Top tips for a career in agricultural engineering

Agricultural engineering can be a challenging and rewarding career – but how can youngsters find the right course and what can they expect from it? Olivia Cooper reports.

Farming technology has advanced beyond all expectations over the past few years, with tractors boasting electronic gadgets to rival Formula 1 or NASA. But that cutting-edge development requires top-class designers, fabricators, service engineers, computer technicians and sales teams to ensure each manufacturer delivers for their customers.

At the same time, there are thousands of older machines still in daily use across the country that also require servicing and maintenance, both on and off the farm.

To cater for these diverse needs, land-based colleges offer a variety of farm machinery courses, ranging from one-day welding courses to full-time degrees and postgraduate study.

So which course is right for you? That depends on the level of qualifications you already hold and whether you are seeking full-time academic study, a part-time vocational course, apprenticeship training or a mixture.

Prospective students should have a keen interest in engineering and agriculture, with a practical and logical approach to problem solving. Good mathematic and communication skills are also useful, although these can be developed along the way.

WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?

* Short courses

These range from basic tractor mechanics and driving to welding, fabrication and vehicle maintenance. They typically range from one to five days in length (which may be spread over a number of months), offer practical training and usually incur fees of between £100 and £500. Many courses lead to qualifications from bodies like NPTC, Lantra, HSE and City & Guilds.

* Vocational courses

These courses are typically a mix of classroom-based learning and practical, hands-on work. Aimed primarily at 14-18 year-olds, they are based on the diploma system, ranging from level one (requiring no prior qualifications) to level three (equivalent to A Levels). Assessment is continuous, with assignments, projects and practical work.

Level one courses usually take a year of full-time study. Topics include tool and equipment maintenance, safe and effective working practices, and industrial experience. Students will also obtain qualifications in English, maths and ICT to improve future employability.

Level two courses also take a year to complete. Core units include using a range of workshop tools; servicing, maintaining and working on a range of land-based machinery and equipment; and welding, fabrication and tractor driving.

Level three diplomas offer a choice of a part-time subsidiary option, a full-time diploma, or a two-year extended course. Subjects covered include engine technology and electronic systems, hydraulic and pneumatic principles, chassis and transmission systems, as well as major design and build projects.

* Apprenticeships

People who want to earn while they learn may prefer to do an apprenticeship, whereby they get practical experience and a wage while studying for diplomas on a part-time basis. Many colleges offer this option, with a framework qualification taking between 24 and 36 months to complete, and including a diploma, functional skills such as English and maths, a first aid certificate and personal development.

“There are no formal entry requirements, though an interest in the subject is essential,” says a spokesman for Bishop Burton College. “Students must demonstrate enthusiasm and commitment at interview and complete an initial assessment.” Competence is assessed in the workplace, with usually one day’s training a week in college.

* Higher education

Students who have achieved higher level diplomas or A levels in relevant subjects can opt to progress to higher education, which can, in turn, lead to postgraduate study. Courses range from one-year part-time foundation certificates, to three- or even five-year full-time degree courses.

Harper Adams University offers a wide choice of courses, including off-road vehicle design and various agricultural engineering degrees. All students undertake a placement year working in the industry, and can study modules such as mechatronics, precision farming technology, farm building design, and engineering mathematics.

“The first year is quite theory-based, and the subsequent years become a lot more applied,” says HAU senior lecturer Greg Rowsell. “One of our key aims is to turn our students into skilled engineers, who often go on to become chartered professionals.” Students can also go on to specialise by taking a postgraduate degree.

WHAT DOES IT COST?

Students under 19 years of age don’t have to pay tuition fees, although they may incur expenses for accommodation and safety equipment. Mature students will have to pay, although it may be possible to offset costs against a farming business, with some subsidised courses and bursaries also available.

Some students may be able to get sponsorship from vehicle manufacturers or dealers. Government-supported student loans are also available for higher levels of education, and do not have to be repaid until you are earning more than £21,000 a year.

WHAT ARE MY CAREER PROSPECTS?

Most colleges have a very high success rate of course-related employment, with close links across the industry meaning students gain considerable work experience with local dealerships.

