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Nature of the Work
* Opportunities should be good for persons who complete formal post-secondary training in diesel mechanics or mobile heavy equipment repair.
* This occupation offers the opportunity for relatively high earnings while performing challenging skilled work.
* Mechanics increasingly use computerized diagnostic equipment.
Mobile heavy equipment is indispensable to construction, logging, surface mining, and other industrial activities. Various types grade land, lift beams, and dig earth to pave the way for new development. Mobile heavy equipment mechanics repair and maintain the engines, transmissions, hydraulics, and electrical systems that power graders, backhoes, and stripping and loading shovels. (Mechanics who specialize in servicing diesel engines only are discussed in the section on diesel mechanics elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Mobile heavy equipment mechanics typically work for large construction companies, local and Federal governments, and other organizations that operate and maintain their own heavy equipment fleets. They perform routine maintenance checks on diesel engines, transmission components, and brake systems to ensure safety and longevity of the equipment. Maintenance checks and feedback from equipment operators usually alert the mechanics to problems. With modern heavy equipment, hand held computers can be plugged in to an on-board computer to diagnose any component that needs adjustment or repair. After the problem has been found, technicians rely on their training and experience to use the best possible technique to solve the problem. If necessary, they may partially dismantle the component to examine parts for damage or excessive wear. Then, using hand-held tools, they repair, replace, clean, and lubricate the parts as necessary. Once the component is reassembled and tested for safety, it is put back into the equipment and sent back to the field.
Many types of mobile heavy equipment use hydraulics to raise and lower movable parts such as scoops, shovels, log forks, and scraper blades. Repairing malfunctioning hydraulic components is an important responsibility of mobile heavy equipment mechanics. When components lose power, mechanics examine them for hydraulic fluid leaks, ruptured hoses, or worn gaskets on fluid reservoirs. Occasionally, the equipment requires more extensive repairs such as replacing a defective hydraulic pump.
In addition to routine maintenance checks, mobile heavy equipment mechanics perform a variety of other repairs. They diagnose electrical problems and adjust or replace defective electronic components. They also disassemble and repair undercarriages and track assemblies. Occasionally, mechanics weld broken equipment frames and structural parts using electric or gas welders.
Many mechanics work in repair shops for construction contractors, local government road maintenance departments, and logging and mining companies. They typically perform the routine maintenance and minor repairs necessary to keep the equipment in operation. Mechanics in larger repair shopsparticularly those of mobile heavy equipment dealers and the Federal Governmentperform more difficult repairs. They include rebuilding or replacing engines, repairing hydraulic fluid pumps, or correcting electrical problems.
It is common for mechanics in some large shops to specialize in one or two types of work. For example, a shop may have individual specialists in major engine repair, transmission work, electrical systems, and suspension or brake systems. The technology used in heavy equipment is becoming more sophisticated with the increased use of electronic components to control a growing variety of functions. Training in electronics is essential for these mechanics in order to make engine adjustments and to diagnose problems. Hand held computers serve as the link from technician to vehicle.
Mobile heavy equipment mechanics use a variety of tools in their work. They use power tools such as pneumatic wrenches to remove bolts quickly, machine tools like lathes and grinding machines to rebuild brakes, welding and flame-cutting equipment to remove and repair exhaust systems, and jacks and hoists to lift and move large parts. They use common handtools like screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches to work on small parts and hard-to-reach places. Heavy equipment mechanics also use a variety of computerized testing equipment to pinpoint and analyze malfunctions in electrical systems and engines. For example, they use tachometers and dynamometers to locate engine malfunctions. When working on electrical systems, they use ohmmeters, ammeters, and voltmeters.
Mobil heavy equipment mechanics usually work indoors, although many make repairs at the work site. Mechanics often lift heavy parts and tools. Minor cuts, burns, and bruises are common, but serious accidents can be avoided when the shop is kept clean and orderly and when safety practices observed. Mechanics frequently get dirtythey may handle greasy and dirty parts and may stand or lie in awkward positions to repair vehicles and equipment. While they usually work in well lighted, heated, and ventilated areas, some shops are drafty and noisy. Many employers also provide uniforms, locker rooms and shower facilities.
When mobile heavy equipment breaks down at a construction site, it may be too difficult or expensive to bring it into a repair shop, so a field service mechanic is sent to the job site to make repairs. Field service mechanics work outdoors and spend much of their time away from the shop. Generally, the more experienced mobile heavy equipment mechanics specialize in field service. They usually drive specially equipped trucks and, on occasion, must travel many miles to reach disabled machinery. Because of their experience and travel requirements, field mechanics usually earn a higher wage than their counterparts.
Mobile heavy equipment mechanics held about 104,000 jobs in 1996. Nearly 50 percent worked for mobile heavy equipment dealers and construction contractors. About 20 percent were employed by Federal, State, and local governments; the Department of Defense is the primary Federal employer. Other mobile heavy equipment mechanics worked for surface mine operators, public utility companies, logging camps and contractors, and heavy equipment rental and leasing companies. Still others repaired equipment for machinery manufacturers, airlines, railroads, steel mills, and oil and gas field companies. Fewer than 1 out of 20 mobile heavy equipment mechanics was self-employed.
Nearly every section of the country employs mobile heavy equipment mechanics in some form, though most work in towns and cities where trucking companies, construction, and other fleet owners have large operations.
Although many persons qualify for heavy equipment mechanic jobs through years of on-the-job training, most employers prefer that applicants complete a formal diesel heavy equipment mechanic training program after graduating from high school. They seek persons with mechanical aptitude who are knowledgeable about the fundamentals of diesel engines, transmissions, electrical systems, and hydraulics. The constant change in equipment technology makes it necessary for mechanics to be flexible and have the capacity to learn new skills quickly.
