John Deere equipment is on display at the Farm Progress Show on Aug 31, 2015 in Decatur, Illinois. (PHOTO / FILE / AP)
Big agricultural and construction equipment manufacturers in the American Midwest are on a mission to lure Silicon Valley tech workers who have been caught up in a wave of hiring freezes and layoffs, executives told Reuters.
Mass layoffs at major tech firms have opened the talent pipeline for Illinois-based Deere & Co – the world's largest tractor maker – and rivals who are eager to add tech workers to their payrolls as they expand into autonomous tractors, mining trucks, and other smart farming technology.
With an abundance of job openings, the companies are offering remote work arrangements and opening new offices in major cities like Austin and Chicago, a potentially attractive draw for workers who don't want to move to smaller Midwestern cities, where many of the companies are based.
The executives said the newly available tech talent could inject much-needed expertise into farm equipment manufacturing, helping to transform the industry through the use of more artificial intelligence and automation.
Detroit automakers are also hiring tech workers to meet the growing software needs of vehicles, auto executives have said.
Historically, it has been difficult for construction and agriculture equipment manufacturers to compete with Silicon Valley compensation packages, Scott Wine, chief executive of CNH Industrial, an American-Italian machinery maker, said in an interview.
CNH hired more than 350 engineers last year, some of whom came from Amazon.com and Microsoft Corp, said Scott Wine, chief executive of CNH Industrial. CNH expects to spend more than $1.4 billion in research and development as the company scales precision agriculture offerings in 2023, he added
"They were sucking so much oxygen out of the air because of their significant budgets," Wine said. "Now, they're not hiring and they're firing – so it just means we're getting a much larger pool of potential candidates that we can call upon."
CNH hired more than 350 engineers last year, some of whom came from Amazon.com and Microsoft Corp, Wine said. CNH expects to spend more than $1.4 billion in research and development as the company scales precision agriculture offerings in 2023, he added.
The combine harvester producer has increased its focus on agriculture in recent years to meet farmers' equipment demand, stacking its tech workforce with highly skilled workers in automation and artificial intelligence.
Building more cutting-edge machinery, such as a driverless tillage tractor, appealed to 54-year-old Mukesh Agarwal who was recruited by CNH from Microsoft in July 2021, before the latest layoffs.
He now works mostly from his home office in Minnesota and leads a team of software engineers as vice-president of precision software and cloud applications development.
"I didn't know much about the ag industry or what CNH did, Agarwal said, admitting that the cultural change was an adjustment during his transition to CNH. "But, I saw a tremendous opportunity to bring science and innovation together."
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In this Sept 18, 2019 photo, a Puckett Machinery Company technician walks past a new heavy duty Caterpillar excavator that awaits modification at Puckett Machinery Company in Flowood, Mississippi. (PHOTO / AP)
Deere's main rival, Irving, Texas-based Caterpillar Inc, is also making a big push to recruit tech talent. New hires in machine learning, computer science, and software engineering were up 30 percent in 2022 from the previous year, Karl Weiss, chief technology officer at Caterpillar, said in an interview.
The manufacturer has invested in digital products to improve construction safety using artificial intelligence. It had roughly 500 open tech jobs in December 2022 and it is looking to fill roles with the outflow of laid-off tech workers, Weiss said.
"The layoffs in the tech community have not been lost on us. We're actively talking to those employees," he said.
To boost recruiting efforts, Caterpillar exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show – an annual technology trade show in Las Vegas – in-person for the first time last month. Deere was also there, trying to recruit new talent.
Attendees got to see first-hand how machinery giants are merging heavy metal with technology. In one demonstration, an excavator 2,580 km away at one of Caterpillar's Illinois plants was operated by someone using a remote operator station and joysticks.
Tech talent purge
Thousands of workers have left or been laid off from tech giants Amazon, Microsoft and Meta Platforms Inc during the biggest purge of tech talent since the dot-com crash of the late 1990s.
Large tech companies shed more than 150,000 workers in 2022, according to tracking site Layoffs.fyi. During the COVID-19 pandemic, big tech firms hired aggressively to capitalize on advertising dollars as lockdowns prompted a surge in social media use and online purchases.
Layoffs at West Coast-based technology companies have coincided with Deere and CNH boosting investment in artificial intelligence and precision agriculture products, such as automated fertilizer applicators, that they hope to sell to farmers who are trying to boost food production at a time of global shortages
Layoffs at West Coast-based technology companies have coincided with Deere and CNH boosting investment in artificial intelligence and precision agriculture products, such as automated fertilizer applicators, that they hope to sell to farmers who are trying to boost food production at a time of global shortages.
While the availability of tech workers is plentiful now, industry experts say the hiring window is short for companies to reel in tech workers who also have opportunities at startups.
"Companies really need to jump into action," said Michael Solomon, co-founder at 10x Management, a compensation negotiation agency for senior tech talent. "It's a really great opportunity, but I don't think it's going to last long."
Working from home was once a rare phenomenon at more traditional companies like Deere, but is now more common. And, in some cases, the companies are willing to let workers stay in their current cities rather than relocating.
The goal is to offer prospective employees the best of both worlds: work from home or come to a city office that more closely resembles a Silicon Valley tech campus.
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Deere has its global headquarters in the small city of Moline, about 265 km west of Chicago, but opening a tech hub in Chicago's trendy West Loop neighborhood last year has helped it be more visible to prospective job candidates who want to live in metro areas.
The new office, which neighbors the corporate location of Alphabet Inc's Google in the Windy City, mimics the atmosphere of many startups with unlimited snacks and beer, standing desks, and a gameroom. The amenities aim to attract tech workers.
In an acknowledgement that not all tech workers want to relocate to the Midwest, Deere is also hiring employees in Austin, Texas, where it opened an "Innovation Hub" in 2022 and in San Francisco, where it has had an office since 2017, said Johane Domersant, global director of talent at Deere.
Previously, Deere would have required new employees to relocate to the Midwest, likely to Iowa or Moline.
"We are going to go where the talent is and that is a different strategic bent that we wouldn't have done in the past," Domersant said.