And students at Mitchell Technical College on Thursday were busy mingling with over two dozen area and regional agriculture business representatives who were on the lookout for more help from one of the state’s premier agriculture education institutions.
“We’re always looking for help. There is certainly a workforce shortage, everybody knows that, but it’s been there for a number of years and we have not been immune to it,” said Rick Stone, region aftermarket manager for C&B Operations, a regional business that specializes in John Deere products and equipment.
Stone, like many of the representatives on site, spent part of the day at the fair, talking with prospective interns who made their way around the Nordby Trades Center on the campus of Mitchell Tech. The program involves first- and second- year students, and its purpose is to facilitate spring internship opportunities for students enrolled in the ag business, agronomy, animal science and precision ag technology programs.
Agriculture students met agriculture business representatives Thursday at the fifth annual agriculture internship fair at Mitchell Technical College. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
The internships begin in late March and run through the second week of May, and generally first-year students continue with employment through the summer until returning to complete their education in mid-August. Second-year students may choose to continue as a permanent placement if both parties agree.
It’s an arrangement that has benefitted the agriculture students at Mitchell Tech, said Janet Greenway, career services and advising director at the school.
“It’s a good way for them to get out and experience something different. Many, but not all come from a farm, and some can’t go back right away – they may have to wait a few years until grandpa retires, so they need to work with somebody,” Greenway said. “The ag industry is the No. 1 industry in our state, so if they’re going to join the industry and aren’t from a farm, this is a good way to get some farm experience.”
Employers in every industry are struggling to find workers, but ag employers are looking for anyone with know-how in agriculture to fill positions. A recent survey conducted by Purdue University indicates that about two-thirds of survey respondents had “some” or “a lot of difficulty” hiring adequate labor in 2021, as compared to less than a third in 2020.
And even with Mitchell Tech and other schools churning out graduates, the state of modern agriculture with farms shrinking in number but increasing in size has seen an increased need for help to keep their operation flowing.
“The small family farms are not small anymore. They’re large. Most need one or two hired helpers and it’s difficult to get someone,” Greenway said.
Lori Repenning, division leader and instructor in the animal science program at Mitchell Tech, agreed that the labor shortage is real and it is affecting about every type of industry there is.
“That’s why we have these internships, it’s a good way (for students) to get their foot in the door,” Repenning said.
Repenning said businesses can benefit from the internship program by finding students interested and eager for the work, but students can also get a leg up by getting immersed in a field they’ve been studying.
Katriona Koenig, recruiting coordinator for Grossenburg Implement, talks with Cruz Garnos, an agriculture business student, Thursday at Mitchell Technical College during the school’s ag internship fair. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
There is something out there for every student, regardless of their specific discipline.
“(The internship program is) a nice collecting point so students can get their feet wet,” Repenning said. “It’s a six-week program with 240 hours they have to complete, and they just get to see a lot of different perspectives. There are employers looking for a lot of different kinds of students in a lot of different programs, and a lot of them overlap. A business kid may work in a vet clinic, or an animal science student may work in a vet clinic.”
And there is usually a student for every type of business. Randy Knippling, of Gann Valley, was on hand prior to the fair setting up his booth for Knippling Hereford, his cattle operation. It’s a family business, and he has family help, but there are times of year when he needs every available hand on deck, and he’s found much of that help at Mitchell Tech.
“We’ve been (attending the intern fair) for a number of years and getting our interns out of the (technical colleges) for calving. I just look for a little extra help during calving when we’re so busy,” Knippling said. “We started doing this about 10 or 15 years ago, and we did it at Watertown and Mitchell, but the last few years we’ve only done Mitchell because they have this fair.”
Knippling said his operation calved about 1,300 head of cattle last year, so there’s more than enough work to go around. The internship fair in particular has been useful because he can have a face-to-face meeting with potential employees.
“Rather than just getting a phone call from a kid I’ve never met before, this way I get to meet him in person and get a feel for him a little bit,” Knippling said.
Stone said C&B, which operates 37 John Deere dealerships in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, is always on the lookout for interns looking to help fill out their staff. The company has a long history with Mitchell Tech, having provided equipment and other resources for classroom learning.
Business recruiters and students filled a portion of the Nordby Trades Center on the campus of Mitchell Technical College Thursday for the fifth annual agriculture internship fair. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
There isn’t a department that isn’t in need of at least a little extra help, Stone said.
“(Diesel technology) is our primary focus, but we’re always looking for others, either in precision agriculture or our sales staff, or the support in our business like with IT, accounting and payroll. Our primary focus is diesel technology because there’s more of a shortage there than in any other area. We’re always looking for people,” Stone said.
By the time the fair started, the meeting space was filled with booths, students and chatter and talk about the agriculture industry.
Among those students was Cruz Garnos, a first-year agriculture business student who was talking with a number of representatives. A native of Presho, he is hoping to pick up work and experience that will benefit him when he returns to the family farm and ranch, which focuses primarily on cattle, he said.
The program and components like the internship fair have been a great experience, Garnos said.
“It’s great. I love how they get us involved in all this so early on in our careers,” Garnos said. “It’s a good way to give us a taste of what it’s like outside and in the field.”
He didn’t have his eye on specific business at the fair, but he said it was a great opportunity to network and see what was available from an internship point of view.
Most students in the agriculture program – as much as 90% – remain in South Dakota after graduation, Repenning said, which is a boost to the state economy and the small communities that many of those graduates call home.
And she hopes the fair will continue to provide those opportunities for both employer and employee. Now in its fifth year, she expects the fair will continue as a complement to the school’s regular career fair, which is a similar event held for students in every program at the school.
That would be a plus for all involved, she said.
“We’d definitely like to grow it,” Repenning said. “This gives them an advantage at Mitchell Tech. (Students) can start their career six weeks before a state school graduate could at a time when their employers really need them.”