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Innovation at the heart of IAM

Innovation is at the heart of Ireland's farm-machinery sector, and the Farm Tractor and Machinery Trade Association's July show in Punchestown is testament to that. Here are just some of the game-changing machines that Kilkenny-based importer and distributor, IAM Agricultural Machinery, has to offer

There is no doubting the success of our indigenous agri-machinery sector across manufacturing, exports and imports, distribution and sales. According to the FTMTA, the farm-machinery industry in Ireland is worth in excess of €677m, annually, covering both new and secondhand machinery, along with parts and services; and our export market is worth in excess of €200m.

Many established family-run companies continue to develop, innovate and expand as younger generations take the reins. Larger companies and, indeed, the bigger, global names that have set up in Ireland also perform well when it comes to recruiting staff with modern facilities, training opportunities, and a better work-life balance. Despite employing more than 6,000 people, certain pockets of the industry are proving challenging to fill where jobs are concerned.

FTMTA president, Karol Duigenan, says the association is working on ways to address and reverse this scenario. “We [FTMTA] used to be very focused on working to ensure better wages for staff, but post-Covid-19, the emphasis among staff doesn’t seem to be just on money, it seems to be more about lifestyle [work-life balance]. Unfortunately, in our industry, we cannot always offer the kind of lifestyle as some jobs in other industries because there can be a lot of overtime, especially in the summer months. We are slowly adapting but in order to adapt [fully], we need to get the volume of staff up.”

But this is a chicken-and-egg situation at the moment because, Karol says, the industry is not considered appealing right now, so attracting new staff to make seasonal conditions better for all staff is proving very difficult. The reasons for this are not new, and although wages may not be the main issue for people, they are still of concern. “There would be a lot of money turned over in the industry but it is not a very high-profit-margin industry compared to others. The demands during harvest time, on Saturdays and Sundays, are huge. Progression is another thing, and a lot of people can’t see progression in their jobs, and in some instances, perhaps the rural locations of some places might put people off,” Karol says.

Secondary school initiative

Based on the above FTMTA stats, the foundation of the industry is strong but futureproofing it requires a degree of targeted action. “There is a vast array of jobs in the machinery trade, people might think it is workshop-based only but there are sales jobs, IT jobs, communications and media roles, jobs in marketing and accounts. We are changing tack to attract staff, but it takes time,” Karol says.

“We [FTMTA] are hoping to start an initiative soon where we will visit schools and promote the industry, we are hoping to have that ready for September 2023, if we can.” This is a longer-term goal, he says, and as such, it will take some time to see the impact this will make but the FTMTA believes it is required. “We feel that apprenticeships are not promoted as much as other third-level courses [in universities and colleges]. That is not to say that we don’t want third level graduates, we need them too, but we would like the machinery industry promoted more [generally],” he said.

Earn as you learn

Pöttinger Ireland general manager, Diarmuid Claridge agrees with Karol, and is proof that successful career progression is possible via the dealer apprenticeship programmes that are available all around the country.

“University wasn’t for me. I tried it and didn’t like it, but I knew that I always wanted to do what I am doing now, working with manufacturers at this level. So, I decided that I would do an apprenticeship, get in the door that way, and see if I could build myself up," Diarmuid says. And that is exactly what he did.

“It shows that you can reach the top heights of a career by doing an apprenticeship, and the apprenticeship programme is really something that the FTMTA wants to highlight because our member firms who are dealers are really struggling to get mechanics and partspeople and salespeople right now.”

The apprenticeship programme combines college and work placement, and apprentices can earn as they learn, Diarmuid says. It is an ideal opportunity for many, but, he says, the programme requires additional government support. "The facilities for training agri-mechanics, for example, need to be updated,” Diarmuid says. He fully supports the FTMTA’s move to reach out to secondary schools. He feels that there is a culture in Ireland, generally, that views apprenticeships as being less attractive or less valued than the standard third-level undergraduate courses that are on offer in universities and colleges. “I think it is a perception that apprenticeships are not as good. But I know a lot of people who went to university, and they didn’t like it, it is not for everyone. From an agri-mechanics point of view, we are probably looked upon as the ‘dirtier ones’ dealing with the mud, the farmers, the oil. But as a career, you won’t get better.” And, he adds, the job today, in reality, is a lot cleaner than the perception. Although, he admits, some companies do need to look at their facilities and address some issues: “Some of the facilities are not great in certain places, no woman or man would want to work in some of them. Some business owners struggle to see that. There is this view that, ‘ah it’s agri-spec, so it’s fine’ but that is the problem. That [attitude] maintains the bad reputation sometimes.”

But, Diarmuid says, if you are a career-driven person, the world is your oyster. “There are huge career ladders, if you are a career-driven person and you want to progress yourself, it is endless,” he says. “Agri-machinery is worldwide, you have manufacturers worldwide, you can go where you want. People study technology because they believe that is the future, but so is food supply, it will forever be the future, we can’t live without it. Agriculture is the basis of food supply and while there is always going to have to be someone there to tend to the animals, there is always going to have to be someone there to tend to the machines that are producing the food.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the farm-machinery sector was an essential service and remained open for business, as it was deemed to be the backbone of the Irish agriculture and food-producing sectors. Its value, then, was recognised by the government and Diarmuid says he would like to see that value continued to be recognised by way of promoting it as a rewarding and successful lifelong career.