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Independent.ie

Saturday 3 December 2016

Moving with the times - a course for farm machinery technicians

The FTMTA and IT Tralee have designed a new course to meet the demand from the farm machinery sector for skilled technicians

Jamie Casey

Published 16/03/2016 | 02:30

The new Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Mechanisation course at IT Tralee aims to better equip technicians with the skills to repair modern farm machinery.
The new Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Mechanisation course at IT Tralee aims to better equip technicians with the skills to repair modern farm machinery.
Student Timmy Buckley gives a free standing A/C system the once over.
IT Tralee mechanisation lecturer Michael O' Callaghan shows students how to analyse diagnostic data on a tractor supplied by local dealer Paudie Buckley.

Not long ago, the right person could fix anything with a vice grips. Now, the first tool on the scene is often the laptop. Even basic machinery is adorned with sensors, digital displays and circuit boards of all descriptions. The last decade has seen huge advances in agriculture.

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Talk of measuring your grass, and having a robot milk your cows seemed far-fetched 10 years ago, but these are common practices nowadays.

Agricultural machinery is moving at an even faster rate, and the day of a mechanic fixing your problems with a lump hammer have well passed.

Most modern agricultural equipment, particularly free standing items such as tractors and harvesters, are equipped with sophisticated Electronic Control Units (ECUs), controlling everything from the suspension to the exact nanosecond an injector opens in a common rail fuel arrangement.

These systems receive an array of information from inputs such as sensors and radar, then go on to compute the results instantaneously, and cause the machine to perform in a certain manner as a result.

While the advances have proven their worth time and again in all aspects of operability - from driver comfort to hugely increased output and efficiency - they are not without their downfall.

Despite the basic operating principles of the internal combustion engine and hydraulic systems not changing a whole lot since the invention of the tractor, the systems governing and controlling them are becoming more and more sophisticated as each new model is produced.

So against this backdrop, what are we doing to ensure that our recently graduated mechanics and technicians are up to the task of diagnosing, resolving and preventing mechanical, electrical and technical issues on machinery with an ever increasing appetite for electronics?

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To find out, I spoke to some of the main stakeholders in the industry.

Up until September 2015, there was just one avenue for anybody wishing to pursue a career as an agricultural mechanic with a recognised qualification.

This was to go down the route of an apprenticeship under SOLAS (formerly FAS). The apprenticeship scheme had a duration of four years, and saw participants spend their time between a working garage, training centres and college (IT Tralee).

They then graduated with a Level 6 NFQ (National Framework of Qualifications) qualification. This scheme had been running successfully since 1981, but in recent years many felt it had become outdated.

A few years ago FTMTA members realised there was a large disparity emerging between the only available training course for agricultural mechanics in Ireland and what was wanted and required by the industry.

As a result, both industry and educational stakeholders came together to develop a new course they felt better serves the needs of industry and produces a highly skilled graduate capable of dealing with the pace of change in modern machinery.

FTMTA chief executive Gary Ryan explains: "To be fair, for a long period of time the old SOLAS apprenticeship sufficiently met the needs of industry.

"However, in recent years it began to lag behind and really we felt it just failed to keep abreast of technical advancements in modern farm tractors and machinery.

"As happens in a lot of courses that are not changed to reflect modern times, the syllabus and curriculum just became outdated very quickly.

"To give an example, we heard of cases where recent graduates were on further training courses overseas, but were shown up to not even understand the basics of some systems, even though they had passed all exams and graduated.

"That's neither a good situation to be in for the graduate nor the industry as a whole.

"At the FTMTA we also had heard of some dealers making it compulsory for their mechanics to train in the UK instead of Ireland - again, something that seemed completely unnecessary for a country that prides itself on having such a talented workforce and being able to boast some world-renowned names in farm machinery like McHale and Keenan."

In an effort to address the skills' shortage, the FTMTA approached SOLAS around four years ago with a view to significantly updating and modernising the taught syllabus of the apprenticeship course.

Some productive meetings were held, but the FTMTA eventually decided to go down a different route.

"We approached the Institute of Technology Tralee with a view to designing a brand new third level course from the ground up," says Mr Ryan.

"Conor Breen (president of FTMTA at the time) approached Dr Joseph Walsh, head of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the Institute of Tralee, to develop a new third level course.

"After agreeing over the need in the first instance, the course was developed with constant input from industry and educational stakeholders. Aside from teaching the mechanical principles of agricultural machinery, it focused heavily on the technical aspects of modern equipment repair.

"At all times in coming up with the new syllabus we said the aim was not to produce a mechanic, but rather a technician whose interest in learning does not cease upon graduation."

Having agreed upon a syllabus, the first batch of students enrolled in the course in September 2015, and will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Mechanisation (Level 7 NFQ) in August 2018. So what is the feedback almost a year in?

Fergal O' Sullivan, head lecturer in agricultural mechanisation, is the main man charged with delivering the course in IT Tralee.

He says the college's intake and output expectations are very high.

"We're looking to enrol a student who is interested in learning and interested in working as part of a team," he said.

"While students will certainly learn about the fundamentals of agricultural mechanisation, this course also looks to delve much deeper into the technical aspects of modern agricultural equipment.

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