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Co-ops note applicator shortage

By Staff | Oct 26, 2014

HARVEY LYMAN, outside operations supervisor at The Andersons, monitors the filling of a VRT fertilizer applicator as it waits to fertilize a field west of Milford. A course to train fertilizer and spray applicators has been designed at Iowa Lakes Community College, with the help and input of area elevator personnel.

BURT – Everyone (elevator managers, that is) has been talking about it, and in 2014 they’ve banded together to do something about it.

A shortage of certified spray applicators has plagued elevators nationwide, and its effects have been felt in Northwest Iowa.

Managers of cooperatives and interested agri-businesses from around Northwest Iowa have partnered with Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg to assemble a two-month course in commercial application that would certify students in operating spray and fertilizer applicators.

Jolene Rogers, executive director of communication and business relations for ILCC, said the program is a win-win for them, the elevators and for people who would pursue this degree.

“We have had an ag sector board – a representation of cooperatives and ag retailers – that has met a few times to identify the skills needed for applicators,” she said.

A VRT FERTILIZER applicator is being filled with DAP and potash in a field west of Milford. Elevators in a wide area report they are having trouble finding employees to do this job, and have collaborated with Iowa Lakes Community College to form a shorter-length course to train applicators for these positions.

Cooperatives approached the college, she said, seeking to implement the program.

They worked on the characteristics of the type of person who would enjoy this work, she said, and began a strategy to market to them.

Then the board started formed a curriculum.

“In this area there are a lot of jobs available, and it’s a challenge to find employees,” Rogers said, adding that finding the right people for the class would mean prospective employers finding employees that they could hire and retain.

The class curriculum has been taken to the state, and it has been approved for GAP (good agricultural practices) funding, which means that if a student meets the income guidelines, they could take the two-month course at no cost.

“We want to help skill-up unemployed, underemployed, job changers or career changers,” she said.

The pilot program started this fall and will include reading various monitors, how to read a spreading order, job safety, how to work with technology, map reading, chemistry mixing, GPS technology and problem solving.

The course is eight weeks long, Rogers said, and offers a living wage job to those who complete the course satisfactorily.

Chuck Peter, agronomy department leader at Stateline Cooperative, in Burt, said the shortage of applicators isn’t as much of a problem as it is an issue to be addressed.

“A lot of businesses in rural America are challenged to find a flow of worker candidates as people retire and as businesses grow,” he said. “When you’re dealing with things like fertilizers and pesticides, they’re very expensive and you have to be judicious and careful in how you apply them because you can hurt things by putting (chemicals) in the wrong places.

“You have to have trained people.”

ILCC was a natural fit for this training, he said, because sees the college as proactive in its other vocational training disciplines.

“There’s a lot of good kids in the area and ILCC brings kids from all over the state,” he said, which benefits Stateline, which prefers to hire local people because they know the area.

“If they can come to us ready to go, all the better,” he said. “Training is expensive if they don’t know what they’re doing, because if they make mistakes it causes damage to crops, so this is a win-win kind of thing.”

He said there’s a lot of math to the job, along with communication skills (in talking to customers), mechanical skills and trouble-shooting skills that are necessary.

The equipment, like self-propelled sprayers, “are like a computer with wheels, and it takes some talent to run them,” he said.

He said the industry competes with other states and industries for talent, and since other entities offer training, the cooperatives decided they needed to do the same.

Pam Anderson, human resources representative for The Andersons, said the group effort of cooperative and agri-business people to get this commercial applicator program going is a testament to the industry.

“Even though we’re competitors,” Anderson said, “we’re willing to come together and come up with this program with ILCC.

“It’s going to benefit all of us. Hopefully, this will be a springboard for coming up with a program for outside grain workers, because there is so much technology coming up in that field, too.”

Pam Blair, Human Resources representative for the Western Region of The Andersons, said the shortage of applicators is widespread, but it’s something that can be remedied with training and the right people.

And jobs are widely available in agriculture.

“I don’t think people understand there’s a lot to an applicator position,” she said. “There’s a lot of technology, but it can be a very interesting field to be in.

“I also think people tend to encourage our young people toward manufacturing because they think it offers more technology, but technology is here in agriculture.”

Blair added this position is not just male-oriented – that women can make a good living wage doing this job as well.

Dana Gee, of the agronomy department at The Andersons, in Milford, said need is always the best innovator.

“My hope is that we communicate the need for people in that career,” he said. “There’s a lot of high school kids who won’t go to college because of the cutback in student loan funding.

“I don’t think it’s communicated to them that there are opportunities in agriculture.”

Gee said there are up to 20 positions that could be filled today between six area elevators.

He said many think the position is like driving grandpa’s old tractor, but half of that job is keeping the technology running than driving it,” he said. “The person driving it needs to be able to work with monitors and software programs, GPS, transfer and save files correctly – that kind of thing.”

Diane Streit, human resources director at Maxyield Cooperative, in West Bend, said there are several skills elevator employers look for when hiring someone for this kind of position.

“The individual has to possess basic math skills (including units of measure), be technically competent, enjoy driving big equipment, be hard-working, motivated, pay attention to detail and be comfortable working long hours,” she said. “And they need to keep safety a priority.”

Streit hopes the long-term benefit of this two-month commercial application course will be a pool of qualified applicants to fill custom applicator positions.

“The farmer clients will also benefit as they will have reliable, educated applicators in their fields doing a great job,” she said.”With the risks that both parties have at stake, knowing you have someone who knows what they’re doing provides peace of mind for everyone.”

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