Since the 1980s, Yuma, Colorado–based Agri-Inject has been a leader in manufacturing products for chemigation, which is the use of mobile irrigation systems to apply fertilizer and chemicals in liquid form. Agri-Inject, however, is also a leader in public outreach. The company brings local students into its facilities for tours and simulations and also provides opportunities for internships.
In this interview, Erik Tribelhorn, the chief executive officer of Agri-Inject, speaks with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about how Agri-Inject is using outreach and internship programs to train up the next generation of ag manufacturers.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about Agri-Inject’s public outreach initiatives.
Erik Tribelhorn: Over the last few years, we have taken the initiative to let our local community know what we do. A lot of folks in our small town don’t understand who we are, that we are a manufacturing business, what manufacturing means, what our products do, or where around the world those products go.
To address those problems, we’ve held tours and educational sessions for students and teachers, including a manufacturing simulation for students to teach them how lean manufacturing or one-piece flow works.
We have a group of students coming in from a nearby school that has an overall K–12 enrollment of about 70 kids. They have signed up with a program called “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” They choose a local manufacturing company, do an intensive tour, and then create a video in which they describe the company and how it manufactures its products.
I’m also working with the local school here in Yuma. Six students are going to come over and look at the production cell where we build pipe-fitting assemblies. They will study, observe, and perform the production techniques and then use an online computer-aided design (CAD) product called Onshape to develop jigs and fixtures and different tools that we can potentially use to improve the cell’s productivity and quality standards. Working with students in this way is challenging in that it takes us out of our routine and requires our employees’ time, but it always turns out to be rewarding. Plus, the students who visit us today may be our most valuable employees in the future.
My background—I attended college for several years but moved on to the professional world without a degree—allows me to tell students that college isn’t for everybody, and that if you can think creatively and critically, solve problems, work well with others, and add value to an organization and its customers, you can be successful without a degree. You can also create your own organization where you’re adding value to customers. Unless I’m hiring for a really technical position, I look for those skills before I check what kind of degree an applicant has.
Kris Polly: Do you send the students home with anything?
Erik Tribelhorn: I want to give them something useful, so I hand out six-in-one screwdrivers, with small and large flat- blade and Phillips-head screwdrivers and two nut drivers.
Since we have shown them some of the things that you can do and build with manufacturing tools and equipment, we send them home with a tool that will be useful for them and their family. We tell them, “Be constructive with it. When you repair something, remember the impact that those skills can have, and remember that if you apply those skills in a manufacturing business, you can find a job in that industry—maybe with us!”
Kris Polly: Do you have internship programs as well?
Erik Tribelhorn: We did a high school internship a couple years ago through a program that was partially funded by the state. Our intern, a high school senior, had no CAD background but was interested in going into engineering. I showed him how to use OnShape for about 15 minutes and then told him, “Go online; the company offers plenty of tutorials.” He spent a week doing that and then worked that entire summer doing 3D modeling of bill-of-material breakouts for us. He has come back during his winter and spring breaks from college to continue that work for us. It’s high-value work; he’s likely going to be a valuable employee for us someday.
Here is another example of how outreach, employment, and training intersect. We have a valuable staff member named Morgan Spencer. She started with us 6 years ago in a temporary position working in our assembly area.
She worked her way into the position of lead assembly technician within a couple years. Later, based on expanding needs in our rotational molding cell, Morgan migrated into the lead position in that department, which is hot, hard, physical work, and was completely outside her experience level at the time. She nevertheless quickly became our inside expert. About 2 years ago, we moved her into a purchasing agent position, and now she leads our lean manufacturing efforts.
For the last 2 years, she has been working with a project called Girls Only, which is put on by a local community college in Fort Morgan, Colorado. She presents on the topic of women in manufacturing to groups of eigth grade girls—four groups of 20 students per day. She also conducts our in-house designed manufacturing simulation, in which students compete in teams building an Agri- Inject product. One team does it the old way, in a batch method; the other team builds the product in a process called one piece flow. We measure quality, throughput, order fulfillment, and labor optimization. It’s a real learning experience, and a great method of outreach.