Career Guides

Career Guide for Heavy Equipment Mechanics

Heavy equipment mechanics repair and maintain heavy construction equipment. This equipment is worth from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, so maintaining the equipment is very important to construction firms.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a heavy equipment mechanic.

Heavy Equipment Mechanic Summary

  • Opportunities should be excellent for people with formal postsecondary training in heavy equipment repair; those without formal training will face competition.
  • Generally, a service technician with at least 3 to 4 years of on-the-job experience is accepted as fully qualified.
  • Wages for mobile heavy equipment mechanics are higher than the average for all installation, maintenance, and repair workers.

Working as a Heavy Equipment Mechanic

Heavy vehicles and mobile equipment are indispensable to many industrial activities, from construction to railroad transportation. Various types of equipment move materials, till land, lift beams, and dig earth to pave the way for development and production. Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics repair and maintain engines and hydraulic, transmission, and electrical systems for this equipment. Farm machinery, cranes, bulldozers, and railcars are all examples of heavy vehicles that require such service.

Service technicians perform routine maintenance checks on agricultural, industrial, construction, and rail equipment. They service fuel, brake, and transmission systems to ensure peak performance, safety, and longevity of the equipment. Maintenance checks and comments from equipment operators usually alert technicians to problems. After locating the problem, these technicians rely on their training and experience to use the best possible technique to solve it.

With many types of modern equipment, technicians can use diagnostic computers to diagnose components needing adjustment or repair. If necessary, they may partially dismantle affected components to examine parts for damage or excessive wear. Then, using hand-held tools, they repair, replace, clean, and lubricate parts as necessary. In some cases, technicians re-calibrate systems by typing codes into the onboard computer. After reassembling the component and testing it for safety, they put it back into the equipment and return the equipment to the field.

Many types of heavy and mobile equipment use hydraulic systems to raise and lower movable parts. When hydraulic components malfunction, technicians examine them for fluid leaks, ruptured hoses, or worn gaskets on fluid reservoirs. Occasionally, the equipment requires extensive repairs, as when a defective hydraulic pump needs replacing.

Service technicians diagnose electrical problems and adjust or replace defective components. They also disassemble and repair undercarriages and track assemblies. Occasionally, technicians weld broken equipment frames and structural parts, using electric or gas welders.

Technicians use a variety of tools in their work: 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. Service technicians also use common hand tools—screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches—to work on small parts and to get at hard-to-reach places. They may use a variety of computerized testing equipment to pinpoint and analyze malfunctions in electrical systems and other essential systems. Tachometers and dynamometers, for example, can be used to locate engine malfunctions. Service technicians also use ohmmeters, ammeters, and voltmeters when working on electrical systems. Employers typically furnish expensive power tools, computerized engine analyzers, and other diagnostic equipment, but hand tools are normally accumulated with experience, and many experienced technicians have thousands of dollars invested in them.

It is common for technicians in large shops to specialize in one or two types of repair. For example, a shop may have individual specialists in major engine repair, transmission work, electrical systems, and suspension or brake systems. Technicians in smaller shops, on the other hand, generally perform multiple functions.

Technicians also specialize in types of equipment. Mobile heavy equipment mechanics and service technicians, for example, keep construction and surface mining equipment, such as bulldozers, cranes, graders, and excavators in working order. Typically, these workers are employed by equipment wholesale distribution and leasing firms, large construction and mining companies, local and Federal governments, and other organizations operating and maintaining heavy machinery and equipment fleets. Service technicians employed by the Federal Government may work on tanks and other armored military equipment.

Farm equipment mechanics service, maintain, and repair farm equipment, as well as smaller lawn and garden tractors sold to homeowners. What once was a general repairer’s job around the farm has evolved into a specialized technical career. Farmers have increasingly turned to farm equipment dealers to service and repair their equipment because the machinery has grown in complexity. Modern equipment uses more computers, electronics, and hydraulics, making it difficult to perform repairs without specialized training and tools.

Railcar repairers specialize in servicing railroad locomotives and other rolling stock, streetcars and subway cars, or mine cars. Most railcar repairers work for railroads, public and private transit companies, and railcar manufacturers.

