A RETIRING Baby Boomer workforce is magnifying the need for a dedicated agricultural training college in WA.
Specifically there is an urgent need to attract and train young people in what one ag industry representative has coined Mechtronics.
Ageing lecturers, who have relied on teaching material more than a decade old, have taught basic skills but the problem now is who will teach a younger generation of lecturers, with no knowledge of the engine, transmission and computer schematics in new agricultural machinery.
Perhaps more than any other industry, the rapid advance in agricultural technology has left a stunning gap in an industry crying out for skilled labour - with qualifications embracing mechanics and computer-based electronics, as opposed to electrics.
While education authorities are slowing playing catch up, WA machinery dealers are struggling to meet education costs for the necessary apprenticeship training not taught at teaching institutions.
The basic expectancy from farmers, is that dealers who sell the equipment should service it and employ skilled labour to achieve it.
Dealers understand that and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure customers are looked after but anecdotal evidence shows cracks are widening in dealer service, mainly because of an inability to attract or retain skilled staff.
According to GreenlineAg group corporate service manager Michel Stevens, current training for mechanics focuses on a generic course suitable for the construction and resources sector but not for agriculture.
"What is being taught to the youngsters we want in our industry is not current knowledge relating to agricultural equipment," she said. "There is an auto-electric component in their apprenticeship training but it's all about trucks and cars and not tractors, headers or sprayers.
"The whole apprenticeship training module is skewed to the construction and resources sectors leaving agriculture swinging in the breeze.
"Basically it is left up to us to re-train apprentices and it is a very costly exercise."
Most dealers are in the same position, having to send apprentices to the Eastern States for in-house product training carried out by manufacturers' representatives, most of whom have university degrees.
In some cases, however, manufacturers require dealers to ensure apprentices are up to speed on basic skills, such as computer technology, before they are eligible for in-house product training.
Ms Stevens, said GreenlineAg had taken the initiative to work with CY O'Connor, Northam, to deliver a training module more in line with what the company needed.
"Hopefully that will be up and running soon," she said. "But if we don't take the initiative on such matters, nothing gets done or the wheels of bureaucracy move too slowly.
"We're a week away from TAFE starting for 2013 and I can only hope the new Automotive (Heavy) Agricultural module finally endorsed in December is ready for students.
"But there is a bigger picture than just changing curricula and we're hoping our relationship with CY O'Connor can crystalise a more coherent training pathway for the ag industry."
The Farm Machinery & Industry Association of WA (FMIA) is playing a lead role in promoting more up to date training at an apprenticeship level.
FMIA executive officer John Henchy said the endorsement, in December 2012, of a dedicated Automotive Technician (Agricultural) certificate, was a positive move to have a specific course for agricultural mechanisation, rather than it being it bundled into the heavy duty off-road and transport sector, which heavily favoured the mining industry.
"The challenge now is to take advantage of this new certificate and update the curriculum to make sure it caters for the latest technology," Mr Henchy said. "It should include, for example, CVT transmissions and Precision Agriculture.
"The CY O'Connor facility at Merredin is a classic case in how training can be accomplished.
"And the passion with which the training is achieved should be mirrored in more places.
"It is important that apprentices have access to the latest equipment in their training so they are better equipped on day one in the real world."