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AgriCulture Live Podcast Transcript - Episode 3

​AgriCulture Live - Episode 3 with guest Stuart Dennis of BK Grain Handling Engineers
"Attracting Agricultural Engineers to the Sector"

00:00:00 Rebekah

Hello and welcome to AgriCulture Live - to everybody watching, my name's Rebekah Shields. I'm from Agricultural Recruitment Specialists and I'm here today with Stuart Dennis from BK Grain. And we're going to be talking about the shortage of agricultural engineers in the industry. If you've got any questions on this or want to join in, please post your questions in the chat and we'll get to them at the end. So, let's start with Stuart. Stuart, would you like to introduce yourself?

00:00:36 Stuart

Yes, I'm Stuart Dennis. I'm a Director here at BK Grain. Although recently, we are we're trying to expand our services so we're now rebranded under BK Commercial group with various different companies underneath. BK Grain is still our, still our holding company, still the main part of our business. But we do, we do basically a whole bespoke system from floor up, including planning we have 30 members of staff here and we do everything in the agricultural industry for construction and engineering, electrical. We have our own fabrication team, yeah. And basically, we service many farms, not just grain handling, we do cattle buildings, all sorts of buildings, private buildings, offices, workshops. So, as a company we are heavily involved in all thing’s agriculture basically.

00:01:45 Rebekah

Fantastic, so you've got a lot of strings to your bow there then, Stuart?

00:01:50 Stuart

Yes, which is obviously why we to try to keep growing and not too fast so that things go badly wrong and we overstretch ourselves. We've been, as a company - the owners, Bill Bird and his wife Elaine Bird the originals - started the company in 1981 with a guy called Roy Keep and then they bought him out about 10 years later. But as a company we've been very successful in this field since 1981. So, we hope, were the go-to company. We have a lot of competitors, but all of our competitors suffer from the same issues that we do, which is recruitment and stuff.

00:02:40 Rebekah

OK. So, what makes you (just going back to competitors), what makes you stand out from your competitors would you say?

00:02:48 Stuart

Basically, the service we give and especially now you know as a director but also as a salesman and a project manager, I will take a take a proposal, I'll do the drawings, do all the quoting. We're customer facing from start to finish. We run the jobs, we pride ourselves on finishing all of our jobs on time, on budget within, you know some of them do go over budget, but generally you know within time and budget. We're always there. We also offer an engineering service and a breakdown service to our customers, electrical and mechanical. That's 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the summer. So, if any of our farmers have a breakdown on a Friday night, there's none of this “Oh no, they've all gone home, they won't be there till Monday morning”. If my engineers aren't available, I will go out and Bill Bird will go out, Simon Bird will go out. He's the other director. So yeah, we give everything to this business and we give everything to our customers no matter what day, what night.

00:04:07 Rebekah

Fantastic. So today we're going to be talking about the shortage of agricultural engineers. Now, Stuart, there will be what people watching that you know, aren't from a strong agricultural background. So if you can, just start off by just explaining what is agricultural engineering?

00:04:27 Stuart

OK, so agricultural engineering - if you do a course at College. So, there's various ones, and I've tied up with a few Colleges, basically working on agricultural machinery. Now most people and most Colleges target combine harvesters and tractors and all of the Gucci kit that's in fields and so on. Our problem is, there is no course to learn what we do. So, we work on grain dryers, we install silos, elevators and conveyors. Anybody who's been on a farm, especially a grain handling farm, we'll see them all in the roof. They're all these metal structures that that just basically stick up out the ground and move grain around. It's difficult because unless you come from an agricultural background, you would have no idea. But it's always been fairly standard fairly basic stuff, but nowadays, the grain industry is really moving 21st century. Everything is electronic now. The panels are control panels. Everything is much more involved than it ever used to be, where you just press a button on offer and then an elevator would start, then you press another button. We now build all of these units so that if one machine stops, everything else stops behind it, so that you don't have grain continue moving, block up all the machines and then take twice as long to fix the problem because you've got to empty everything out. We are moving forward with control panels and much more, many more electronic items put into these systems now, but it's still, you know for engineers, it's still relatively basic which is which is one of our problems. The other problem is obviously no one knows what we do. I think if people can see us live, the little picture behind me just shows a silo and a dryer outside and conveyor going over the top and that the basic. So on every farm that deals with grain.

