'The number of jobs in ag engineering is serious' - Lecturer says industry looking every week for people

Colleges are now offering a new broader choice of course to allow students to kickstart their careers in agriculture

Fergal O'Sullivan
Fergal O'Sullivan
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

Born and raised on a farm in Castleisland, Co Kerry, Fergal O'Sullivan was always fascinated with farm machinery.

He combined his two loves, farming and engineering, in his career and lectures on the Degree programme in Agricultural Mechanisation at IT Tralee.

After sitting his Leaving Cert, Fergal studied Agricultural Engineering at Tralee Regional Technical College, as it was at the time, before a degree programme was on offer.

He furthered his studies at Harper Adams University in the UK, gaining his degree, before working for a while in the UK with John Deere, followed by a period as a test engineer in France.

He returned to Ireland and gained more industry experience working for Matt Buckley Tractor Spares in Mullingar before the opportunity arose at IT Tralee.

"In my opinion, anyone thinking of lecturing should have worked in that field," he says.

"In my case, it stands to me that I did work for John Deere and Mattt Buckley and when I started lecturing first, I also worked part-time for McCarthy Engine Spares.

"So on the one hand, I was in college talking about it but at work doing it, so I have built up a huge amount of knowledge."

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He feels it's important students know that he knows the industry inside and out, and who the main players are.

"There's no day the same as a college lecturer. I deliver modules in Precision Farming, Hydraulics, Engines, Transmissions and Electrics," he says, adding that the course is a mixture of about 70pc practical to 30pc theory.

He can't stress strongly enough the job opportunities there are for graduates.

"The number of jobs in the ag engineering sector is serious. We have contacts in industry coming in every week looking for people," he said.

He's also an advocate for more women to get involved in engineering and to consider the huge career opportunities in agricultural engineering.

Courses help you to become outstanding in your field...

IT IS a sure sign of growing confidence in the agricultural sector that Institutes of Technology around the country have added to the number of courses available to undergraduates.

Apart from traditional Agricultural Science programmes, ITs have broadened the scope of their offering to encompass a broader range of courses covering the wider aspects of the industry, including Agricultural Mechanics, Engineering, Farm Business Management and Environmental Management.

Farming Independent takes a look at some of the new options that have come on stream and that offer students an industry-focused qualification to start their careers.

Mechanical and agricultural Engineering

Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology

With agricultural machinery manufacturing plants like McHale and Major Equipment in the region, it was no wonder that Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology has developed a degree programme in mechanical and agricultural engineering.

The new course is delivered through GMIT'S School of Engineering, based at its Galway campus, and at Mountbellew Agricultural College.

Dr Carine Gathon, Head of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department at GMIT says the course was developed following an industry survey that identified a need for it.

She says there was also strong demand from students, both at second level and in Mountbellew, for a third-level course that specifically focused on agricultural engineering.

"We have a lot of students from a farming background who seek employment from companies like McHale," Dr Gathon adds.

Dr Oliver Mulryan is head of the Mechanical and Agricultural Engineering (Level 7 and 8) programmes at GMIT.

He says the idea was spurned on by the 2013 UK launch of an agricultural technology strategy with a vision for the UK to become a leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability.

"The agri-food sector is Ireland's most important indigenous manufacturing sector, accounting for the employment of around 1.5 million people," Dr Mulryan notes.

"There were a lot of companies coming to us in relation to the actual skill-sets of students for potential employment and they believed the best student for the design of agricultural machinery would be students from a rural or farming background."

A total of 18 students were taken on in the first year of the programme from Galway and bordering counties, including Mayo, Sligo, Westmeath and Tipperary.

"All the students are from a farming background and all their lives they've been looking at agricultural machinery and they're bringing that learning with them to the programme.

"They might not know the engineering side but they're already familiar with the technology involved in farming machinery and they're extremely interested in learning about it," Dr Mulryan adds.

Lectures are common for both the Level 7 and 8 programmes and at the end of year three, Level 7 students can opt to remain for a year and stay on for the degree.

