At a Glance
Some benefits of being an off-road equipment technician or operator include:
- High demand that far exceeds supply.
- Competitive salary immediately after graduation.
- Ability to learn about technologies developing in the industry.
- Opportunities for travel or relocation throughout the U.S. and worldwide
The most sophisticated, multi-tasking, technological off-road equipment available today and on the drawing board for tomorrow is of no use to the industries it serves without a strong foundation of skilled experts to understand, maintain, repair, and operate it. Off-road equipment is a key ingredient of building roads and transportation systems, supporting the agricultural industry, and for all types of construction and mining work. Training and developing that crucial network of experts is no small task at the rate technological change occurs today, but there are programs aimed to do just that.
Training Program Grows
In the early 1990s, Roy Achemire, division chair of the Heavy Equipment and Vehicle Institute at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT), was happy with a class count of 79 students in the school's diesel technician training program. Today, the same program hosts closer to 230 students per year, sees demand for more than 500, and without hesitation, Achemire said, "I can easily place that many successful graduates in jobs in this emerging field post-graduation."
Achemire spent about 15 years in the crude oil transport industry, working with trucks and pipelines, and had extensive experience in parts prior to advancing to the division chair position he now holds at OSUIT.
The school's focus is preparing students for the workforce. Achemire summarizes the school's mission statement as addressing an advancing technological focus, underscoring quality in all endeavors, and memorializing a commitment to multiculturalism, with a student body consisting of 25 percent Native Americans and 50 percent first-generation college students. OSUIT strives to provide an education that is well-rounded for its students.
OSUIT's primary strength is its partnerships with business, industry, and employers. Achemire said these partnerships provide significant resources for facilities, equipment, supplies, scholarships, and curriculum advisement. According to Achemire, "OSUIT's teaching approach is a project-based applied learning methodology."
He pointed to employer partnerships as having a significant influence and impact on student success. "Industry and advisors are vital in ensuring that the program curriculum is current and aligned with industry standards and expectations," he said. The Institute website states that the Heavy Equipment and Vehicle Institute is a national leader in curriculums of this type.
Employers are clamoring for skilled students with off-road skill sets in many industries. Providing a steady pool of motivated students with an aptitude for off-road maintenance and repair is a constant challenge. Currently, Achemire and his colleagues employ some of the same recruiting techniques used by schools wooing star athletes for sports programs.
Extensive community outreach efforts are one way programs such as OSUIT attract students. According to Achemire, the pool of potential candidates, including boys and girls from family farming backgrounds, is limited. Professional recruiters, companies, and schools all work with high schools and career counselors, targeting not only the obvious FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) and agricultural program students, but also those focused on everything from computer science to music.
"You'd be surprised at the results we've achieved by reaching out to contacts such as football coaches and music instructors in searching for the next generation of off-road technical experts. Recruiters now begin to focus their efforts on students at the grade school level. Neighborhood boys and girls programs like scouting have become forums to spread the word about future careers in off-road equipment," Achemire said. "The goal is to engage kids at an early age to provide them with information so that they will consider off-road equipment repair and maintenance among other, perhaps more customary, career choices. Excellent salaries, benefits, and other opportunities available literally worldwide help make the field attractive and competitive among the many career paths available today."
Educational institutions are not the only place off-road equipment and repair candidates are found. According to Achemire, "Returning soldiers from Iraq, former white-collar managers, and blue-collar shop workers are making the shift to more advanced technical careers in the off-road field because jobs are abundant and pay well. The program's paid internships and nearly 100-percent job placement are major benefits."
At graduation time, a typical liberal arts major may find him or herself in competition with 70 other candidates for a white-collar job in entry level management. Not so for those who master off-road equipment skills, another benefit of choosing a field where demand far exceeds supply. How do salaries and benefits compare? According to Achemire, a high school graduate in the central United States can find "entry-level jobs in the $14 to $18 per-hour range immediately upon graduation from OSUIT."
