Sunday, August 14, 2022

Driving ag skill growth

The arrival of covid has disrupted businesses all over the world and left the agricultural industry short-staffed.

An Ag Drive student learning how to drive a tractor under the watchful eye of a tutor.

When covid reared its head over two years ago, many businesses had to rethink their practices and pivot and evolve in new ways. AgTechnology Group was one of those companies.

Their business had contracts with the Germany companies CLAAS and LEMKEN to handle their New Zealand research, development and engineering during the summer harvest season.

During the European summer, the AgTechnology team would travel to Europe and other parts of the world, undertaking CLAAS and LEMKEN projects and testing their machinery. Covid put an end to their offshore business travel.

“We had really good businesses that we had established over a 25-year period and suddenly covid brought it to a dead stop. We had half a dozen people sitting around and began looking for alternatives. Not just to keep everyone busy, but also to derive some cash flow,” group managing director Andre Syben says.

“A friend’s passing comment about the inability for overseas drivers to come into New Zealand sparked a change of direction. I talked to the team, and we decided to start a tractor driver training business called Ag Drive.”

Ag Drive was originally seen as a stop-gap measure to provide winter work, however, Syben was surprised at the reaction and uptake from the rural community and, more importantly, their support from agricultural contractors, farmers and machinery suppliers.

“There are some other tractor driver training companies, but most are classroom-based,” he says.

“None are anywhere near the scale of Ag Drive, with a huge investment in tractors, machinery and infrastructure.

“Our courses have a classroom element and a strong focus on the practical aspect. We saw a gap in the market, where people new to the industry or those wanting some more professional training could get on tractors and learn new skills in a safe, managed but real-life environment. Then they could take those skills back to their workplace, or apply to work within the industry.” 

Covid has forced Syben to examine how he can protect the company, if similar epidemics occur in the future.

“We’ve streamlined the businesses within our group structure and are much more agile now. Our entire team has been extremely flexible regarding workload, roles, goals and how we’re going to achieve them,” he says.

“Our existing staff enjoyed their new teaching roles, but once the New Zealand-based CLAAS work began again, we saw Ag Drive’s possibilities, so employed specialist tutors to take on the training roles.” 

The interest in driver draining has grown so quickly that the company now has five tutors, two administrators, a sales rep, and a marketing person. Ag Drive has recently leased the NZ National Fieldays Society venue’s car park areas and now operates from them.

Farmers must ensure that their staff are adequately trained to correctly operate farm equipment, to comply with health and safety compliance requirements and minimise accidents. We see Ag Drive as an industry leader promoting these values.

“We’re not just ticking the health and safety box, we’re teaching people best practice work skills. We’ve put several people through our course who have wanted to get into agricultural contracting,” he says.

“We’re also seeing some local companies requiring new staff to undertake a five-day Ag Drive tractor training course before taking them on.

“We quickly assess a trainee’s ability and can advise the contractor what areas need attention. We’ve trained airline pilots, taxi drivers, school teachers, chefs – lots of people new to the agricultural industry. When the covid lockdowns began, people saw tractor driving and the agricultural industry as an interim way to earn income and assess if that’s what they wanted to do.” 

Ag Drive holds a Primary ITO contract that enables anyone working within the primary industries to access fully-funded training if they meet the required eligibility criteria.

The company also holds a Ministry of Social Development contract to train unemployed people. Originally it was solely for those who were unemployed due to covid. But now it’s available for all unemployed people.

“The training for some of those previously unemployed trainees has been truly life-changing. We’re also putting many female drivers through the courses,” he says.

“A few of the more experienced drivers that have come in with an ‘I have nothing to learn attitude’ have been quite astounded with the new knowledge and skills they have walked away with.”

When the country opens to foreign drivers, he aims to provide a recruitment service to contractors and farmers. Ag Drive would meet international arrivals into NZ and put them through a 2-3 day training course, before placing them with farmers and contractors.

Due to covid, many agricultural contractors are now thinking outside the box too.

“Many Waikato contractors now run farming operations alongside their contracting businesses. They plant a winter annual on their maize blocks and bring in winter grazers to provide stock work for their staff during their winter off season,” he says.

“The entire agricultural sector seems to be short of staff. I think there’s an opportunity for contractors to retain their drivers by approaching farmers to do their winter feeding out and stock shifts.”

Covid has forced many business teams to split and work remotely. This sparked the idea that Ag Drive could run corporate team building days to allow entire teams to come together again.

Syben aims to use the courses to help their client’s mental wellbeing, by reuniting staff and management. It’s also a way for them to simply have fun after a very difficult two years.

“We have a classroom facility and a huge area within the Fieldays facility, where the participants get to use the tractors, loaders, a digger and the quad bike course,” he says.

“It’ll put people out of their comfort zone, but our tutors will make it fun for them. They know how to tutor people who are new to machinery.”

It’s just another way Syben and his team are continuing to think outside of the box in this constantly changing business environment – that’s what covid has forced so many businesses to do.

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