There is a minimum O4 mathematics requirement to enter the programme and Dr Gathon estimates it will require about 300 points through the CAO this year. The cut-off points for the programme last year was 290.

However, Dr Mulryan says the intention is to keep the number of students at around the same level.

"We want to keep the numbers small to build up a rapport with our students. I know everyone very well and the students know me and we have a good relationship for learning on the programme," he says.

The Agricultural Engineering programme is divided into three areas of learning: agricultural systems design, manufacture, and agricultural and environmental systems.

"These traditional scientific streams of learning provide the students with career opportunities in the design of agricultural systems, ie agriculture, forestry, horticulture and feeding mechanisations, in order to manage food resources, reduce labour and improve productivity, while raising the standard of living for the farmer," Dr Mulryan adds.

Work placement is embedded into the programme and in year three there's an opportunity for participants to complete six months in the agricultural engineering sector.

"The programme leverages the expertise and physical resources of the two institutions GMIT and Mountbellew," he says.

Dr Mulryan says the whole area of agricultural engineering was an emerging sector with varied employment prospects in a number of areas, including tractor design, tillage machinery, harvesting equipment, crop processing, animal welfare, handling, transport, irrigation, drainage, earth moving equipment, forestry and horticultural machines.

GMIT is also looking into how students can complete their Green Cert as part of the course, and developing a mechanism where it is incorporated into the Level 7 and 8 programmes.

B Sc in Agricultural Mechanisation

IT Tralee

IT Tralee has been delivering programmes in Agricultural Engineering for over 40 years.

Before the college became a Regional Technical College (RTC) the first programmes offered were in the area of agricultural machinery. The college was established to train farmers' sons and daughters about machinery so that's our roots, says Dr Joseph Walsh, Head of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

"On foot of that, we are the National Centre for Agricultural Engineering in Ireland," he says.

The college offers a wide portfolio of agricultural courses, ranging from Agricultural Engineering to Agricultural Science to Agricultural Mechanisation, delivered in conjunction with the Farm and Tractor Machinery Trade Association (FTMTA), which has over 200 members.

"As well as our agricultural courses, we are the only provider of an apprenticeship in Agricultural Mechanics in Ireland," Dr Walsh adds.

"A lot or our past students would now be employed in members' firms, which would include dealers and garages that would be partners of the FTMTA.

"They liaised with us and asked us to develop a particular programme, which would be delivered to ordinary degree level, in a format like an apprenticeship, where they would come into us for three months and go out to the dealers or garages for nine months to do their hands on practical.

"The FTMTA saw the benefit for their members that we would be training students in the newer skills around software implementation and electronics that is now required and is a function of all agricultural equipment from tractors to agrictech equipment like balers, combine harvesters etc."

The programme is a BSc in Agricultural Mechanisation, delivered in a structure that resembles an apprenticeship.

Three months of structured lectures is followed by nine months hands-on experience with the sponsor, repeated in years two and three of the programme.

Students can't apply through the CAO. A direct application is made to IT Tralee and applicants are only allowed on the programme if they have secured a sponsor.

The programme started three years ago and the first 16 graduates will receive their degrees this autumn.

Many of the students are from a farming or plant hire background but most have just completed their Leaving Cert and want to explore the opportunities to train and upskill in the agricultural machinery area.

"It's an area where there are jobs in Ireland, right across the UK and globally," Dr Walsh adds.

If a candidate has performed well with the sponsor, there's an immediate route for employment there. However, there is no obligation on the sponsor to offer full-time employment and the student is open to other positions.

"The programme was developed in collaboration with the FTMTA so it really is an industry-led programme.

"As newer technologies are coming on stream we have the ability to constantly review that, in consultation with the FTMTA, to bring any new technologies that have come on stream and embed those into the programme," he says.

B Sc (Hons) in Agriculture (With degree award options in Animal and Crop Science or Environmental Management)

Letterkenny IT

This degree programme is a new addition to the offering at LYIT with the first students graduating in 2018.