Work environment. Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians usually work indoors. To repair vehicles and equipment, technicians often lift heavy parts and tools, handle greasy and dirty parts, and stand or lie in awkward positions. Minor cuts, burns, and bruises are common. However, serious accidents normally can be avoided as long as safety practices are observed. Although some shops are drafty and noisy, technicians usually work in well-lighted and ventilated areas. Many employers provide uniforms, locker rooms, and shower facilities. Mobile heavy equipment mechanics and railcar repairers generally work a standard 40-hour week.

When heavy or mobile equipment breaks down at a construction site, it may be too difficult or expensive to bring into a repair shop, so the shop will send a field service technician to the site to make repairs. Field service technicians work outdoors and spend much of their time away from the shop. Generally, more experienced service technicians specialize in field service. They drive trucks specially equipped with replacement parts and tools. On occasion, they must travel many miles to reach disabled machinery.

The hours of work for farm equipment mechanics vary according to the season of the year. During the busy planting and harvesting seasons, farm equipment mechanics often work 6 or 7 days a week, 10 to 12 hours daily. In slow winter months, however, they may work fewer than 40 hours a week.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Although industry experts recommend that applicants complete a formal diesel or heavy equipment mechanic training program after graduating from high school, many people qualify for service technician jobs by training on the job. Employers seek people with mechanical aptitude who are knowledgeable about diesel engines, transmissions, electrical systems, computers, and hydraulics.

Education and training. High school courses in automobile repair, physics, chemistry, and mathematics provide a strong foundation for a career as a service technician or mechanic. After high school, those interested in heavy vehicle repair can choose to attend community colleges or vocational schools that offer programs in diesel technology. Some of these schools tailor programs to heavy equipment mechanics. These programs teach the basics of analytical and diagnostic techniques, electronics, and hydraulics. The increased use of electronics and computers makes training in electronics essential for new heavy and mobile equipment mechanics. Some 1-year to 2-year programs lead to a certificate of completion, while others lead to an associate degree in diesel or heavy equipment mechanics. Formal training programs enable trainee technicians to advance to the journey, or experienced worker, level sooner than with informal ones.

Entry-level workers with no formal background in heavy vehicle repair begin to perform routine service tasks and make minor repairs after a few months of on-the-job training. As they prove their ability and competence, workers advance to harder jobs. Generally, a service technician with at least 3 to 4 years of on-the-job experience is accepted as fully qualified.

Many employers send trainee technicians to training sessions conducted by heavy equipment manufacturers. The sessions, which typically last up to 1 week, provide intensive instruction in the repair of the manufacturer’s equipment. Some sessions focus on particular components found in the equipment, such as diesel engines, transmissions, axles, or electrical systems. Other sessions focus on particular types of equipment, such as crawler-loaders and crawler-dozers. When appropriate, experienced technicians attend training sessions to gain familiarity with new technology or equipment.

Other qualifications. Technicians must read and interpret service manuals, so reading ability and communication skills are both important. The technology used in heavy equipment is becoming more sophisticated, and technicians should feel comfortable with computers and electronics because hand-held diagnostic computers are often used to make engine adjustments and diagnose problems. Experience in the Armed Forces working on diesel engines and heavy equipment provides valuable background for these positions.

Certification and advancement. There is no one certification that is recognized throughout the various industries that employ heavy vehicle mobile equipment service technicians. Rather, graduation or completion of an accredited postsecondary program in heavy vehicle repair is seen as the best credential for employees to have. Manufacturers also offer certificates in specific repairs or working with particular equipment. Such credentials allow employees to take on more responsibilities and advance faster.

Experienced technicians may advance to field service jobs, where they have a greater opportunity to tackle problems independently and earn additional pay. Field positions may require a commercial driver’s license and a clean driving record. Technicians with administrative ability may become shop supervisors or service managers. Some technicians open their own repair shops or invest in a franchise.