Another plus is that the opportunities for jobs could involve travel or relocation throughout the United States, China, Malaysia, Africa, or the United Kingdom. Add multi-lingual to the list of most sought-after skills employers value in this field.
Important attributes for someone interested in a career in off-road maintenance and repair include: written communications skills, technical writing ability, good customer relations skills, knowledge of computers and science basics, math, physics, and ethics. Of course, mechanical skills and aptitude are a major benefit. A foundation in the basics prepares students for introduction to the advanced level of technical expertise necessary in the field. OSUIT prides itself on providing its students with the skills to understand new systems and technologies as they are introduced.
The off-road field presents some challenges unique to its on-road counterpart. The size of the equipment is one - many of the components weigh more than 50 lbs. Due to the scale of equipment, maintaining safety is even more critical, particularly in the areas of hearing and eye protection and proper lifting techniques.
OSUIT has seven distinct "diesel" programs serving a variety of company and association needs, including Caterpillar and Komatsu as well as construction and agriculture equipment dealers who are members of the South Western Association. Most students are sponsored by dealer/employers before completing enrollment in these technician training programs. Students attend classes at OSUIT for half of each semester and work the other half-semester as paid interns at the sponsoring dealerships/employers. Achemire described it as a "hands on, logical/sequential training approach."
He recently attended the Caterpillar Think Big global conference this year, discussing what is happening around the world in technician training. Participants from several countries in North America, South America, Europe, South Africa, and China discussed new technology, shared best practices, and talked about problems in recruiting students and employees and retaining them. According to Achemire, manufacturers are investing "literally hundreds of millions of dollars into developing the technician workforce."
Career Choices Abound
Once recruited, with education complete, technicians face a variety of choices within their career field. They might be placed at a high-tech equipment dealer service center operating computer diagnostics tools, or they may choose among jobs all around the globe.
When Aggreko, a provider of generators, load banks, electrical distribution, chiller and portable heating, and air conditioning equipment for rental, was contracted to provide diesel generators, electrical distribution, and heating for venues at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, the company reached out to OSUIT to find new talent. Aggreko Selec-Tech freshmen and sophomores worked in Vancouver during their internships. Aggreko is definitely in the major leagues of its field, having provided services at the PGA Championship, U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup, and even on movie sets including Titanic and Harry Potter. The project involving OSUIT students was a big success; current students continue to intern in entertainment and emergency response programs across the United States.
In response to market demand for skilled technicians, OSUIT recently expanded by developing a niche training program for crane technicians in conjunction with Manitowoc, GMK, Grove, and National Crane. Another area of rapid growth requiring maintenance and repair skill sets is natural gas compression. Natural gas engines and compressors send gas through the network of pipelines that are an increasingly important variable in the national and world energy supply equation.
Technicians install and maintain natural gas engines and compressors as well as the electronics and communication systems that allow powerful and sophisticated remote operation and diagnostics capabilities.
Keeping up with Technology
In terms of future challenges, Achemire expects the ability to keep up on rapidly changing product knowledge in the field while developing students' language, math, and business skills are at the top of the list, along with dealing with the new technology devised to meet the world's tougher emissions standards. He feels OSUIT is up to the task.
Alternative fuels, hybrids, and compressed natural gas are all part of the mix of current and developing technologies aimed at reducing emissions. For example, hybrid mining trucks, dozers, wheel loaders, and excavators are no longer just concepts on a drawing board. The school will continue to adjust curriculums to match the myriad types of engine and fuel technology designs and types. Achemire fully expects OSUIT graduates to continue to be a part of the rapidly changing face of off-road repair and maintenance.
While part of OSUIT's mission is to prepare and provide a skilled workforce for maintenance and repair, another aspect of its scope is to help ensure a supply of qualified operators as well. Marv Epperly, a professional John Deere operator, is an expert in the operation of road construction equipment and provides operation instruction.
Epperly provides instruction for the OSU Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) and Tribal Technical Assistance Program (TTAP), providing both hands-on and classroom training. Epperly strives to teach equipment operators proper techniques to use whatever road grading equipment they are operating.