00:07:03 Stuart

And it's the majority of our job. Unfortunately, I've been in, I've been with BK graining in this industry now for 15 years I think it's about 15 years to the day they're all thereabouts. Umm, and we, I when I came here, we had 12 engineers. We are now down to six engineers and one engineer running them.

00:07:28 Rebekah

So, if you had to say, you know, so there's two, there's two different types of ag engineers, you'd say, so tell me what the two different types are for people watching.

00:07:40 Stuart

Basically, you've got the easiest way to do it. You've got a mobile engineer, which is a guy that works on mobile plant, which is in in the farming industry. Obviously, you have your combines here and all of your machinery and this is - this is a Gucci part of the job because you've got your lovely combines in the fields, all beautiful. They've broken down again. These guys go out 24 hours a day, seven days a week to fix these machines and this is what they're taught in the majority of Colleges. We've I've done a bit of work with Sparsholt College and we have taken some apprentices from them in the past, where you can do a little bolt on course which then teaches what we do, which is as is, as is fixed machinery.

00:08:30 Rebekah


00:08:30 Stuart

So, it's all the stuff you see in the back. We work on dryers, we work with fire, lots of fire burners because that's how we dry grain, generally oil fire, but we do gas fired as well because we work on farms. We don't need Corgi engineer, we don't need to be Corgi registered, might work up to it. It's done by somebody else. They're called, be registered and then we come in and we can do our bit and we test all of these. We service them yearly to ensure that they're all safe and it's an insurance company provides that all of this kit is, is serviced every year and our engineers go out and do this and we’re trained by certain people. Our engineers literally came off of course on Wednesday and Thursday last week where they went with the suppliers of the equipment and we're taught all the changes that have been made and we do that every year.

00:09:29 Rebekah

So, you’ve got your fixed and mobile machinery is what you are saying in terms of the types?

00:09:32 Stuart

Ours unfortunately are generally, well not unfortunately, generally inside, it's the dusty atmospheres. There are few. Obviously, we have all the protection. Safety aside, I'm a fully qualified health and safety adviser, so that I ensure the safety of our guys via courses, education and then PPE that everything is done right. The only good thing that comes with ours - on a rainy day you can be indoors working, not in a field knee-deep in mud.

00:10:08 Rebekah

So, you will fix machinery. You know, you struggled to recruit agricultural engineers and I think across the industry, whether it's fixed or it's the actual moving machinery, there is a lack of agricultural engineers for jobs. So why do you think there is a lack of agricultural engineers? What's the reason behind it would you say?

00:10:35 Stuart

It's probably the $1,000,000 question and the person that can answer that can do. I think we've got. I think our biggest problem is we've got it we've got a changing workforce so we need, (I'm older you know I've come up, we've been knee deep in it rubbish and dust and just carried on). We have a completely different mindset for the new generation, that that we as an industry now need to change. We need to make sure that everything on farm, farms have generally regarded as very unsafe places. If you look at HSE statistics, more people die on farms than anywhere else. This is not more people, but percentage across the industry because there's not many people.

00:11:23 Rebekah

It’s the most dangerous career path.

00:11:24 Stuart

Its dangerous, yeah, as listed by the HSE. The mindsets changing. The old farm guard obviously are now retiring and I, myself, am not a million miles away, but I've come from a health and safety background. I have a different philosophy to this. We're still having to send guys into places that really they shouldn't be going on occasions, you know we take every precaution because of the lack of money and the lack of investment in certain farms. We've got some very rich farm customers, excuse me, and unfortunately we got some very poor ones.

00:12:15 Rebekah

So obviously the environment might not be good that they're working in and do you think that the younger generation doesn't want to work in that environment? Is that the reason?

