Diesel Truck and Bus Technicians

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Trucks haul the nation's freight from seaports, rail yards, and airports to the point of use. One of the most complex impressive mechanisms on the road is the Class 8 tractor trailer rig. The diesel engine and drive train that powers this vehicle has to pull thirty three thousand pounds and more along the highway, over the mountains, and through the desert if called on to do so. If it's going to last five hundred thousand miles or more that its owners expect from it, it's going to need to be in good repair. Keeping the nation's truck fleets running is a full time job in this era of just- in-time inventory and national distribution of merchandise. For those who are up to the challenge, it can be a good career, and demand is high.

TRUCK AND BUS TECHNICIAN

Truck and bus technicians who work for truck fleet operations spend much of their time doing maintenance and routine services to ensure that the vehicles do not break down on the road. Maintenance checks usually involve inspection of fluids, steering mechanisms, brakes, wheel bearings, and other important parts. Items that cannot be adjusted or repaired are replaced.



Most truck and bus mechanics are generalists, but in some of the larger fleet shops they may specialize. Sometimes the technicians work as teams.

Since parts on trucks and buses are usually quite a bit larger than similar parts found on cars, the work is harder and takes a bit more muscle. But technicians often can work in teams or with apprentices to get the job done.

Most jobs for truck and bus technicians are found in large metropolitan areas, but there is a great need to staff the numerous truck stops and dealer-ships across the country.

Almost all fleet vehicles are built to the company's specifications, and it is usually the job of the head mechanic to select engine, transmission lights, and even the type of bolts to be used. The head mechanic also determines how the various parts should be installed to make the servicing job faster and easier and to keep downtime to a minimum. The truck manufacturer builds the vehicles to this person's specifications.

There were 255,000 diesel mechanics in 1998. Most ply their trade as truck and bus mechanics. The majority of the truck mechanics work for fleet shops that serve companies large and small, from over-the-road trucking firms, to bakeries and delivery services. Other options are municipal fleets, with their plows, forestry, and streets and sanitation vehicles, distributors, wholesalers and so on. Of the estimated twenty five thousand bus mechanics, most work for local transit companies and school bus companies. School bus technicians are a special segment of the craft, and starting in 1996, they were recognized by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) with a separate certification.

DIESEL SPECIALIST

Almost everything about the diesel engine is the same as a gasoline engine except for the ignition system. There are no spark plugs, but there are glow plugs. There is no ignition distributor, but there is a fuel distributor.

Diesel specialists use all the same basic hand tools as any other type of technician, but they also will employ different diagnostic equipment for service.

They use jacks and hoists, which help them to cope with heavy parts. Machinists will use lathes and grinding equipment to rebuild engines, brakes, and other systems. Welding and flame cutting tools help with metal work, such as replacing exhaust systems.

WHERE DIESEL/TRUCK TECHNICIANS WORK

They usually work in a bigger shop, with more room for the heavy trucks. The work is mostly indoors, except if they're called out to repair a truck on the road. According to Heavy Truck Systems, by Ian Norman, et al. (Albany, NY: Delmar Publishing, 1996), nearly 40 percent of the trucks in the country are part of large fleets of more than five hundred trucks. Many more are owned by small companies.  Fleets of one hundred or fewer cover half of all trucks fleets of ten or fewer account for about 20 percent. The owner operator is a lesser factor, with about 1 to 5 percent of the marketplace. In a larger shop, there's more specialization among the technicians. In small shops, technicians have to do many tasks, from repair to preventive maintenance.

Because the working life of a truck is so demanding, it is kept on a rigorous maintenance schedule, with checklists and overhauls carefully planned. In large shops, service managers or shop supervisors give assignments to each technician. The supervisors help diagnose the problems and plan repairs, so that quality standards can be met. Electronic diagnostics are making that part of the job easier, once the technician is familiar with the computer and its software.

TRAINING

Because trucks and diesels are a special class of engines, and because they can be part of complex systems in tractor-trailer vehicles, training is specialized. Some high schools offer diesel engine training, but more often the advanced training is given at the community college level. Diesel engine companies help sponsor these programs, as well as continuing education efforts. The trucking companies themselves train technicians on their own customized fleet. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) in Herndon, VA, handles voluntary certification programs for new graduates and recertification of working technicians every few years.

Many college technical education programs are on the lookout for good students. Enrollment and progress in a certificate program can lead quickly to an internship or an apprenticeship with a local shop. A six-month to two year program is a good start, with a certificate or an associate degree. Then there's a period of on the job training or apprenticeship. In the shop, beginners clean parts at the wash rack and fuel and grease trucks and trailers. They work their way up to the tougher and more interesting repairs. A commercial driver's license is required to test-drive the trucks.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a journeyman truck technician has usually spent at least three or four years working up to the more difficult tasks. Professionals say that high school students should try to take courses in math and physics and electronics if they're offered, not just automotive repair, if they want to be ready for the intensive truck training that's needed with today's fleets. Good reading skills help, too, when trying to digest a variety of service manuals, software instructions, and so on. Practical experience with automobile repair at a gas station, in the military, or at home is considered a big plus.

Blackhawk Technical College in Wisconsin is one school that offers a program for Diesel and Heavy Equipment Technician. "The program is classroom and shop training in diesel shop practice, diesel engine principles, diesel engine overhaul, fuel systems, heavy duty hydraulic and electrical systems, and diesel engine auxiliary systems," says the school's course description. Graduates have gone on to be engine maintenance specialists, tune-up mechanics, farm equipment mechanics, as well as truck mechanics.

An internship with a company while you are working can lead to a job in the same company when you graduate. Then your employer may pay for more training, so you can specialize in their fleet vehicles, says Kurt Homicek, director of medium/heavy vehicle technical services at ASE. One advantage of continued training and certification through ASE, he says, is the possibility of advancement and higher salaries, with $50,000 not uncommon for certified truck technicians.

ADVANCEMENT

Trainees move up gradually from entry level to journeyman. In larger shops, there may be a lead tech or supervisor position. Shop foreman or shift supervisor is another possible promotion. Service managers, who deal with managing the work flow, also have some seniority and opportunity for greater compensation. A master technician who's a good communicator may become a corporate trainer, too.

OUTLOOK

Most industry publications, such as Heavy Duty Trucking and Fleet Owner, are voicing concern about the need for more truck technicians. They see a crisis- level shortage developing, one that the labor statistics aren't yet reflecting. For its part, the government's labor forecasting economists predict a 10 percent increase in employment by 2008. Is it an increase or a crisis? Either way, one good thing is that pay will rise for the technicians who enter the field and stay. The government's best guess was that we'll need 280,000 bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists by 2008. Industry observers worry that with all the retirements and with fewer students entering the field, we won't have enough trainees to fill the bays. Wages now are averaging just over $15 an hour, with the top 10 percent of technicians pulling down $21.50 an hour, or about $45,000 a year.
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