Opportunities for ag retailer employee skills-development can be hard to find and generally costly in time and travel. According to a recent survey by Beck Ag of ag retail managers from across the U.S., almost half of those who responded said training opportunities are hard to find, and of the opportunities that do exist, the options vary widely in necessary investment.

The survey found that formal, off-site training provided by companies like ABG and opportunities from the Agricultural Retailers Association earn praise. While retailers said these opportunities can be very useful, dedicating the time and money to attend them isn't always feasible.

Another option retailers listed were training opportunities available from individual ag companies that don't always give a lot of information on anything other than the products they sell. Gordon Cockrum of the McGregor Company, Colfax, Wash., said training offerings are often connected to the profits of supply companies because with "the fall in profitability for many chemical companies, business training can be hard to find."

In general, the main product training surviving is for unique new products. Sales representative work overload has had companies looking for mass training systems.

Mosaic Training Example
It is only when companies introduce truly novel products that full-fledged training programs are normally conducted. Mosaic Company's introduction of MicroEssentials fertilizer products (phosphate-based fertilizer with appropriate ratios of sulfur, zinc and nitrogen in each granule) was recently determined to require a full education program about product benefits along with support for the sales process.

The product is touted as unlike anything else introduced in the fertilizer business for the past 40 years. The company decided e-learning modules would be the best training option to support retailers. The two interactive online training courses are available within retailer resources found on the www.microessentials.com Web site to allow 24 hours, seven days a week training. An ending test helps evaluate understanding of the information presented.

"The courses are designed to supplement the face-to-face MicroEssentials training available from Mosaic," said Gordon McKenzie, Mosaic director of sales for Western North America.

Just like Beck Ag's survey found, Mosaic has determined training a large number of personnel without expensive travel is appreciated by their retailer customers.

FMC Trains in Wider Skills
Although off-site and online product-based training have their merits, an expanded program of courses and wider subject matter is a different option that some retailers have taken advantage of in recent years by participating in the FMC Business Academy. Initiated by FMC more than four years ago, the Business Academy offers FMC Star Retailers elements of internet-based learning and live training in an interactive format where they can discuss immediate issues and apply the knowledge they gain from interacting with peers and course instructors.

"The FMC Business Academy was developed to differentiate FMC in the marketplace by providing services to retailers that add value to targeted customers," said Adam Prestegord, product manager for FMC.

Unlike other training options, the Business Academy takes place over the phone or via Web conference. Each class features a subject-matter expert and a moderator with experience in agriculture to facilitate peer interaction, not a monologue from a trainer. This way retailers can learn from each others' experiences.

The potential audience for the Business Academy consists of approximately 1,800 ag retailers identified by FMC, ranging from national companies to independents all across the country. Although FMC has provided the funding, direction and overview of the implementation of the program to ensure results, Beck Ag has created, implemented and measured the academy, which allows for third-party credibility for FMC. Participation is managed to meet FMC's established budget, and online seats are filled on a first come, first serve basis.

"Just listening to others and finding out that no matter where you are, the problems are the same is something that the Business Academy provides that no one else does," said Gordon Sondeland from Simplot Grower Solutions, Langdon, N.D.

Some examples of Business Academy classes in high demand include: Selling Value, Business Basics, Handling Objections, and Interpersonal Skills. Specific classes on management and in technical areas such as precision ag and sprayer application have also filled a need. Of course, some class offerings focus on FMC's products. Beck Ag continually surveys retailers to find out what topics are "hot" in order to provide classes that retailers want and need.

For more than four years, Beck Ag's surveying has also showed that more than 90 percent of those who have participated in the academy said that they would recommend the academy to others. And while participants find the classes valuable, FMC is building business without overtly positioning their interests. Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents who have participated in a class in the past year said it improved or significantly improved their perception of FMC.

"We've been taking Business Academy classes for three years, and it has made a difference in our support of FMC. They have products that fit well for our area, but we appreciate that FMC has invested in our business," said Rusty Craig of Home Oil Company, Dell, Ark.

Besides acknowledging the investment FMC makes in the Business Academy, retailers say the Business Academy simply puts FMC and their products top-of-mind and allows them to become more familiar with the company and their product offerings.

Skills Development Pays Off
According to The Center for Workforce Success, employers should invest at least 3 percent of payroll, whenever possible, to provide training opportunities for their current employees. And with the economic downturn recently, some retailers say that brushing up on basics and coming together as a team for training only helps productivity and team work for the long haul.

"As much as anything, the opportunity for our team to participate together helps us to learn about our co-workers and helps us develop into a better team," said Jerry Bremer, of Ag Service, Grand Island, Neb.

And while time is often hard to come by in agriculture, the bottom line is that skills development and training opportunities have value for anyone, regardless of years on the job or company profitability.

"Knowledge is power, and anything I can do to build my skills is good. No matter how many years of experience you have in your job, we can all use classes to learn again what we tend to forget. We have a tendency to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of our careers and forget to go back and focus on the basics for a while," said Justin Davis, of CPS, Batesville, Miss.