School-Trained Diesel Techs in High Demand
Technical Training Opens the Gateway to Lifetime Job Security and Satisfaction
Wade “Buzz” Payne waited patiently for several weeks before Chris Wilson, owner of Lampco Industrial, a diesel-repair shop in New Springfield, Ohio, had time to work his ’99 Ford F-350 into the mix of diesel pickups and big rigs needing service. The small shop’s reputation for excellent work keeps a constant backlog of customers awaiting their turn. Once it was inside, Lampco technicians quickly diagnosed and fixed the old dualie’s hard-start and smoking issues, much to Wade’s delight.
Some 2,400 miles west, at Mobile Diesel Service, in Oakland, Oregon, a similar scenario plays out as customers wait their turn for one of the seven bays and three lifts to clear so technicians can cure the various ills that befall owners’ rigs (from pickups to logging trucks). Business is booming in diesel repair for cars, pickups, and big rigs.
“The average wait time for a large repair depends on a few factors for us,” says Shawn Smalley, owner of MDS. “The amount of service calls coming through, the number of what we call ‘oh, by the ways’ on jobs we already have going on in the shop, and the time of year all play a part. During the winter, we typically have a two- to three-day waiting period on bigger jobs, compared to the summer, when large repair jobs or custom performance installations are scheduled two to three weeks out.”
Shawn says, “With the cost of a new diesel pickup being through the roof, we are seeing a significant increase in major repairs, with customers spending $15,000 for a new engine in an older truck, instead of shelling out $70,000 on a new truck.”
It’s the same for just about every diesel-oriented shop and dealership we talked to across the country. The bottleneck in service is due, in large part, to a severe shortage of trained diesel technicians and an ever-increasing number of vehicles.
According to a 2018 survey by IHS Markit, with the assistance of the nonprofit consortium Diesel Technology Forum, there are more than 6.6 million diesel pickups on the road. That number increases every year because diesel owners are keeping their vehicles longer, and as clean-diesel technology keeps improving, oil-burners are finding their way into more and more cars, SUVs, and pickups.
But as the diesel fleet continues to grow, the number of technicians who keep them running is on the lean side. At the time this report was penned, according to the Diesel Technology Forum, there were only about 260,000 diesel-engine and bus mechanics employed across the U.S. That disproportionate number of certified mechanics to vehicles bodes well for anyone who is looking for a blue-collar occupation that has a bright future and pays well.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 75,900 job openings for Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics through the year 2025, and an additional 28,300 Bus and Truck Mechanics and Diesel Engine Specialists. According to BLS, the median wage in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $857 per week or $44,360 per year for a 40-hour work week.
The average pay for a diesel mechanic according to job seeker website Indeed.com (indeed.com), is $23 per hour or $48,000 per year, estimated from salaries of more than 16,500 employees, users, and past/present job advertisements. Shops we consulted say more experienced diesel techs are making $30 or more per hour, with the upper 10 percent earning more than $70,000 annually.
Such jobs are plentiful, too. At the time of this writing, Mechanicshub.com (mechanicshub.com) listed more than 300 diesel technician/mechanic jobs in the U.S. Indeed.com listed more than 4,000 jobs related to “diesel mechanic” or “diesel technician.”
The need for trained diesel technicians is also borne out by the job placements of graduates from specialized tech schools such as Universal Technical Institute (uti.edu), which opened its 13th campus in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in September 2018.
“We chose to open our newest and 13th campus here in Bloomfield, New Jersey, due to both strong student demand for automotive and diesel technical training—and employer demand for UTI graduates across the tri-state (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) area,” says Steve McElfresh, campus president, UTI-Bloomfield.
“Across the nation, UTI has many more open jobs with our industry partners than we can come close to filling with graduates—in many cases, three to four job offerings per graduate—and more than 4,000 employers offering tuition reimbursement and other incentives to attract and retain the best talent. It is a great time to train to be a transportation tech.”
