Mobile Heavy Equipment Mechanics

Significant Points

  • Opportunities should be good for persons with advanced knowledge of electronics and hydraulics.
  • This occupation offers relatively high wages and the challenge of skilled repair work.
  • National certification is the recognized standard of achievement for mobile heavy equipment mechanics.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Mobile heavy equipment is indispensable to construction, logging, surface mining, and other industrial activities. Various types of equipment grade land, lift beams, and dig earth to pave the way for development. Mobile heavy equipment mechanics repair and maintain the engines, transmissions, hydraulics, and electrical systems powering graders, backhoes, and stripping and loading shovels. (For information on mechanics specializing in diesel engines, see the statement on diesel mechanics and service technicians elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Mobile heavy equipment mechanics typically work for construction equipment distributor firms, large construction companies, local and Federal governments, or other organizations operating and maintaining heavy machinery and 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 mechanics to problems. With modern heavy equipment, hand-held computers can be plugged into on-board computers to diagnose any component needing adjustment or repair. After locating the problem, these 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 parts, as necessary. After reassembling the component and testing it for safety, mechanics put it back into the equipment and return the equipment 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 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, or logging and mining companies. They typically perform the routine maintenance and minor repairs necessary to keep equipment in operation. Mechanics in large repair shops—particularly those of mobile heavy equipment dealers and the Federal Government—perform more difficult repairs. These repairs include rebuilding or replacing engines, repairing hydraulic fluid pumps, and 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 and computer-controlled components. Training in electronics is essential for these mechanics, to make engine adjustments and to diagnose problems. Training in the use of hand-held computers is also necessary, because computers serve as the link between mechanic and vehicle and help mechanics diagnose problems and adjust engine functions.

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. Common handtools—screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches—are used to work on small parts and to get at 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, heavy equipment mechanics use ohmmeters, ammeters, and voltmeters.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Mobile heavy equipment mechanics usually work indoors, although many make repairs at the work site. Mechanics often lift heavy parts and tools, handle greasy and dirty parts, and stand or lie in awkward positions, to repair vehicles and equipment. Minor cuts, burns, and bruises are common; but serious accidents are normally avoided, when the shop is kept clean and orderly and safety practices are observed. Mechanics usually work in well-lighted, heated, and ventilated areas. However, some shops are drafty and noisy. Many employers 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 the shop often sends a field service mechanic to the job site to make repairs. Field service mechanics work outdoors and spend much of their time away from the shop. Generally, more experienced mobile heavy equipment mechanics specialize in field service. They usually drive trucks specially equipped with replacement parts and tools. On occasion, they must travel many miles to reach disabled machinery. Field mechanics normally earn a higher wage than their counterparts, because they are required to make on-the-spot decisions necessary to serve their customers.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Mobile heavy equipment mechanics held about 106,000 jobs in 1998. More than 30 percent were employed by mobile heavy equipment dealers and distributors. Nearly 20 percent worked for construction contractors; and about 18 percent were employed by Federal, State, and local governments. Other mobile heavy equipment mechanics worked for surface mine operators, public utility companies, or heavy equipment rental and leasing companies. Still others repaired equipment for machinery manufacturers, airlines, railroads, steel mills, or 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, though most work in towns and cities where equipment dealers, equipment rental and leasing companies, and construction companies have repair facilities.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

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 or 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. Additionally, the constant change in equipment technology makes it necessary for mechanics to be flexible and have the capacity to learn new skills quickly.

Many 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, electronics, and hydraulics. 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, whereas 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. These programs also enable 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 equipment handled by a shop. Most beginners perform routine service tasks and make minor repairs, after a few months’ experience. They advance to harder jobs, as they prove their ability and competence. After trainees 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. Mechanics may be certified as a 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’ 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’s experience. To remain certified, technicians must retest every 5 years. This ensures that mechanics and service technicians keep up with changing technology.

The most important work possessions of mechanics are their hand tools. Mobile heavy equipment mechanics typically buy their own hand tools, 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 hand tools are normally 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 with leadership ability may become shop supervisors or service managers. Some mechanics open their own repair shops or invest in a franchise.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Opportunities for heavy equipment mechanic jobs 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 2008. 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.

Because of 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 is needed to grade construction sites, excavate basements, and lay water and sewer lines, increasing the need for periodic service and repair. In addition, the construction and repair of highways and bridges also requires more mechanics to service equipment.

Construction and mining are particularly sensitive to changes in the level of economic activity; therefore, mobile heavy equipment may be idled during downturns. In addition, winter is traditionally the slow season for construction activity, particularly in cold regions. Few mechanics may be needed during periods when equipment is used less; however, employers usually try to retain experienced workers. Employers may be reluctant to hire inexperienced workers during slow periods though.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of mobile heavy equipment mechanics were $31,520 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $25,050 and $38,340 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,950 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $46,500 a year. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of mobile heavy equipment mechanics in 1997 were as follows:

Federal government $34,800
Machinery, equipment, and supplies 29,100
Miscellaneous equipment rental and leasing 28,800
Heavy construction, except highway 28,300
Miscellaneous repair shops 27,000

About one third of all 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.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Workers in other occupations who repair and service diesel-powered vehicles and heavy equipment include rail car repairers, farm equipment mechanics, and diesel mechanics and service technicians. Other related occupations include motorcycle, boat, small engine, and heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

More details about work opportunities for mobile heavy equipment mechanics may be obtained from local mobile heavy equipment dealers and distributors, construction contractors, 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.
  • Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association, 2750 Prosperity Ave., Suite 620, Fairfax, VA 22031-4312. Internet: http://www.scranet.org

For a directory of public training programs for mobile heavy equipment mechanics, contact:

  • SkillsUSA-VICA, P.O. Box 3000, 1401 James Monroe Hwy., Leesburg, VA 22075. Telephone (toll free): 1-800-321-VICA. Internet: http://www.skillsusa.org

A list of certified diesel mechanic training programs can be obtained from:

  • National Automotive Technician Education Foundation (NATEF), 13505 Dulles Technology Dr., Herndon, VA 20171-3421. Internet: http://www.natef.org

Information on certification as a heavy-duty diesel mechanic is available from:

  • Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), 13505 Dulles Technology Dr., Herndon, VA 20171-3421. Internet: http://www.asecert.org
O*NET Codes: 85314 About the O*NET codes

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