Ag added to distance learning curriculum

The new program is expected to increase the number of agriculture equipment technicians in the province

A high school program is gearing up this fall to produce more agriculture equipment technicians in Saskatchewan.

It’s welcome news for farm equipment businesses that are experiencing a shortage of one to two AET’s in nearly all of the 120 dealers across the province.

“We’re confident that it’ll be a really successful program and I’m sure it’ll get a lot of interest,” said Larry Hertz of the Western Equipment Dealers Association, who helped initiate the program along with Darren Gasper from Sun West Distance Learning Centre and Chris Thomson at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

Starting in September, Sun West will offer a 20 and 30 level agriculture elective for Grades 11 and 12 in Saskatchewan. At present, the online curriculum is available only to students residing in the province.

Canada Equipment Dealers Foundation, Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Sun West School Division and the Western Equipment Dealers Association have teamed up to introduce the new curriculum through online delivery.

Together, the Canada Equipment Dealers Foundation and Sun West Distance Learning have budgeted about $700,000 over five years towards the program’s development.

Individual equipment dealers will also pay a $500 participation fee for each student in their dealership and other than safety clothing there is no cost for students.

AET 20L and 30L will each include 50 hours of online theory, 40 hours of practical work study at an agricultural dealership and a 10-hour boot camp at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

Lori Gasper at Sun West is the co-ordinator for the two courses, which she said are currently being developed with guidance from equipment dealerships to make sure the new courses reflect the industry as well as student needs.

It’s still early to know how many students will sign up for the courses, but Gasper has been fielding calls from ag dealerships who are interested in signing up a student or two.

“This distance learning program is a pretty spectacular program and makes sense in so many ways,” said Carl Persson at Western Sales, which employs about 65 AETs at its six locations in Saskatchewan.

“This ag technician program is really dear to me and to Western Sales and probably all agriculture dealers. We’re all looking for good people to be in agriculture,” he said.

During the course’s 40 hours of practical work, Persson said he plans to have students shadow a journeyman mechanic to learn about specifics and handle tools for some elementary tasks, such as setting up a header or putting a reel together.

He said the process is a great opportunity for the dealership to observe the young person in action as well for the student to learn if he or she wants to pursue an AET career further.

“We can get a sense for them and they can get a sense for if this is the right trade for them in Grade 10, 11, 12 as opposed to when they’re 20 years old and may have made a mistake,” he said.

The high school courses should increase the level of talent in the trade while providing a clearer career path. That is a good thing, he said, because the AET job is becoming more specialized to keep pace with the growing complexity of precision technology. As a result, students need to be fluent with computers and large diagnostic programs.

“Now we’ve got machines that have fibre optic cables on them. Some of these tractors and combines will have 10 to 12 computer boards communicating to themselves. So, it’s becoming less of a mechanic trade. You have to understand mechanics, but you have to be very good with technology and electronics and hydraulics,” he said.

It’s also a career that increasingly demands the best and brightest with a strong emphasis on applied math.

“I would say mechanics historically, 20, 30 years ago, was maybe the people that weren’t getting 90 percent in high school. Now you need those guys. They’ve got to be sharp, paying attention and have good marks,” he said.

Chris Thomson, who heads up the AET program at the Saskatoon campus of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, said the new program is overdue and will help bridge high school students into a tech program.

It’s especially important now, he said, because there are fewer rural people entering the trade as opposed to the recent past.

“There’s a little bit of a discrepancy between kids from actual farms, what they know and what they’re familiar with, versus lots of kids that maybe don’t have exposure to ag equipment,” he said.

Thomson said the 10 hour post-secondary portion will parallel the AET apprenticeship and two-year certificate program where students receive an overview of Saskatchewan Polytechic’s facilities followed by classroom theory, shop practicum and exams.

“In the end, they will have basically had a good snapshot of what it’s like to be a student at our campus,” he said.

Gasper said the new AET program is the first of its kind with the level of industry integration.

It has been modelled somewhat after the three-year automotive distance learning course, which has enrolment of about 300 in the first year, 150 in second and 75 in third.

“Those 75 graduates of the three-year program in high school are very likely going to go right into the trade,” said Hertz.

He said those numbers are encouraging since 120 to 250 AETs will be needed annually as a result of demand and attrition.

However, Persson said there continues to be a “brain drain” of technically minded young people to the oil and gas industry. As a result, the AET trade has direct competition from automotive and heavy-duty mechanics.

“You go to the high schools or to Sask Polytechnic and say who here is a mechanic and a hundred guys put their hands up. And then ask, who wants to work in agriculture and 10 or 15 will put their hands up. There’s still a draw to bulldozers and oil and gas,” he said.

“Our message needs to be as a community that there’s great opportunity to be in agriculture in small town Saskatchewan.”

Added Hertz: “The whole agricultural industry and specifically working in a dealership is very stable work and quite high paid as well.”

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