What You Need to Know About Becoming a Diesel Mechanic

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Are you good with your hands and enjoy a challenge? A career as a heavy duty technician could be the right choice for you. The industry is growing, and it’s expected to continue expanding for the foreseeable future. What’s more, working on heavy duty trucks and big machinery is a specialty area that not just anyone can do. That means diesel techs earn good money. If you’re interested in learning how to become a diesel mechanic, there is more than one way to do it. First, you can learn as you earn, getting on-the-job experience. Alternatively, you can get a certification or degree in diesel mechanics and heavy truck maintenance. Whichever path you choose, make a plan. First, make sure diesel tech is the right career for you. Then map out how you’ll get the skills and knowledge you need, and where you’ll look for a job.

Should You Become a Diesel Mechanic?

It helps to like what you do for a living, but when looking into how to become a diesel tech, there are issues to consider other than how much you enjoy tinkering with trucks. Those include whether you can advance in the job and earn more as time goes by; how flexible you need your schedule to be; and the stress level the job carries.

In general, there are opportunities for advancement and raises as a diesel tech, including the option of opening your own shop and earning a shop owner’s salary. Heavy duty mechanics’ stress tends to be average. You’ll be expected to perform at a certain level to earn your wage, and there’s always a deadline for keeping customers happy. However, to what degree those issues affect stress levels differs from shop to shop.

As for flexibility, a diesel mechanic’s schedule varies, and how flexible it depends on how you look at it. Often, heavy duty techs are required to work past regular business hours and on weekends. Sometimes it’s to meet deadlines, and sometimes it’s to accommodate customers’ schedules. That’s a negative factor if you like your evenings and weekends free. However, it can be a plus if you prefer coming in later in the morning or occasionally having a day off during the week as compensation.

If you’re fine with those issues, you’ll also want to consider:

What do diesel mechanics do?

A heavy duty tech’s day is spent working on big trucks and heavy machinery. Their many duties include troubleshooting performance problems, tearing apart and rebuilding engines, rotating tires, and doing oil changes and other preventive maintenance. Much of the time, all that work is done in the shop. However, mobile diesel techs are becoming more popular. They take their expertise to the clients. Sometimes that means doing PMs in a customer’s fleet yard, and sometimes it means meeting the customer at the scene of a roadside breakdown. Either way, it’s a convenience for the customer and it adds another dimension to the job.

What skills do you need?

Being mechanically inclined is a good start for those who want to learn how to become a diesel mechanic. It also helps if you’re a good problem solver and have an informal background in automotive repair and/or electronics. That training could come from working on cars and trucks in your own garage or even taking electronics or auto shop classes in high school.

What kind of education do you need?

There are no state or federal laws that say you have to have formal training or be licensed or certified to be a heavy duty mechanic. In fact, some employers require nothing more than a high school diploma when hiring diesel techs. However, more and more shop managers and owners give preference to job seekers with an associate’s degree or at least a certification in diesel mechanics and maintenance. Additionally, many look for techs with an ASE certification. Credentials from the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence proves you have top-level experience and skills. In addition to all that, it’s useful to obtain a CDL. You’ll need a Commercial Driver’s License to test drive semis before and after you work on them.

How long do you have to go to school to learn how to become a diesel mechanic?

If you choose to get a formal education in diesel mechanics, you’ll have to go to school for at least 6 months and possibly up to 2 years, depending on whether you enroll to earn a degree or choose a certification program. What’s more, techs who specialize in certain types of machinery can often earn more. Therefore, if you decide you want to become certified in farm equipment, boats, or aircraft, for example, you’ll spend additional time on those programs.

Are diesel mechanics in high demand?

The trucking industry is healthier than ever. Plus, construction is booming. Those factors alone mean an increasing need for skilled diesel mechanics. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showed that there were 278,800 heavy duty vehicle tech jobs in 2016. Plus, the BLS projects that number to grow to 304,600 by 2026. That means skilled diesel mechanics are in high demand, and that demand will continue to increase over the next several years.

How Much Money Does a Diesel Mechanic Make?