Diploma students tend to find employment in dealerships as service technicians, sales people, demonstrators and fitters. Others may go back to the family business or into contracting with a strong working knowledge of mechanics in the field. Those with degrees tend to go straight in to dealerships at management level, set up their own business or specialise in design of engines, transmissions, hydraulics or electronics, for example.

Read also: Top 10 agricultural college essentials

Askham Bryan College: new workshop complex soon

Interest in Askham Bryan’s diplomas in land-based technology has risen steadily in recent years, says Colin Seymour, deputy section leader in engineering. “We’ve invested substantial sums in facilities, machinery, tooling and workshops, and our principal is planning a new workshop complex very soon as well,” he says.

About one in five of the students come from non-farming backgrounds, but all students gain experience in the field as they do one day a week working in the industry. “A good proportion end up with employment in those dealerships as technicians, with about one in 10 going on to do a higher education degree.”

Myerscough College: get your hands dirty

One of the few providers offering both further and higher education courses, Myerscough has something for everyone. From apprenticeships through to degree level, students can choose from land-based engineering, mechanisation and agricultural engineering. So what is the difference?

According to assistant head of mechanisation Kate Livesey, land-based technology and mechanisation courses are more about operating and repairing machinery in the field – perhaps where students want knowledge to use in their own farming business.

Engineering courses are more technical and designed for people who want to work in industry as engineers or managers.

“About 80% of students on our further education courses are from a farming background, but that drops to about 50% on the higher education side,” she says. “We’ve got to try and smash this stereotype that you need to be a farmer to do agricultural engineering. You don’t. All you need is a passion for the industry and a desire to see it advance.”

To ensure the college keeps up with the pace of change, it has one member of staff dedicated to technological advance and training. “Nowadays, a lot of the time you plug in the computer before you even look at the machine, so there’s a lot of diagnostic equipment and training required,” says Miss Livesey.

“What our students love is that, even at degree level, they get their hands dirty on a regular basis – only 60% is classroom-based so there’s a lot of applying knowledge in a practical way.”

Case study – Benji Grey

Benji Grey grew up helping his grandfather work on a local farm, and after getting his tractor licence at 16 and working with a contractor, he signed up to a two-year land-based technology course at Hartpury College, Gloucestershire.

“I did one day a week at Cotswold Farm Machinery as work experience, and graduated last year with triple distinction in a level three diploma,” he says.

Cotswold Farm Machinery then took him on full-time, and he has continued his professional development at the Case IH training school. “I am learning so much and really enjoy my job – I’m fixing machines both in the workshop and out and about. It’s a physically and mentally demanding job, but I love it.”

Case study – Sarah Henshaw

“As a child, the closest I got to farming was horses,” says Sarah Henshaw, who is now product manager at JCB Attachments. “My father did technology in schools so I got into engineering that way.”

After a year studying mechanical engineering at Staffordshire University, she switched to off-road vehicle design at Harper Adams, graduating with a 2.1 BEng (Hons). “Agricultural engineering is far more interesting than standard courses,” she says.

Having spent her placement year with JCB, Sarah went straight into a full-time job with the firm four years ago. “As product manager, I have a small team working under me, taking new projects through from design to launch and dealer training – it’s very interesting and varied.”

Career prospects are good, including opportunities to work abroad – and Sarah is pleased to see more women entering the industry. “Everyone’s so helpful,” she says. “If you’re considering a career in agricultural engineering, just do it.”

Colleges offering agricultural engineering courses:

Askham Bryan College, Yorkshire

Bicton College, Devon

Bishop Burton & Riseholme Colleges, Yorkshire & Lincolnshire

Brooksby Melton College, Leicestershire

Coleg Cambria, Flintshire

Coleg Sir Gar, Carmarthenshire

CAFRE, Co. Antrim

Cranfield University

Duchy College, Cornwall

Easton & Otley College, Norfolk

. Hadlow College, Kent

Harper Adams University, Shropshire

Hartpury College, Gloucester

Herefordshire & Ludlow College

Myerscough College, Lancashire

Plumpton College, Sussex

Reaseheath College, Cheshire

 Scotland’s Rural College, Oatridge Campus

Scotland’s Rural College, Barony Campus

Sparsholt College, Hampshire

Walford & North Shropshire College

Warwickshire College, Pershore

Wiltshire College, Lackham