromone; and Abbey and the large global companies like CNH; Deere, CLAAS; and AGCO, Fergal said.

The Irish second level school system, he contended, is tailored to an academic points structure whereby the focus of teachers and schools tends to be to maximise points with a view to university entry.

“It is debatable as to how effective this approach is for knowledge retention and how much the students fully comprehend and retain post the Leaving Cert exams. Third level educational facilities use the Leaving Cert points like an educational currency system with the more one has, the greater the choices,” Fergal said.

“As second level schools try to top the score charts to impress parents of potential students finishing in primary schools and to maintain or enhance their own student numbers, they often lay claim to how marvellous the second level school is and what percentage of last year’s students went to university,” Fergal contended.

“Schools may fail to mention what percentage of last year’s students dropped out of their chosen third level course, the costs involved or how happy these students really were, once settled into these big lecture theatres with the theory turned on full throttle. What about the kid that draws tractors in their copy and wants to work with their hands or out in the field? What career path is there for them?

“Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: ‘Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn,’ is the approach taken by MTU in our agri engineering department,” Fergal said.

“We offer the full suite of hands-on learning from level 6, level 7 and level 8 in agriculture and agricultural engineering, as well as agri technicians and mechanics.

“Unfortunately, there still is academic snobbery in some schools and universities and they can look down on kids that want to do farm work and work outdoors with animals, machinery and farm equipment. This regrettably is a sad reflection on some sections of modern society rather than these students,” Fergal contended.

“It takes very intelligent, capable personnel to troubleshoot modern machinery or diagnose failing crops or sick animals.

Little do some people realise that what was in Formula 1 cars only a few short years ago is in today’s tractors like sequential gearboxes; active suspension; CAN Bus communication; VGT turbos; emission after treatment technologies; and remote diagnostics to name but a few.

“World population is rising yearly and is predicted to hit 9.5 billion by 2050 and global Greenhouse gas levels are rising yearly also,” said Fergal.

“Therefore, jobs in agriculture are a very safe bet and while farming practices change and production increases so too does the technology and the challenges. It really is a diverse area,” he said.

Change inevitable

“New fields keep emerging and with 5G coming down the track and hybrid and battery technology advancements as well as machine learning, the whole industry keeps evolving. That’s as well as a new EU CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] framework coming. Agriculture certainly is not binary and change is inevitable,” Fergal said.

“We get lots of emails in the agri department from employers right across Ireland looking for mechanics; service technicians; installation engineers; designers; technical sales etc. These are in fields as varied as dairy; pig; poultry; farm buildings; slurry systems; land drainage; renewable energy; machinery dealers; and farm equipment manufacturers.

“If a kid prefers to work with their hands or on the land, then why not, what is wrong with this? Once they are happy and enjoying their job, then they should be encouraged to pursue a career path that ticks these boxes,” said Fergal.

“Recently I had a qualified architect back doing his apprenticeship to train as an agricultural mechanic. He said he was sick of looking at a computer and dragging lines around the screen. He much preferred working with his hands and found it rewarding after repairing a breakdown and helping a farmer or contractor get back up and running or doing an overhaul on an engine and hearing it start back up again,” he said.

Some people in modern society have completely lost this connection with the land, farmers and primary producers, the food chain and how advanced technically some agricultural machinery has become.

“Parents always ask me at open days about opportunities from employers for their children. The reality is they can pick the career path they want to go down once they know themselves what truly interests them,” said the MTU lecturer.

“We will always need food and our Irish agri food industry has a very strong image where some of the brands from Denny; Guinness; Baileys; Jameson; and Kerrygold, are truly international,” he said.

Square pegs in round holes

“Some parents pay a lot of money to independent career guidance counsellors and this really baffles me as the answer is often in front of their faces. Parents and teachers sometimes try to almost force teenagers into universities to study against their will, thinking it will mean a job at the end and guaranteed employment after four years. It really is often akin to trying to put square pegs into round holes.

“Apprentices have employment before they start college. Our agri technicians and the agri engineers are also highly sought after,” said Fergal.

A senior design engineer in a container cranes company relayed how career guidance teachers invited into the company in recent years were surprised that there were so many disciplines and departments within engineering, from mechanical to design, electric, electronic, software and commissioning and the various technology used within each field, he said.

“A good student with dedication and focus will thrive no matter what they study or where but nothing can replace what Benjamin Franklin alluded to, being involved. For example, working with different grades of steel to really understand it, nothing beats cutting through it to really comprehend hardness of steel. It is something that just stays with you,” Fergal contended.

“In Germany, a country synonymous with major engineering brands and achievements, the best engineers begin an apprenticeship where they get the hand skills first, that practical foundation, and from there, if they so choose, they may then progress to become designers,” he said.

“I personally believe that the practical component of a course is the singular essential part, as it is the foundation. Everything can bolt onto it after this to enhance the learner. The maths, engineering science, the 3D drawing packages etc, can then become very relevant and more easily understood if applied to the practicals,” Fergal said.

“It is why in Tralee we continue with teaching welding and lathe work practically and involve students in garage work as it is vital to their knowledge where they use their hands and tools on engines, transmissions and set up farm machinery firsthand in a workshop environment themselves.

From talking to farm machinery dealers and manufacturers across Ireland over the last number of years, employers want graduates with practical ability and knowledge of the latest systems.

“If teenagers have that inner drive to pick up tools and stay in a workshop during the winter evenings and repair machines or restore tractors, what is wrong with this? It is a credit to them,” said Fergal.

“It is exactly the type of people our employers want and what we also want as it really shows interest; it means they have an inquisitive mind. I feel if the department of education was at the cutting edge and pioneers in second level education, then Coder Dojo or similar would be mandatory in our education system.

“There is no denying computers in some form or other are vital to everyday life now and at least the basics in computer language should be understood by our youth,” said the MTU lecturer.

“When developing any skill such as when practicing for any particular sport, repetition of drills is essential as you learn a lot when you are young, continually physically rehearsing it and you absorb a lot of information. It is the same for engineering and practicals,” said Fergal.

“It was fantastic to read on AgriLand recently of the enterprises established by three Cavan teenagers. Fundamental hand skills are something parents should be proud to see being developed in their children and once supervised in the home workshop with an emphasis on safety, can flourish. Maybe those young Cavan lads featured on AgriLand could be the next Ford or Ferguson. These young people are exactly what employers want and we lecturers also want, with their drive and hands-on abilities,” he said.

Incredible range of jobs

“The Irish agri industry is a very diverse field for sure. The range of jobs is incredible from installing and servicing milk cooling systems; setting up robotic milking machines to splitting tractors; repairing gearboxes; fabricating machinery; designing machines; technical sales; commissioning machines; warranty work; using diagnostic tools to update software; and an ever-expanding precision farming sector,” Fergal said.

“The setting up and installation of variable rate implements, ISOBUS and yield mapping along with various guidance systems is a growing field in Ireland today as the TAMS II [Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme] grant helps dealers sell this type of machinery. Salary scales are competitive and attractive in an industry where supply of good technicians and engineers are in demand.”