Students in Kansas are learning to fix tractors for free as Garden City and Fort Scott community colleges are part of the John Deere agriculture tech program that offers students free tuition at one of 16 tech programs at community colleges in the U.S.
The catch? The students needs to find a shop to sponsor them. However, most John Deere dealerships across Kansas are willing to sponsor at least one student each, and many are willing to sponsor more.
“It is really a great program,” said Ryan Unruh, corporate service manager at BTI. “Our success rate is pretty high.”
Which community college?
Kansas is one of two states — Texas is the other — that have two programs at the community-college level. Both programs usually run at capacity, so students need to obtain their sponsorship as early as possible and inform the college of their acceptance. Official registration for the associate degree program does not begin until spring, but notifying the school saves a slot in the program.
Typically, folks from Greensburg west go to Garden City Community College. Hutchinson to the east will attend Fort Scott Community College, and students in northern Kansas head to Nebraska. However, a student is free to attend any college they wish, including Arkansas, Illinois, New York, Oregon or Georgia.
GCCC has several students from Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas in its program. As Missouri does not have a John Deere community college program, Fort Scott gets students from the state, as well as from Oklahoma and Texas. This year, it has a student from Maine.
The benefit of attending a college close to where the student will work is the training they receive on specific crop-related equipment. For instance, FSCC trains on corn and bean equipment. GCCC focuses on corn and wheat. The focus in North Carolina is different from the focus in Kansas. However, all students learn the basics of fixing any John Deere machine, from electronics to transmissions to engine repair.
PrairieLand Partners in Hutchinson has sponsored about eight John Deere tech students from FSCC in the last decade. It currently has two students attending Fort Scott, but in the past, it had a couple of graduates from GCCC.
“They’ve been a real asset,” said Merlin Weber, service manager for PrarieLand Partners in Hutchinson. “They basically can hit the road running a lot easier than the other techs who haven’t had it (this program). They reach higher levels sooner. It’s a benefit for them, a benefit for us, and a benefit for the customer.”
Unruh said the student does not need to come from a farm background. A desire to work hard and possess a mechanical ability are what matters.
“One of our best technicians, he attended GCCC, did not have an agricultural background,” Unruh said.
Each dealership is different. BTI pays for each student’s classes, books, and room and board and loans them equipment. In return, the student signs a contract saying they will work for that store for five years after graduation. PrairieLand pays for the student’s classes and John Deere books after each semester. It does not cover living expenses. However, it loans the student $10,000 worth of tools that they get to keep after working for the company for three years. Both companies expect the student to obtain at least a B grade. At PrairieLand, if a student achieves higher grades, they receive additional bonuses.
Unruh said the starting salary for a technician job is $50,000 to $60,000 a year, with higher rates for experience.
“It really is a great program we have in Kansas,” Unruh said. “Right now we have 12 (for all BTI dealerships) in the program.”
Both community colleges have upgraded their John Deere training facilities. Fort Scott did its upgrade two years ago, while Garden City upgraded this past fall.
“There’s a huge demand for technicians in Kansas. The dealerships in Kansas pay really well,” said Kent Aikin, a John Deere instructor at FSCC. “It’s such a high-demand field. If a person enjoys working on things and diagnosing problems, this is the right program for them.”
In Garden City, the students are working on a combine, which they will eventually use to cut crops.
“It’s a great benefit,” said Gabe Winger, the John Deere lead instructor at GCCC. “I like students to see what the wear items look like, so when they go out to the field, they understand the wear patterns of equipment better.”
Garden City’s program, which began in 1991, is the second-oldest in the U.S. Winger went through the program more than a decade ago, worked for a while and then came back to teach.
Weston Bryant, 19, of Cimarron, is attending GCCC and wants to work for American Implement in Montezuma and help his dad on the farm during his time off.
“I like all the new technology that comes out every year,” Bryant said. As far as his family farm goes, he said, “we run green.”
Aiken and Winger said students get excited every time a new piece of equipment comes out. Many of them grew up with a tractor.
Markus Guerra, 20, grew up on a ranch in Ashland. After graduating, he starts full time at BTI Bucklin.
“I grew up on a ranch doing cowboy stuff, but I wanted something different,” Guerra said. “I like how (the program)'s funded and how they sponsor you. It’s also a lot of hands on.”
Guerra is using the tools the dealership has loaned him, and in exchange for the company paying for his training, he must work for them for five years.
“They want to make sure they get a return on their investment,” Guerra said.
“The complexity of scale of our product has grown, and that takes a highly skilled technician to diagnose and repair this machine,” said Grant Suhre, director of customer support for John Deere.
Mechanics keep up their training at specific schools in Texas, North Carolina and Wichita.
“Training is critical,” Suhre said. “The need for continuing education is real. This is a job that provides lifelong learning.”
John Deere also has veteran initiatives. Suhre started at John Deere after serving in the U.S. Navy. Unruh started his career as a John Deere student at GCCC.
“There’s no limit to what a person can do,” Suhre said. “It’s a wide-open field.”