00:12:23 Stuart

I, look, unfortunately I’m not in recruitment. I do my best to recruit. I think this is down to somebody on a different pay scale to mine to try and try and work people into this industry. I think our problem is there aren't many people left living in the country that fully appreciates what agriculture does. And so it's not seen as the main. You know engineers want to go into engineering and Gucci engineering obviously starts at rockets, comes down to aerospace, drops down to tanks probably and another Gucci kit like that. And then and then we're at the at the very bottom end then you know we're wherever you go, there's some great engineering jobs and I would guess anyone getting into engineering wants to aim for the top and then unfortunately aspirations and job opportunities lower down. And I think unfortunately we're perceived in our industry as being well, one, people probably don't get agriculture because it's just a field and why would you need an engineer and most people that want jobs - come from towns and the like, they've never seen a farm, so it's not in their, it's not in their psyche, as an engineer, the only people that generally do, the people we've picked up before, fathers have worked in the agricultural industry, so their sons have gone to agricultural College.

00:14:03 Rebekah

It is very much a generational thing, isn't it? Like, I'm not from an agricultural background, but you know, being in this industry, there's so many people and it's just because their family members did it. You know, there aren't many in I think if they did a percentage, I don't think it's a lot that are from non-farming backgrounds you know.

00:14:23 Stuart

No and also when you think with the movement of all of the farm machinery and the rest of it, there's probably a tenth of the people in farming that we're in it 100 years ago. So, we have a much smaller, much smaller audience now that we're trying.

00:14:40 Rebekah

And the thing is as well, Stuart, with that, you've got the, the fact that you know, I know I've been doing agricultural recruitment since probably about 2010 and I've noticed obviously because of the supply and demand situation, you know the salaries for agricultural engineers have just really skyrocketed and I think if people would be asking me for career advice, it wouldn't be a bad sector to go into.

00:15:10 Stuart

Absolutely. And it's the same with a lot of you, you know, a lot of kids now. Some of the best jobs now are the ones that nobody saw was attractive. You know, being a plumber, being an electrician, being a builder - now are attracting some absolutely great salaries. We run, we've got a groundworks division. These are, these guys are earning loads of money for simply sitting on a digger or running around on site and you look at it, you go, wow, I've got to pay that. I'm paying a lot of money for a guy. But these are becoming the jobs that because nobody's doing them and that. I mean our biggest problem is we need people to work unfortunately over the summer, which is when everybody wants to go on their holidays because we have to supply the farmer with because this is how we run our business. So the more guys I could do, the less over can attract the less overtime we've got to go. Last year I had six guys, I only had six. No, I had less than that - 5 engineers last year and those around us throughout all weekend working seven days a week unfortunately now.

00:16:21 Rebekah

I think that's the thing as well, like people having to work weekends, they don't want to do it now, you know, as people want the work life balance more.

00:16:30 Stuart

100% and look and none of your mates were in agriculture, particularly if you're an engineer and work for BK Grain. So, your mates are going out on a Friday night and Saturday night and Sunday and go to watch a football, going to watch rugby, going to watch whatever during the summer and you can't do that because I'm expecting you to work unfortunately. So, what we're trying to do as a business is attract more people and we have to deal with that over the winter because there isn't the work, they're in the winter because it is, it is very much a seasonal job. We have been busy for the last three years. We've been pretty well flat out for three years and there isn't any overtime over the winter. So, your salary changes from earning a small fortune in the in the summer because you can be out. I mean, you know, if you want to you can be out seven days a week, 24 hours a day less, less sleep obviously and safety considerations.

00:17:38 Stuart

You get paid at time and a half and double time on a Sunday. That's the sort of things we offer. You can earn a lot of money in this industry. The problem is only everybody only looks at the bottom line and it's "Ohh I'm only earning £14.00 -£15.00 an hour as an engineer. Well, I can earn, I can go into aerospace and earn £20.00 an hour", but after?

00:18:03 Rebekah

The only light at the end of the tunnel really. Like, you know, as a mum myself, you know, years ago farms were farms and now they've diversified so much and there's so many farm parks that people take their kids to. Absolutely. So a lot of, say, my children's friends, you know, they're into their tractors and stuff and whatever it is, but maybe this generation will look at agriculture more than say we did, you know, I mean, what do you think if it doesn't change, you know, in terms of more people joining to work in agricultural engineering, what does it mean for the future?

