MAY THE SALES FORCE BE WITH YOU
BY CRAIG LESTER • PHOTO COURTESY OF UFA
The chronic agricultural labour shortage shows no signs of abating. Without a sufficient talent pipeline, even the agricultural retail sector has suffered. Working to alleviate the problem with the assistance of industry partners, Lakeland College has developed an innovative apprenticeship program that will prepare students for agri-sales careers. The institution’s agri-sales and customer relations certificate program is intended to produce sales professionals who possess in-demand skills.
Launched at the beginning of January, the 12-month program combines online study with on-the-job training. This includes 1,100 hours of mentorship in the form of work placements. These practical placements allow students to earn while they learn and gain valuable job experience. Should the student already be employed in agricultural sales, they can apply their studies to the existing position. “It’s a cool new delivery style that we are excited to explore,” said Geoff Brown, dean of the school’s Agricultural Sciences department.
Each of the program’s six learning modules take approximately eight weeks to complete. These cover topics such as professional conduct, sales orientation, ethics and the importance of understanding and representing your company’s brand.
The program was created in response to a call for proposals from post-secondary facilities by the Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education. The Province required an apprenticeship-style delivery model in which 50 per cent of learning would occur on the job.
Coincidentally, the request came while the Lakeland College industry advisory board was in discussions about how to better serve the needs of the agricultural community. The board determined an adequate introductory sales training program simply did not exist, which created an opportunity for the College to provide a solution.
Board member Brett Yeske is UFA’s director of sales and service for agribusiness. The farm co-operative offered a letter of support for the initiative. As a project partner, it has been a driving force in the program’s creation. Yeske believes the sales program will present graduates with a range of appealing opportunities in agricultural sales. “It’s certainly an area where UFA and the industry as a whole are looking for people,” said Yeske.
Lakeland agri-sales program director Cole Ambrock welcomes UFA as a voice for the province’s product and service sector. “Having their eyes, focus and opinions on what a good salesperson entails from a 360-degree view is critical to the program’s success.” The program offers students a learning experience uniquely tailored to the needs of the agricultural industry, he added. Students are more likely to excel when they are well informed of industry developments, attuned to farm terminology and simply aware of the general agricultural environment.
THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE
Jenna Tymko grew up on a cattle and grain farm about 20 minutes north of Westlock. She has worked for UFA as a full-time crop technician since she graduated from high school in 2018. She also worked in a summer position for the company as a crop technician assistant while studying in the Lakeland Crop Technology program, which she graduated from in 2021. Tymko was one of several UFA employees involved in brainstorming sessions that shaped the program’s content. Now, she is one of the initial six students earning the new certificate.
The program requires an estimated four hours of course work per week, which includes reading and video materials, but Tymko said she manages to complete her assignments in about half that time.
The best salespeople are good listeners and strong communicators. This allows them to satisfy the needs of the customer whether they sell a combine, GPS or feed supplements. The Lakeland program focuses on such basic sales skills. Students learn how to promote and sell products and services as well as to negotiate with existing customers and locate new ones.
Working in the agriculture industry, certain times of the year tend to be very hectic. The program is structured with the working student in mind. Students work at their own pace, but within deadlines. “It is built with some buffer time to allow for life events, busy seasons and anything that may come up,” said Ambrock.
This gives students like Tymko peace of mind. She knows her instructors will understand that during seeding, calving and harvest, when farm retailers are very busy, her assignments may come in late. “It allows me to leave it for a couple of weeks and go back and get it done when I have time.”
Students move on to the next module only once they have completed the requirements of the previous one. Instructors track their progress and provide ongoing feedback. This helps students maximize their learning experience as they develop skills and knowledge, said Ambrock. “The lifelong learner in each of them will be inspired and encourage them to bring best practices to the table when working.”
“I wanted to expand my knowledge and skills in sales to give myself every advantage I can while I’m working and out in the field,” said Tymko, echoing Ambrock. The program allows her to apply what she has learned in her studies in real-life circumstances almost immediately, she added. “Say a customer comes into UFA today; I can ask myself, ‘What did I learn yesterday that I could try out on this customer?’”
While all students are under 25, she said the program is not directed exclusively toward young adults. “It’s a good program to take, no matter what age you are or what experience you have.”
The program was launched at a time of tremendous growth for Lakeland College, which has more than doubled enrolment over the past decade. Brown believes this is an exciting opportunity given the significant shortage of skilled workers in the agriculture sector. “This program will work to get qualified people into the industry and offer innovative ways of training.”
The next agri-sales and customer relations student intake is scheduled for early July 2023.
For more information about the agri-sales and customer relations certificate program, visit lakelandcollege.ca.