When you want to know how to become a diesel mechanic, a lot of it probably has to do with the earning potential. In general, the median annual salary for a heavy duty tech is $47,350 per year. However, there are several factors that can affect that number, including what part of the country you work in. According to Vocational Training HQ, diesel techs in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York earn the most:

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In addition to location affecting your income, the individual shop you work for has everything to do with how much you make. Some shops pay hourly, the median hourly wage being $22.76. Hourly pay can be better than salary in some cases, such as when you work overtime. Plus, more shops are paying their hourly techs bonuses on top of their hourly wage when they perform above 100 percent efficiency.

How to Become a Diesel Mechanic

How to become a diesel mechanic starts with giving your career a foundation. That means at least getting a high school diploma or GED. You’ll also want to get a CDL so you can operate the large vehicles you’ll be working on.

With those two requirements under your belt, you’ll then decide if you want to learn on the job or get a technical education. Either path will provide the skills and knowledge you need to become a heavy duty tech. Both will take time, and there are pros and cons to each, as well. For instance, you’ll have to pay for schooling, but in as little as 2 years, you’ll have the credentials many shops look for. Additionally, a lot of heavy duty shops work with vocational schools to hire new grads directly out of diesel tech programs. On the other hand, working as a diesel tech assistant, you’ll get paid from day one to learn the trade. The downside is that you could end up working as an assistant for several years before moving up to heavy duty mechanic. That also means a delay in earning a diesel tech’s salary.

Whichever path you take, you should always put continuing education on your priority list. If you start out without a certification or degree, plan on eventually getting one. Also, look into getting certified in specialty areas of heavy duty equipment such as aircraft, marine engines, school and transit bus engines, electrical systems, or construction or farm equipment. You can also get certified to work on forestry equipment or specific brands such as John Deere or Kenworth. The more you learn, the more value you offer employers and your earning potential will go up.

Getting Technical

As you learn how to become a diesel mechanic, be sure to get training in computers and other current technology. Many of the tools used in heavy duty repair these days are higher-tech than wrenches, sockets, and grease guns. Most diesel mechanic programs provide training on computerized diagnostic tools, but you’ll find them easier to understand and master if you have some basic computer skills.

Plus, more shops are using shop management software to create estimates, assign and monitor jobs, order parts, inventory stock, and create invoices. The good news is that the best programs are intuitive and practically self-teaching. If you can manage a smartphone, you should be able to navigate repair shop software like Fullbay.

Top Schools

There are loads of universities and technical colleges across the country offering programs that can teach you how to become a diesel mechanic. An online search should pull up several choices at least within driving distance from you. If you’re the type who goes all-in and you want to know which schools are the top ones no matter where they’re located, education sites list the State University of New York and Florida State College at Jacksonville among the very best for offering programs that focus on special and specific equipment as well as for having comprehensive workforce development programs. Other institutes that typically make the list of top diesel mechanic schools include:

How to Pick Your School

When choosing where you’re going to learn how to become a diesel mechanic, sometimes location can be a deal breaker. However, whether or not you need to find a diesel tech program nearby, here is a list of factors that will help you drill-down your choices to find the right one for you:

  • accreditation—look for a school with credentials from nationally-recognized organizations like the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.
  • real-world training—the best programs have on-site garages and provide 30 hours or more of hands-on training each week.
  • facility and equipment—if it’s possible to tour prospective schools, do so. See with your own eyes the amount and type of equipment you’ll be learning on and the environment you’ll be learning in.
  • certification—you’ll want to attend a program that turns out grads who have no problem getting ASE certified. Also, if you want to graduate with a specialty certificate, look for schools that offer the certification(s) you’re interested in.
  • graduation and on-time completion rate—look for a program with a high percentage of students who graduate from it and who graduate on time.
  • recommendations—find testimonials from past students, if you can, but also talk to techs, managers, and repair shop owners to see if they recommend specific schools or programs.
  • job placement and assistance—look for programs with a good job-placement track record. Some schools boast 80 to 100 percent job placement within 3 to 6 months of graduation.

Map Out a Plan and Follow It

Plan the education part of how to become a diesel mechanic right, and landing a job with a good salary and potential for advancing should follow almost effortlessly. That’s even true for those who gain their knowledge and skills on the job. You can start out in an entry-level position, but putting in the time and effort to learn as much as you can opens doors for advancement and raises. And, who knows? It could lead to eventually owning your own shop.


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