00:18:41 Stuart

It means, it's going to. Unfortunately, it's going to die out with our with our generation. So I'm now 57. I've, you know, for 15 years, for the whole summer I worked seven days a week unfortunately, but because that is unfortunately what I've got to do to keep it going because we can't, I can't keep asking engineers to come in all the time. So, if we don't have our workforce and we've got some youngsters and they're and then we've had some really keen youngsters. Unfortunately the apprentices we've had have all given up with us and gone off, obviously they've come from College. I've managed to nab them at one of the Colleges bring them in to us carrying them on as an apprentice but when they finished and their time with us is up, they've all gone back to work on remote machinery, but you're saying that that that struggling as well. I think what we need to do is target the Sparsholt College, Wiltshire Colleges, try and somehow, we need to push these courses.

00:20:02 Rebekah

And how do we do it? How do we do that? What do we do?

00:20:04 Stuart

We've just got make it more attractive. Look, the guys I've got here love what they do. They're out there on a different farm. They're out, majority of it, in different places. All day long you're out in the country, you've got fresh air, you go in somewhere different. You're not in a city, you're not sat in an office. You're not doing the same thing day in, day out. I've guys do, can do 20 different jobs on 20 different things a week. So, the job is good. We have somehow got to sell our industry to youngsters to get them early. The problem is to get them to go to a Lackham College or a Sparsholt College, somebody needs to go in and target them.

00:20:56 Rebekah

I think I think there's a massive issue in schools here, really. You know, agriculture is one of our biggest industries. You know, we don't want to be having to source from loads of other countries for, for stuff that we can do here. And why can't agriculture be on the curriculum? You know, to just like, open it. Open it as an option, you know, because people don't know it's such a closed industry. You know, there's talented people out there that don't know about it.

00:21:29 Stuart

No, absolutely. And if you look at the, I mean if you look at the bigger Colleges, you know, you've got Cirencester, they've got the College there and there's loads of really good what are now Universities purely based on agriculture.

00:21:49 Rebekah

Yes – but it's not enough, is it?

00:21:50 Stuart

No, because unfortunately they only develop the higher skilled people. So they're the farm managers, but also you see the problem is all of those Colleges that because they've now become universities are now diversified and going into of other parts, rather than still concentrating on just agriculture, which they should be. You know, you're an agricultural University, you should be. They're doing holidays. You know I've got I've got friends that have gone through there as a standard degree which we don't need. What they need to be doing is putting, have an engineering course for agriculture so that you can go to a decent, a decent University, and get a decent qualification so that you've got something. The industry is 10 times better than it ever was in the past. We are, we are making those changes. We are.

00:22:49 Rebekah

Do you think this? Sorry, Stuart, do you think there's enough at political level in terms of, you know, our industry and pushing, this maybe even curriculum or interest in it? Do you think that politicians are even closed off and don't know a lot about agriculture themselves?

00:23:10 Stuart

No, the majority, other than your agricultural minister. Unfortunately, the agriculture in this country isn't a great amount of GDP for the country as a whole. And therefore the government aren't going to give anything to that because it doesn't. What it does, what they're what they're shallow about. What it does do is there can be more farm jobs. Look we make we make great wine in this country now vineyards in the last 10 years are growing by the minute. It's all agriculture, all of this putting machinery for this. This is all stuff that that we as a company want to get involved in because now we're starting to get into the much Gucci-er parts of what people, you know. If you say to somebody you want to go and I offer my engineers, do you want to go and do a breakdown on a farm or do you want to go and do a breakdown at a vineyard or a brewery? Because exactly the same. The breweries are coming on stream now and using grain and the rest of it and all the machines, they'll all turn around and go “Oh no, I'll go the brewery” or “I'll go to the vineyard, someone else can go”. But the beauty of it, is we are now as a company doing all of that and our competitors are as well. So what we need to get to this audience, which is what's great about what you're doing at the moment Rebekah, is it allows us to say farming is not just about being a rat infested farm with you know that that's really dangerous, we’re changing all of that. We go out with, our company services 100 farms a year and every time our guys go there, they fill out a risk assessment, they fill out and then they advise I ring up the customer and go right, “I can't fix that machine, it's not safe for my guys to work on.” So we're not working on it anymore - that machine breaks down, you're on your own, you can't intake. So, we need you to do something about it. So, we need to so we're effectively value engineering or safety engineering as we go out.