The course is aimed at anyone interested in pursuing a career in agriculture.

Some have entered directly from secondary school, others returning to education from a working environment while some students have transferred from other Agriculture Institutes from Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"The course appeals to all types of students, regardless of whether they have any prior agricultural experience," says Dr Joanne Gallagher, Head of the Department of Science.

"Currently we have students studying on our programme who do not have a family farm, however they have an interest and passion for agriculture."

This is the first year the course will be offered through the CAO and it is estimated the minimum entry requirement will be in excess of 305 points.

Graduates can obtain employment within the agriculture and agri-food industries or continue their education to Masters or Doctoral level.

"We offer student-centred programmes with small class sizes and a focus on practical skills, leading to an enhanced student experience," Dr Gallagher adds.

"In addition the inclusion of a full semester work placement in year two gives students operational experience of a working farm and related agricultural businesses, which will in turn enhance their employability and future career prospects."

First year students spend up to 40pc of their time in both farm and laboratory-based practical classes, delivered on local farms which include commercial sheep, beef and dairy enterprises. Students also regularly travel to specialised agricultural enterprises and related industries throughout the country to experience best practice in operation.

"LYIT's focus on student-centred programmes coupled with work placement in a friendly atmosphere, affordable accommodation and good transport links makes it an excellent location to study agriculture," Dr Gallagher says.

Sustainable farm management and agribusiness

IT Carlow (Delivered at Wexford campus)

The idea of training students to degree level in Sustainable Farm Management and Agribusiness was first mooted by Wexford IFA, which saw a need for a course specifically aimed at running the farm as a business in the south-east.

Carlow Institute of Technology was like-minded and resolved to deliver the course through its Wexford campus. Now in its second year, students can undertake either the Level 7 programme for three years or the four-year Level 8 Sustainable Farm Management and Agribusiness degree programme.

Programme Director Dr Stephen Whelan says most of the entrants to the programme are from a farming background with a long-term goal of being involved in the running of the farm.

"They're always keeping an eye on off-farm employment as well," Dr Whelan says.

The three or four-year programme content is a mixture between science and business subjects.

"We cover farm business management in first year, farm financial accounting in second year and quite a few business-related subjects throughout the entire four years, including rural entrepreneurship and aspects of agribusiness law and succession planning," Dr Whelan adds.

The science side occupies about 50pc of the course content but having studied Agricultural Science to Leaving Cert is not a prerequisite. Subjects covered in the programme include Agricultural Chemistry and Physics and Animal and Plant Biology.

"Having studied Agricultural Science or any science for that matter is not a requirement but about 90pc of the students have studied Agricultural Science and some will have Chemistry or Biology as well," he says.

Dr Whelan notes it was the IFA in Wexford that first proposed the development of the Sustainable Farm Management and Agribusiness programme so the course had developed, literally, from the ground up.

"IT Carlow was considering it and the IFA actually developed a business plan for it which proved there was demand in the south-east and that it could be rolled out here.

"The college then took it on and started building the programme as something different than what would be on offer at UCD or Waterford IT, for example, which are only an hour away from Carlow.

The course is delivered in Wexford town, which has a campus that includes around 1,000 students involved in full-time and lifelong learning programmes.

The Sustainable Farm Management and Agribusiness degree programme has a capacity for around 30 students. Currently, there are 12 in second year and 20 in first year, with numbers expected to grow as its reputation expands.

"We also have an option for people with a Level 6 qualification from Teagasc or elsewhere to come into the programme in second year.

"This is aimed at people who might have got a flavour for agriculture but would like to continue their studies before returning to farming," he said.

Dr Whelan says the programme's unique selling point is the hybrid between the course's business and science offering.

"There isn't really another course that offers that 50/50 mix and a farm has to be sustainable from a business point of view but you also have to understand the scientific aspects of it," he added.

Carlow IT is also examining the possibility of making some of the business modules of the course available through its lifelong learning programmes, tailoring it towards other people in a farm family who may be interested in getting involved in the farm business.

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