Farm Equipment Technicians Train for Future Careers

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North Carolina farmers can’t plant or harvest crops nor raise and care for livestock without a wide array of heavy equipment. Tractors, skid-steers, combines and more all are put to work regularly.

Operating in hostile conditions takes a toll on these machines. Chatham County Farm Bureau member Al Clapp has seen it first-hand for decades. Not only does he operate his own cattle operation, Clapp Bros. has provided equipment and maintenance services to the Piedmont agriculture community since 1937.

“Tractors and equipment run in high stress conditions,” Clapp says. “Farm equipment is in tough conditions. They’re out in the weather, left outside. There’s rust, corrosion, dust, dirt, manure. It’s not like a vehicle that’s always run out on the highway.”

While the current conditions remain the same, the equipment North Carolina farmers now use is tremendously more complex than when Clapp first got into the business. For example, instead of stepping on a clutch and putting a tractor into gear, many of today’s machines simply have a button and a lever to put them into motion.

When the time comes to make repairs, farm equipment technicians who keep these machines running need much more than just a wrench or a screwdriver. A laptop computer often is one of the first tools that are necessary to correct the problem.

“Basically you can’t do it in your backyard anymore,” Clapp says. “A lot of this equipment is going to have to come to a designated place, either the dealer or a repair shop that’s large enough to afford all of the diagnosing equipment.”

There was a time when mechanically minded individuals could approach a diesel engine like a puzzle, determining how various elements worked by taking them apart and putting them back together. But Clapp says the reason for the diagnostic equipment—and the knowledge and skill technicians need to complete the repair task—is that so many sensors and computer chips not only make farm equipment much more efficient nowadays, but also significantly more complicated.

“It’s tough to find those high-tech technicians,” Clapp says. “You can’t just get that fellow with grease under his fingernails and a toolbox he can carry in his hand to fix a tractor nowadays. It takes thousands of dollars worth of tools and diagnosing equipment to work on tractors.”

Technician Training

A diesel mechanic training program first started at Wake Technical Community College in the mid-1970s. Five years ago, the school rolled out a program geared toward educating future technicians to work specifically on farm equipment, an endeavor supported by a John Deere manufacturing site located near Fuquay-Varina.

Wake County Farm Bureau member Ronnie Lowe oversees the program. Having been an instructor at Wake Tech for 21 years, Lowe describes how much more complicated farm equipment is nowadays and how many more skills technicians need to maintain and repair these machines.

“The agriculture program is on the complicated side,” Lowe says about the college’s program, which currently has about two dozen students focused on farm equipment. The remainder of the 70 students are concentrating on general diesel or construction equipment.

Lowe says the Wake Tech training for agriculture equipment is more rigorous because of the guidance control components tractors and other machines have that make field planting and harvesting more productive.

Clapp Bros.

Chatham County Farm Bureau member Al Clapp, pictured right, and his team of five technicians conduct maintenance and repairs on a variety of farm equipment at Clapp Bros., a dealership that has served the Piedmont since 1937.

Students from five different states have come to Raleigh to obtain this special training at Wake Tech. Lowe says he often targets FFA programs at North Carolina high schools to promote the school’s department and get more potential technicians interested in the industry.

“These are kids that are often coming in from rural communities. They’ve grown up on the farm and want to learn more because they’ve been around it for so long,” Lowe says.

Lowe calls it “very satisfying” when a student completes the training and goes into the field. In fact, one of his first diesel mechanic students now is a Wake Tech instructor, while others now are service managers at heavy equipment dealerships.

“You want to see them go and advance,” Lowe says.

Wake Technical Community College farm equipment techs

Wake Technical Community College students Brandon Smith, left, and Derek Burns learn about diagnosing problems on John Deere tractors with a laptop computer.

Clapp says the training technicians can get at a place like Wake Tech is only the first step.

“Your best technicians have been to a school. They’ve gone to work somewhere, maybe working under a mentor, someone who has been in the shop for 20 years and can give them that guidance. Then five or six years later, they can make a good technician. Those first few years, they’ve got a lot to learn,” Clapp says. “They can go to school and learn the basics, but until you get into the real world of turning wrenches, it’s not always by the book.”

The Future of the Farm Equipment Tech

The U.S. Department of Labor is upbeat about the job prospects for agriculture equipment technicians.

Federal officials say employment of farm equipment mechanic and service technicians is projected to grow 13 percent by 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. They say demand for farm equipment repairers will be primarily driven by the need for agricultural products to feed a growing population. Demand for other products, such as biofuels, will also increase repairer employment.

“I see the future with all of the new stuff that’s been sold over the past few years, as anything runs with time it will always need servicing,” Clapp says.

Wake Technical Community College instructor Paige Kearns, right, oversees Derek Burns and Brandon Smith perform a diagnostic procedure on a John Deere tractor.

“It’s an industry that I can see growth in my service department,” he adds. “The shops that are out here in the country that are fixing the tractors that are 25 years and older, those tractors will be fewer and fewer. They’ll be some that are still running, but the majority of the tractors are going to need to come into a dealership that has the support.”

Chatham County Farm Bureau member Al Clapp, pictured here, and his team of five technicians conduct maintenance and repairs on a variety of farm equipment at Clapp Bros., a dealership that has served the Piedmont since 1937.

1 Comment

  1. siaosi

    September 19, 2016 at 10:38 am

    I am quite impressed with these new technologies shown here. I would love to be able to have the most updated technology. I think it would be in my best interest to have a tractor.

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