00:25:23 Rebekah

And then you've got the issue of tackling in terms of the safety aspect. I mean, we've spoke about a lot of the reasons why people wouldn't want to consider it, but what are the real benefits of being an agricultural engineer, would you say Stuart?

00:25:40 Stuart

The real benefits are you have something different every day. You live and work in places where people spend their time walking. Of a weekend, you'll all go out for a lovely walk in the country - we work in that. We work in those you have, you know there's no pollution, there's no we’re working in a lovely environment effectively, sometimes it's a bit smelly because of the sheep involved and the rest but when you stand there and look around, I mean, we do lots of new inner stalls and you take a project and then we build it we put all of this brand new infrastructure in that’s safe, brilliant, and it is just really good. We as a company are really family friendly. We know everybody is a name, not a number. We all work together. The lads have got a good camaraderie, they all bounce off each other. And this is said now, we've got groundworkers, we've got electricians, we've got agriculture engineers, we've got fabricators, we've got Cad designers in the company, we've got all of the office staff based around it. We've got project managers and directors like me and the others and we're all we're happy to chat with the lads. If anyone's got an issue, we will sit down and we will sort it there and then.

00:27:07 Rebekah

Is it easy for people to change from a different industry?

00:27:14 Stuart

We 100% need engineers from outside of agriculture. At the moment, we've got the same pool generally wandering around. So, I still steal a guy off of one of my competitors. My competitors may steal one of my guys later on. Generally, we as a company, because we're deemed a better employer than the rest, because we've got lots of overtime because the scope is in our company, we've got to do more, you have more, we all pay about the same, but we offer you know much more overtime than everybody else. I have the diligence to reign that back a little bit, which we know going forward means we have to put the hourly rate up. But look, if someone's a good engineer, I want good engineers from outside the agricultural field to feed in to make what we do much better because otherwise it's just the same people putting. I know what I do. I know how I do what we do. Somebody could come to me and go, well, why don't we do it like that? Because it's much better. No one will at the moment because we all, we're all set. We've all been doing it for 15/20/25 years. We know how we've done it for that long. We need, we need new blood to come along and go. Well, in this industry, you know, I come from the water industry. I made, I put parts on tanks, but we did this with this and that's what we need, we need to, we need to get out of the pool that we've got and bring them up.

00:28:51 Rebekah

Yeah, definitely.

00:28:53 Stuart

I'm a big stall woofer, especially guys coming out the really ex-military guys job. I'm ex-military myself. I've got a couple of other ex-military guys here. I'm more than happy, I've tried to recruit from military but again it's the same thing. Well, why would I want to come? I do agriculture tanks, I lay bridges, I did this, that and the other. Well, because we want that. We want, we want engineers from different industries to come here and go, we need to start adding new stuff in.

00:29:32 Rebekah

Hmm, absolutely. So, before we look and see if we got any questions, You know, what do you think are the biggest issues for agriculture going forward would you say?

00:29:47 Stuart

The biggest issue is definitely engineering and we, our engineering workforce is ageing now and guys like me leading that.

00:30:00 Rebekah

Generally, the industry is like that. Honestly, Stewart, it is. You know farm managers are ageing, you know all of that stuff and we've got to tackle it and you know hopefully things. I hope that doing things like this will help people look at considering this industry.

00:30:23 Stuart

And just 15 years we can see the death of agricultural engineering.

00:30:29 Rebekah

Because it's very, it's a scary place for us to be, isn't it? I mean, I'm just looking. I mean, we've had so many comments. Thank you so much everybody for, for joining us today. It's great to hear that people have enjoyed this discussion. I think it's a really interesting subject. We could go off in so many different ways with it and it's given me a lot to think about, probably you and I'm sure have viewers as well. So, thank you everybody for joining us today. And thank you Stuart.

00:31:04 Stuart

Thank you.

00:31:07 Rebekah

Absolute pleasure. It's so interesting and if you've got, if, if you're watching or you know listening and you've got an interesting topic in agriculture that you would like to talk about, please get in contact with myself at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists because it be great to have some different people on the show. Thank you so much for joining us everybody again. And all that's left to say is goodbye from us.

00:31:35 Stuart

Thank you and goodbye.

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