Whether you’re a high school graduate, veteran, or just someone wanting a change in careers, landing a diesel-tech job is easy with the right attitude and skill set. The former just means one loves diesels and doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty. The latter means having the technical knowledge, which is easily acquired by spending a year or two in a school that offers the latest in diesel-technology training.
There are nearly 100 colleges and specialty vocational schools across the U.S. and in Canada that offer diesel training (check out the list on mechanicshub.com). One of the most recognized is UTI, a trade school with 13 campuses that provide aspiring diesel technicians with all the training needed to launch a career.
UTI’s diesel-technician program is a 45-week course that covers all the fundamentals in nine different categories, beginning with a core program and continuing with learning how to diagnose, repair, and replace all the typical components of a big-rig engine, all done in a shop environment using the best tools available.
From there, a UTI student can continue on to specialized advanced training, such as the 15-week Ford Accelerated Credential Training (FACT) program or the 12-week GM Technician Career Training and Mopar TEC programs, all three of which cover the service and repair of diesel pickups.
These manufacturer-specific, advanced-training programs set the stage to get National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence certifications, including Master Tech, which lead to even higher-paying technician jobs. People on the hiring end pay close attention to ASE certifications directly related to diesels.
“Advanced-level ASE certifications mean you really know your stuff,” says Kenneth Tripp, owner of Tripp Trucks and former technician on Ford’s Power Stroke engineering team. “Someone coming out of school with an ASE L2 certification (Electronic Diesel Engine Diagnosis Specialist) is one I’d take a close look at hiring.”
And for good reason: ASE says “The L2 test is designed to measure a technician’s knowledge of the skills needed to diagnose sophisticated engine-performance problems on computer-controlled diesel engines. It is an extension of the repair and diagnostic skills tested by the Light Vehicle, Medium/Heavy Truck, School Bus and/or Transit Bus Diesel Engines and Electrical/Electronic Systems tests.” Having such knowledge is invaluable in today’s electronic diesel age.
Learning is an investment in one’s future. But it comes at a cost, regardless of whether you’re getting certified training from a local junior college or a dedicated trade school. UTI, which starts classes every six weeks, could cost upward of $45,000 for tuition and housing for the full 75-week combined Automotive and Diesel Technology program. That cost is a little lower than the $25,620 a year average College Board (collegeboard.org) estimates out-of-state students pay to attend a public four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree. And having a B.S. means little when you are vying for a job as a diesel tech.
“It’s important to note that demand for trained technicians and especially UTI graduates is very strong right now,” says Jody Kent, vice president, communications and public affairs at UTI.
“More than 4,000 employers across the country are offering tuition reimbursement and other incentives, like signing bonuses and relocation allowances to attract the best-trained talent. As a UTI graduate, even an entry-level diesel technician can garner starting wages in the high-$30,000 to mid-$40,000 range plus benefits and incentives,” says Jody.
School-trained technicians can make back their educational expenses in their first year on the job, and, if they choose to go to work for a tuition-reimbursement employer, they can have their student loan payments paid back as part of their compensation package.
There’s even more monetary help available to get a diesel degree. Military veterans can use the GI Bill (gibill.va.gov) to pay for their education, and most schools offer financial aid to those without military background. For example, UTI had $15 million in sponsored grants and scholarships available to qualified students in 2018 to help defray tuition and housing.
Those types of financial and job-placement opportunities should make pursuing a career as a diesel technician attractive, especially when repair-shop owners and automotive dealerships are more than eager to increase the number of qualified mechanics on their payroll to improve both customer service and business profitability.
But, going through such schools does not mean you know it all upon graduation. Successfully completing a diesel-tech program provides a solid understanding of the basics. It’s additional time in the real world, under the tutelage of master diesel techs, that really makes a new technician an invaluable asset to any diesel business owner.
Mark Gotchall, an expert diesel tech who has been with Oregon Fuel Injection for more than 20 years, shares the same thoughts as many diesel service center managers: “If we had one more qualified tech, our wait times would improve and volume would likely go up by about 30 percent. We expect the number of repairs, due to the number of diesel vehicles on the road, to continue to increase.”