Employment as a Heavy Equipment Mechanic

Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics held about 190,700 jobs in 2008. Approximately 136,300 were mobile heavy equipment mechanics, 31,200 were farm equipment mechanics, and 23,100 were railcar repairers.

About 29 percent were employed by machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers. About 13 percent worked in construction, primarily for specialty trade contractors and highway, street, and bridge construction companies; another 11 percent were employed by Federal, State, and local governments. Other service technicians worked in mining; rail transportation; and commercial and industrial machinery and equipment rental, leasing, and repair. A small number repaired equipment for machinery and railroad rolling stock manufacturers. About 6 percent of service technicians were self-employed.

Nearly every area of the country employs heavy and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics, although most work in towns and cities where equipment dealers, equipment rental and leasing companies, and construction companies have repair facilities.

Job Outlook

The number of heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations. Those who have completed postsecondary training programs should find excellent opportunities, as employers report difficulty finding candidates with this training to fill available positions. Those without a formal background in diesel engine or heavy vehicle repair will face competition.

Employment change. Employment of heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics is expected to grow by 8 percent through the year 2018, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand will be driven primarily by growth in the use of heavy equipment in the construction industry, although growth will be slower in this industry than in recent years. In addition, the increasing sophistication of the technology used in heavy vehicles and mechanics should lead to greater demand for technicians and mechanics with specialized skills.

Growth in other industries that use heavy equipment, such as energy exploration and mining, will also contribute to the need for new workers. The need to feed a growing population, and the increased use of agriculture products to make biofuels, will lead to additional farm mechanic jobs, while the continued expansion of railways for freight shipping and transportation will lead to new openings for railcar repairers. Many new mobile heavy equipment and farm equipment mechanic positions are expected be in firms that sell, rent, or lease such machines, as their repair services make up an important part of their business. Employment of mobile heavy equipment mechanics is expected to grow by 9 percent from 2008-18, while jobs for farm equipment mechanics and rail car repairers are expected to increase by 7 percent.

Job prospects. Opportunities for heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics should be excellent for those who have completed formal training programs in diesel or heavy equipment mechanics. Employers report difficulty finding candidates with formal postsecondary training to fill available service technician positions. People without formal training are expected to encounter growing difficulty entering these jobs. Most job openings for mobile, rail, and farm equipment technicians will arise from the need to replace experienced repairers who retire or change occupations.

Construction and mining operations, which use large numbers of heavy vehicles and mobile equipment, are particularly sensitive to changes in the level of economic activity. While the increased use of such equipment increases the need for periodic service and repair, heavy and mobile equipment may be idle during downturns. As a result, opportunities for service technicians who work on construction and mining equipment may fluctuate with the cyclical nature of these industries. In addition, opportunities for farm equipment mechanics are seasonal and are best in warmer months.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics 49-3040 190,700 206,100 15,500 8
Farm equipment mechanics 49-3041 31,200 33,400 2,100 7
Mobile heavy equipment mechanics, except engines 49-3042 136,300 148,100 11,800 9
Rail car repairers 49-3043 23,100 24,600 1,500 7
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Heavy Equipment Mechanics

Median hourly wages of mobile heavy equipment mechanics were $20.59 in May 2008, higher than the $18.60 per hour median for all installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. The middle 50 percent earned between $16.71 and $24.85. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13.61, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $30.57. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of mobile heavy equipment mechanics were as follows:

Local government $21.93
Machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers 20.49
Other specialty trade contractors 19.83
Commercial and industrial machinery and equipment rental and leasing 19.39
Commercial and industrial machinery and equipment (except automotive and electronic) repair and maintenance 18.93

Median hourly wages of farm equipment mechanics were $15.32 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.54 and $18.61. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.28, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $22.37. In machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers, the industry employing the largest number of farm equipment mechanics, median wages were $15.64.

Median hourly wages of railcar repairers were $21.48 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $16.83 and $25.84. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13.49, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $30.23. Median hourly wages were $23.82 in rail transportation, the industry employing the largest number of railcar repairers.

About 23 percent of heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and 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. Members may enjoy job benefits in addition to what employers provide.