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.
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 Hemdon, 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 pro-gram 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 Hornicek, 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.
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.
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 in-crease 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. Those who are qualified can write their own ticket to a career. The government's best guess is 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. So, it's a field waiting for talented newcomers. 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.