“You name it, it’s going to have its down day; it’s going to need repairs,” says Anthony Styczinski, service development manager with John Deere.
Dan Schwartzhoff, a second-year student in the John Deere TECH program at Northeast Iowa Community College, wants to play a role in making sure that machinery, especially as it becomes more technological, is in perfect working order.
Schwartzhoff’s dad was also a service technician, spending his time traveling to farms to fix equipment. When it came time for his son to decide on a major, Schwartzhoff was torn between dairy science and the John Deere TECH program. Ultimately, farm machinery won out.
“The John Deere TECH program may not be something that is right for everybody, but there are a lot of people out there that this type of learning environment is awesome for,” Schwartzhoff says. “I felt it was a good fit for me.”
Ag service technicians are trained to work on farm machinery and often specialize in the applications that run precision planters and autonomous tractors.
John Deere TECH Program
The best way to think about the program is a two-year diesel tech program that focuses on John Deere equipment, Styczinski says. “The program concentrates on diesel engines and fuel systems, power train components, electrical and hydraulic systems, heating and air conditioning, and then utilizing our service methodology,” he says.
Students at John Deere partner colleges enroll in the program the same way they would for any other degree. Unlike other diploma programs or technical degrees, a John Deere ag technician completes general education courses and John Deere-exclusive classroom training, and graduates with a true associate degree.
In addition, the John Deere TECH program requires that a student be sponsored by a John Deere dealership where they complete six months of on-the-job training during the two years they’re in the program. Through this sponsorship, the student builds a relationship that directly lines him up for a career opportunity with the sponsoring dealer upon graduation.
“A lot of dealers also offer reimbursement for tuition and tools,” Styczinski says. “We have students who graduate debt-free. They have their tool set. They have a job. They are making a good living right off the bat.”
While tuition varies depending on the college, the program at Northeast Iowa Community College starts at $16,116 per year (in-state). A set of tools for a beginning technician can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000.
In the Classroom
Duane Bouska, a John Deere technician instructor at Northeast Iowa Community College since 1997, says students must hit checkpoints to maintain their dealership sponsor. Some dealerships require a contract where students agree to work for that dealership for up to five years after graduation.
Bouska says every program receives a budget to purchase John Deere components, tools, and equipment, so students get the experience of working on new machinery and technology in the classroom that they’ll work on at the dealership. Students are also required to be “Deere certified.” Once students are taught the fundamentals in the classroom, they test online with John Deere to prove they know what they’re doing.
“It’s called John Deere University,” Bouska says. “If a new machine has been released, the students must know how to operate it, what its features are, and how to diagnose it. John Deere University offers training for the John Deere technician throughout their career, and we get them off to a good start with JDU here at school. For students to be considered John Deere TECH graduates, they must complete several required JDU courses.”
More Than Mechanical
A big part of ag technician training is learning the software for John Deere machinery. As machinery becomes more advanced, there is more emphasis on computers running all parts of the machine, and ag technicians need to know how to troubleshoot and fix them.
“I started to work in a shop in 1979,” Bouska says. “Back then, tractors were mechanical, and you only fixed mechanical things. Now those pieces of equipment are worth a half million dollars and have a lot of technology in them, so you fix not only mechanical things but also electrical and software-related issues. When something goes wrong, the person who fixes it has to have quite a bit of training.”
Bouska is running certification classes for electrical and hydraulics systems as well as software diagnostics, both of which students do hands-on. John Deere provides equipment to the instructors, including new tractors that are rotated every year, so students have the opportunity to practice diagnostics and repairs on the newest available models.
Students take TECH classes one at a time. Each class is 20 days long and broken into a two-hour lecture and a two-hour lab. As classes transition, Schwartzhoff says whatever is learned in the previous class is built upon in the next class.
“We just started our engines class,” he explains. “For the next 20 days, we’re going to be both working on and learning about engines in the classroom. Then the next class will be fuel systems.”
By the Numbers
The John Deere TECH program began in 1989 with partnerships in Milford, Nebraska, and Calmar, Iowa. Today, it sponsors 24 schools from Walla Walla, Washington, to Cobleskill, New York, and Quebec to Saskatchewan in Canada. Between both countries about 650 students graduate from the program each year. Styczinski says it is on an upward trend; they see between 5% and 10% growth in the John Deere TECH program annually.
With more than 2,000 John Deere dealerships throughout the United States and Canada, salaries can vary depending on where the dealership is located. Styczinski says $47,000 as an annual salary is a good estimate of what a beginning ag technician could expect to be paid. This coupled with competitive benefits, retirement plans like 401Ks, efficiency bonus programs, mentor programs, career path planning, and the additional benefit of potential tuition and tool reimbursement, he says students could be starting on a very good foot with the ability to move within job functions.
“You could start as a tech, then move into a service or parts manager position, or even completely switch directions and go into sales or IT,” Styczinski says. “There are just so many opportunities at a John Deere dealership when you graduate from this program.”