Machinery trade: Dealing with ‘young blood’ and the ‘mammy factor’

“The age profile of [farm machinery] dealership staff is not a healthy one,” asserted Gary Ryan, chief executive of the Farm Tractor and Machinery Trade Association (FTMTA).

That was just one of many pressing topics he discussed with AgriLand, during a recent sit-down.

Recognising this state of affairs is one thing; doing something about it is another. That’s what prompted the FTMTA to put into action a plan to bring a swath of new entrants into the business – through its support of the Bachelor of Science degree course offered by the Institute of Technology, Tralee.

The course was set up in response to the perceived need for service technicians in addition to the traditional mechanic, although Gary insists that there is still a role for both in the trade.

‘Deeply unsatisfactory’

Earlier attempts to ensure that a stream of technicians (trained to a certain level) was available to the trade had foundered on a “deeply unsatisfactory relationship with FAS”.

The college at Tralee has been far more receptive; both parties are pleased with the way it is progressing. “We need to make some changes to the course, but that will always be the case,” explained Gary.

It’s not just a question of bringing young blood into the business; it has to be the right sort of person. Gary has very definite ideas of what is required from somebody who is intending to join the machinery trade at service technician level.

The college’s insistence that the course would need to lead to a degree – to attract the right applicants – took him by surprise. Although they were right, he remains unimpressed by some of the reasoning behind it.

It turns out that one of the big factors in school-leavers’ choice of course is what may be termed the ‘mammy factor’.

The ‘mammy factor’

“Mammy wants their child to have a degree, so that is what we had to provide,” he reasoned. However, he cautions against any applicant relying on maternal assistance to get a placement.

If they can’t phone a dealer to arrange an interview themselves, then they are unlikely to be the sort of person who will succeed in the role.

The competition for the right people is fierce.

“We are competing with the car dealerships for entrants; yet a car technician is unlikely to meet the customers or travel beyond the workshop,” he explained.

This calls for an extra level of proficiency and personality type – above and beyond what exam grades may indicate. Educational attainment is still important, however.

Gary explained: “The course is underpinned by engineering principles, so a good mathematical ability is vital.”

Image source: Shane Casey

The course is designed to produce graduates with a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of modern machinery, rather than experts in any one particular machine type or make.

Such specialisation will come afterwards. In any case, the manufacturers have had a good deal of input into the course, but the concept of a common grounding remains another firm principle of its structure.

“Manufacturers are insisting on properly educated technicians to train further in their own products,” he said. “The BSc in Agricultural Mechanisation will provide just such a pool of skilled workers.”

The FTMTA can only do so much in encouraging youngsters to join the trade. Dealerships need to play their part in making the career more attractive as well.

“A car dealership will go out of its way to make the garage an attractive place to work; machinery dealers need to do the same.”

Gary is quite adamant on the point that “a workshop needs to be a place where you want to go to every morning” – if the right staff are to be kept on-board.

Car franchisees come under a lot of pressure from manufacturers to maintain a corporate image and standard. Gary feels that there is not the volume of trade in the farm machinery business to allow for such spending on facilities.

Yet, he notes, with evident satisfaction that one particular dealership in Munster is renewing its buildings – with the retention of staff very much in mind.

As part of the modernisation of the trade, the FTMTA encourages its members to adopt a greater degree of professionalism wherever possible. This extends beyond the competence of the workshop and onto the showroom floor.

“We need to be better at farm mechanisation in Ireland,” suggested Gary. Although he does not elaborate too much on this statement, he cites the example of one dealer he spoke to recently after the sale of a mower.

“The trouble is,” confided that dealer, “that farmer was a better salesman than I was.”

This was a reference to the value of the trade-in and the regular occurrence of dealers finding themselves in a bidding war for a sale – offering unrealistic sums for old machinery. This is not a state of affairs that either dealers or the FTMTA are happy about; neither does it serve the farmer well in the long term.

‘Bottom-line’ price

It will always be argued by manufacturers that the bottom-line price should not be the sole criterion that new machines are judged by; yet it is a situation that dealers are faced with on a daily basis.

Image source: Shane Casey

It is by trying to eradicate this form of trench warfare that the FTMTA faces its greatest challenge. However, it is one that, under the leadership of Gary Ryan, it is determined not to shirk.