Do you prefer working with your hands to writing essays?
Are you considering trade school as an alternative to more academic studies?
For the most part, we at Transizion focus on helping people get into the college of their dreams. But what if a bachelor’s degree isn’t the right path for you? We still want to help – so in this series of articles, we’re doing a deep dive into a wide range of professions.
Today’s post focuses on how to become a heavy equipment mechanic or diesel service technician. In this article, we’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and overall job satisfaction.
What Do Heavy Equipment Mechanics Do?
Heavy equipment mechanics, sometimes called heavy duty diesel technicians, are responsible for maintaining heavy machinery.
Light Duty vs. Heavy Duty
What’s the difference between a light duty diesel mechanic and a heavy duty diesel mechanic? The short answer is that light duty diesel mechanics are responsible for vehicles that drive on the road, such as buses and semi trucks, while heavy duty equipment mechanics maintain heavy equipment like tractors, cranes, and bulldozers.
According to the BLS, the average annual wage for light duty diesel service technicians and mechanics in 2021 was $48,690 per year. The same year, heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians made an average of $53,770. Both of these are higher than the median annual wage for all workers, which was $45,760 that year.
Let’s compare the most common tasks for these two similar lines of work.
Light duty diesel service technicians and mechanics maintain semi trucks and buses. In the course of their daily work they often:
- Perform basic care and maintenance such as oil changes and tire rotations
- Consult work orders and communicate with customers
- Inspect engines, steering mechanisms, brake systems, transmissions, etc.
- Use technical charts and manuals to plan work procedures
- Make major and minor engine repairs
- Run diagnostic tests to identify mechanical problems
- Ensure electrical and exhaust systems comply with pollution regulations
- Test drive vehicles to ensure that they’re working properly
Heavy duty diesel mechanics specialize in vehicles and machines used for construction, farming, mining, or railroads. They’re responsible for tasks such as these:
- Studying operating manuals, blueprints, and drawings
- Performing scheduled maintenance
- Using computerized tools and equipment
- Diagnosing and identifying malfunctions
- Inspecting defective or worn parts
- Repairing and replacing bearings, pistons, and gears
- Testing engines and electrical systems
- Disassembling and reassembling heavy equipment
- Traveling to worksites to repair large equipment
- Recalibrating components like spark plugs and hydraulic pumps
- Repairing and maintaining transmissions, hydraulic systems, and electrical systems
- Maintaining logs of equipment condition and work performed
Now that we’ve established the difference, this article will focus primarily on what it takes to become a heavy equipment mechanic. If maintaining buses and semi trucks sounds better to you, follow the link up above for more information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about a career as a light duty diesel mechanic.
A Day in the Life of a Heavy Equipment Mechanic
This is a broad field, and typical work days vary widely depending upon a mechanic’s specialization. Some mechanics work in the same place every day, maintaining and repairing equipment in dealer repair shops. Others specialize in field service, traveling far and wide to maintain machinery that’s too big and heavy to be brought into a shop for repairs.
Field service mechanics sometimes drive trucks that are specially equipped with replacement parts and tools. Most of them spend their days outdoors and on the road, often driving long distances from one job to the next. They work with heavy parts and tools, making this a physically demanding job.
Most heavy equipment mechanics work full time, and they often need to work evenings or weekends. In this profession, working overtime is common. Some mechanics may find that they work more in some seasons than others. Farm equipment mechanics, for example, work more during busy planting and harvesting seasons than they do in the winter months.
Working with heavy and dangerous machinery as they do, heavy equipment mechanics experience on-the-job injuries more often than most occupations.
How to Become a Heavy Equipment Mechanic
These days, with increasingly complicated and computerized technology being used all the time, many employers prefer to hire service technicians who have got to school and completed a formal training program. However, no specific degree is required to begin work in this field.
Get personalized advice!
Here are a few traits that are particularly important to heavy equipment mechanics:
- Mechanical skills: You’ll need to be familiar with engine components and how they interact with each other so that you can learn to disassemble and reassemble engines.
- Dexterity: You’ll need a keen eye and a steady hand to be comfortable with using hand tools, disassembling engine parts, and connecting and attaching components.
- Physical strength: You must be able to lift and move heavy equipment, tools, and parts without injuring yourself or others.
- Troubleshooting skills: You’ll need to have excellent problem-solving skills and be able to learn how to use diagnostic equipment to find the source of malfunctions.
- Organizational skills: You’ll need to be able to maintain accurate parts inventories and service records. You’ll also need to make and keep appointment times.
What to Study in High School
If you’re interested in becoming a heavy equipment mechanic, we suggest that you put extra effort into math and physics courses in high school. You would also do well to take courses in automotive repair, electronics, and welding. If your high school doesn’t offer these practical courses, see what’s available at nearby community colleges.
