Agco is launching an apprenticeship program at its Jackson, Minn., tractor manufacturing plant to train and recruit badly needed electrical mechanics and welders.

The program, fueled in part by state incentives, will start with four apprentices and grow to 20, officials said.

Some of those hired will be trained to program or repair the company's large, high-tech and customized agricultural machinery. Others will be trained to work on many of the robotic assembly systems that help build Agco's massive and complex farm vehicles.

Officials from Agco and the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) kick off the new program Wednesday at a ceremony in Jackson.

The state will pay Agco $5,000 for each apprentice the Georgia-based manufacturer hires in Minnesota.

The $5,000 payments are part of a larger Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, which is co-developed by DLI and by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Officials said the goal is to help at least 100 Minnesota employers recruit, train and retain 1,000 new apprentices in the fields of advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care, information technology and transportation.

The program is growing and now includes companies such as Uponor North America in Apple Valley; Viracon building glass maker in Owatonna; Mechanical Systems Inc. in Dundas; Owens Corning asphalt/roofing factory in Minneapolis; and K&G Manufacturing in Faribault.

John Aiken, the DLI's director of apprenticeship and labor standards, said the state hopes to bring to these and other companies the types of successful apprenticeship programs that exist in the construction field.

"It drives employment," fills employer vacancies and gives workers skills that last a lifetime, Aiken said.

By working with the state, Agco will get help designing its apprenticeship program. The goal is to make sure workers in training get the specific skills and job-related instruction that the company needs.

DLI Commissioner Ken Peterson noted that such partnerships are particularly important now, when it's hard to find skilled workers, especially in rural communities.

Agco sits amid cornfields and a winding river in southwest Minnesota. The Jackson area has a surprising array of industries but is often so starved for workers that it plucks candidates living 80 to 90 miles away. Agco scrambles to find manufacturing talent along with Toro in Windom and Polaris Industries in Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Adding the apprenticeship program is one more tool that should help attract and retain workers, state and company officials said.

"In all skilled occupations across Minnesota, employers are seeking solutions to train new and existing workers for today's more technical jobs," Peterson said. "Apprenticeships can be a proactive and productive solution to address this need."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725