Most community colleges and vocational schools offer programs in diesel mechanics or automotive repair. Some tailor programs to heavy equipment mechanics. These programs educate the student in the basics of analysis and diagnostic techniques, while improving communication skills. The increased use of electronics and computers makes training in the fundamentals of electronics an essential tool for new mobile heavy equipment mechanics. Some 1- to 2-year programs lead to a certificate of completion while others lead to an associate degree in diesel or heavy equipment mechanics. These programs provide a basic foundation in the components of diesel and heavy equipment technology. This also enables trainee mechanics to advance more rapidly to the journey, or experienced worker, level.
A combination of formal and on-the-job training prepares trainee mechanics with the knowledge to efficiently service and repair the equipment handled by the shop. Most beginners perform routine service tasks and make minor repairs after a few months' experience. They advance to increasingly difficult jobs as they prove their ability and competence. After they master the repair and service of diesel engines, they learn to work on related components such as brakes, transmissions, and electrical systems. Generally, a mechanic with at least 3 to 4 years of on-the-job experience is accepted as a fully qualified heavy equipment mechanic.
Many employers send trainee mechanics to training sessions conducted by heavy equipment manufacturers. These sessions, which typically last up to 1 week, provide intensive instruction in the repair of a manufacturer's equipment. Some sessions focus on particular components found in all of the manufacturer's equipment, such as diesel engines, transmissions, axles, and electrical systems. Other sessions focus on particular types of equipment, such as crawler-loaders and crawler-dozers. As they progress, trainees may periodically attend additional training sessions. When appropriate, experienced mechanics attend training sessions to gain familiarity with new technology or with types of equipment they have never repaired.
High school courses in automobile mechanics, physics, chemistry, and mathematics provide a strong foundation for a career as a mechanic. It is also essential for mechanics to be able to read, interpret, and comprehend service manuals to keep abreast of engineering changes. Experience working on diesel engines and heavy equipment acquired in the Armed Forces also is valuable.
Voluntary certification by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is recognized as the standard of achievement for mobile heavy equipment mechanics. They may be certified as Master Heavy-Duty Diesel technician or in one or more of six different areas of heavy-duty equipment repair: Brakes, gasoline engines, diesel engines, drive trains, electrical systems, and suspension and steering. For certification in each area, mechanics must pass a written examination and have at least 2 years of experience. High school, vocational or trade school, or community or junior college training in gasoline or diesel engine repair may substitute for up to 1 year of experience. To retain certification, mechanics must retake the tests at least every 5 years.
The most important possessions of mechanics are their handtools. Mobile heavy equipment mechanics typically buy their own handtools and many experienced mechanics have thousands of dollars invested in them. Employers typically furnish expensive power tools, computerized engine analyzers, and other diagnostic equipment, but handtools are accumulated with experience.
Experienced mechanics may advance to field service jobs, where they have a greater opportunity to tackle problems independently and earn additional pay. Mechanics who have leadership ability may become shop supervisors or service managers. Some mechanics open their own repair shops or invest in a franchise.
Opportunities for heavy equipment mechanics should be good for persons who have completed formal training programs in diesel or heavy equipment mechanics. This is due more to a lack of qualified entrants into the occupation than growth in available jobs. Persons without formal training are expected to encounter growing difficulty entering this occupation.
Employment of mobile heavy equipment mechanics is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2006. Increasing numbers of mechanics will be required to support growth in the construction industry, equipment dealers, and rental and leasing companies. As equipment becomes more complex, repairs increasingly must be made by specially trained mechanics. More mechanics will be needed by all levels of government to service construction equipment that build and repair the country's highways and bridges.
Due to the nature of construction activity, demand for mobile heavy equipment mechanics follows the Nation's economic cycle. As the economy expands, construction activity increases, resulting in the use of more mobile heavy equipment. More equipment will be needed to grade construction sites, excavate basements, and lay water and sewer lines, and this would increase the necessity for periodic service and repair. In addition, the construction and repair of highways and bridges also will require more mechanics to service equipment.
Because construction and mining are sensitive to changes in the level of economic activity, mobile heavy equipment may be idled during downturns. In addition, winter is traditionally the slow season for construction activity particularly in colder regions. Fewer mechanics may be needed during periods when equipment is used less, but employers usually try to retain experienced workers. However, employers may be reluctant to hire inexperienced workers during slow periods.
Median weekly earnings of mobile heavy equipment mechanics were about $613 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned from $501 to $762 a week; the lowest 10 percent earned less than $383 a week, and the top 10 percent earned over $981 a week in 1996.
Some mobile heavy equipment mechanics are members of unions including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Union of Operating Engineers; and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
More details about work opportunities for mobile heavy equipment mechanics may be obtained from local mobile heavy equipment dealers, construction contractors, surface mining companies, and government agencies. Local offices of the State employment service may also have information on work opportunities and training programs.
For general information about a career as a mobile heavy equipment mechanic contact:
The Equipment Maintenance Counsel, 2020 Lake Shore Ct., Sanger, TX 76266.
Associated General Contractors of America, Training and Educational Services, 1957 E St., N.W., Washington, DC 20006.
Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association, 2750 Prosperity Ave., Suite 620, Fairfax, VA 22031-4312
For a directory of public training programs for mobile heavy equipment mechanics contact:
Vocational Industry Clubs of America, P.O. Box 3000, 1401 James Monroe Hwy, Leesburg, VA 22075.
Information on how to become certified as a heavy-duty diesel mechanic is available from:
ASE, 13505 Dulles Technology Dr., Herndon, VA 22071-3415.
National Center for Construction Education and Research, University of Florida, P.O. Box 141104, Gainsville, FL 32614-1104.
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