Vocational Training Programs
There are a number of programs available that cover the basics of diagnostic techniques, electronics, and practical skills that you’ll need to become a heavy equipment mechanic.
Lincoln Tech offers training programs in Heavy Equipment Repair & Maintenance at their campuses in New Jersey and Tennessee. Students learn how to:
- Use heavy equipment work bays are well equipped with professional-grade industry diagnostic equipment and tools.
- Take apart and reassemble engines, transmissions and transaxles from mobile off-road heavy duty equipment such as tractors, bulldozers, backhoes, excavators and much more.
- Learn how Pascal’s Law and Bernoulli’s Principles of hydraulics apply to the heavy equipment repair and maintenance industry.
- Train to repair and replace parts on heavy equipment systems such as front-end loader differentials, brake systems, kingpin suspensions, rubber and steel track systems and much more.
The Heavy Equipment Technician Program at CWI in Nampa, Idaho “provides students with an excellent opportunity to learn how to diagnose, maintain and repair construction, agricultural and other diesel-powered equipment.” They offer certificates that can take one to two years as well as a two-year Associate of Applied Science Degree.
Other technical colleges worth looking into include:
- Northwood Technical College in Rice Lake, WI
- Ranken Technical College in Saint Louis, MO
- Collins Career Technical Center in Chesapeake, OH
- Georgia Northwestern Technical College in Rome, GA
- Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, WI
- Mitchell Technical College in Mitchell, SD
- Bellingham Technical College in Bellingham, WA
- Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, KY
Whether or not you choose to use some sort of vocational training program as a springboard, you’ll need a fair amount of on-the-job training before you can think of working alone with heavy machinery. Entry-level workers need at least a few months of on-the-job training before they’re ready for routine service tasks and minor repairs. Learning enough to work independently takes considerably longer.
There’s no one specific certification that you’ll need to become a heavy equipment mechanic, but there are various options that may make you more employable and help you qualify for a higher salary. Some manufacturers offer certification in specific repair methods or equipment.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Heavy Equipment Mechanic?
Most certification programs or associate’s degrees require two years of study. With or without one of these programs, it may take you up to four years to become fully qualified. This may take more or less time depending on which specialty you pursue, and of course there’s always more to learn.
Career Outlook for Heavy Equipment Mechanics
The job outlook for heavy equipment mechanics is excellent, with a projected growth of eight percent over the next ten years. The projected average growth for all jobs is five percent, so the demand for heavy equipment mechanics is expected to be significantly higher than average.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there to be around 24,000 openings for heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians each year. Farm equipment mechanics and service technicians are needed most of all, with a projected employment growth of eleven percent over the next decade.
Who Hires Heavy Equipment Mechanics?
Heavy equipment mechanics are vital to a wide range of industries. Major industries that hire heavy equipment mechanics include construction, farming, and railroad transportation. Fewer than four percent of heavy equipment mechanics are self-employed.
Many heavy equipment mechanics will specialize in a certain industry. Here are three common types of heavy equipment mechanics:
- Farm equipment mechanics service and repair farm equipment like tractors and harvesters. Most of these mechanics work for dealer repair shops, where farmers send their equipment for maintenance.
- Mobile heavy equipment mechanics repair and maintain construction and surface mining equipment, such as excavators, bulldozers, graders, and cranes. Most work for large construction and mining companies, the government, or equipment rental and leasing shops.
- Rail car mechanics specialize in servicing rolling stock such as subway cars and railroad locomotives. They usually work for railroads, railcar manufacturers, and transit companies.
Close to ten percent of heavy equipment mechanics specialize in rail cars, sixteen percent work in construction, and about twenty-two percent of them specialize in farm equipment. Nearly a third of heavy equipment mechanics work for companies that produce heavy equipment. Over ten percent work for the government, while others work for a variety of industries ranging from mining to transportation.
Rail car mechanics often earn a higher salary than other heavy equipment mechanics, with an average yearly income of over sixty thousand dollars. Here are the average incomes for each specialty as reported by the BLS in May 2021.
Rail car repairers $60,250
Mobile heavy equipment mechanics, except engines $58,030
Farm equipment mechanics and service technicians $46,910
Becoming a Heavy Equipment Mechanic
Overall, working with heavy equipment has the potential to be an engaging and rewarding career path. Here are some pros and cons to working as a heavy equipment mechanic:
- Above average salary
- Wide range of specializations
- Satisfaction of fixing important machinery
- Excellent job outlook
- Heavy, tiring work
- Injuries are common
- Noisy work environment
If you’re interested in this profession, consider seeking out heavy equipment mechanics in your area to ask about the possibility of shadowing them to learn more about their work.
If you’re interested in learning more about other trades, check out these recent articles all about how to become an electrician or a plumber. Stay tuned for upcoming articles on training to become a millwright or civil engineering technician.