TTAP was developed as a training and technology transfer resource for North American tribes in the United States; both are funded by Federal Highway Administration funds.
LTAP and TTAP are part of the OSUIT training curriculum, developed to support equipment manufacturers and equipment buyers. One of the program missions is to provide outreach programs to those responsible for the construction and maintenance of transportation systems at the local level in the State of Oklahoma. The program provides information on how to use the equipment safely and effectively.
Epperly is also a product application consultant with John Deere Training Center, located in Davenport, Iowa, and with demo sites in Coal Valley, Ill., and Sacaton, Ariz.
A professional operator-demonstrator of heavy equipment since 1986 and in construction prior to that, Epperly is experienced in road building, surface and below-ground drainage, and earth moving. He has gone from his experience as an elected township road commissioner to conducting motor grader operator training throughout the world.
Epperly explained what defines off-road in this way: "Whenever you don't have pavement, or macadam surfaces to support the weight of a vehicle meant to travel at high speeds, and you leave stabilized surfaces to traverse natural soils to do a work task." For example, all-terrain cranes go places where there are no roads; dozers create pads for machines such as windmills and make roads for concrete trucks to be able to go in and pour the pad so other trucks can bring in hardware to build the windmill.
Epperly said the biggest difference with off-road equipment in comparison to on-road equipment is that powertrains and chassis are more robust for the harsh environments they are operated in. On-road equipment is as light as possible to reserve power for speed and to keep loads on roadways as small as possible for a given task.
Electric substation construction and cross-country transmission lines are some other examples of the work Epperly trains operators to perform. He is fluent in the operation of bulldozers, scrapers, and excavators.
Well-traveled, Epperly's passport has gotten quite a workout over the years across the world. He has visited South America, the Asian Pacific Rim, South Africa, England and continental Europe, and Russia.
Typically, he demonstrates equipment capabilities for a dealer pre-sale and then travels to the worksite, bringing buyers up to speed on all operational aspects of the equipment for multi-unit sales. He frequently goes back for more operator training as part of a sale.
Epperly said, "As the machines evolve and get more complicated, so do the controls and the training for operators." Epperly frequently performs work on live projects while demonstrating the characteristics of equipment. He has performed earth moving and raising elevations with county, state, and customer contractors who have or are prospective new equipment owners.
As for anticipated changes to the machinery he works with, Epperly also pointed to changes related to emission standards. Machines are now IT4 emission-level compliant with regenerating capability, after filters like catalytic convertors, sensors, and soot containment work while in regeneration mode. Exhaust temperatures are higher, requiring additional caution in how they are operated.
Operators now must be familiar with proper techniques for urea use, storage, and handling, and how to work around or delay regeneration at critical times in a project.
According to Epperly, it's not unusual for trades such as heavy-equipment operation to be overlooked by students when career-hunting. "Being a journeyman operator is a noble trade, the pay is competitive, it's not the typical corporate work environment, and work is performed outdoors," he said.
Epperly said demand for training has steadily increased, as has the need to find qualified operator candidates. "The skills are generally not intuitive; most students have to literally be taught from the ground up. Manufacturers are building simulators to provide virtual training to supplement the hands-on training on a real machine in the field."
Students out of the OSU, LTAP, and TTAP programs hit the ground running having already had experience running heavy equipment. Epperly helps them develop the polish and refinement needed to meet the exacting standards that projects such as road engineering would require. The training center also provides technician training for dealerships.
How Changing Technology Will Affect Operators
What are some of the bigger challenges in the operator training field today? "The single biggest challenge relative to the technology is stringent government timelines to get emissions as clean as possible fast, while keeping equipment affordable," Epperly said. "It is necessary to maintain engine life and equipment integrity while keeping it affordable, taking into consideration fuel costs and operator costs."
As an example, Epperly pointed out that "25 years ago, a common 44,000-lb. bulldozer cost around $100,000. Today, the same machine meeting all current regulations pertaining to clean air and safety runs in the neighborhood of $300,000-$350,000 and is far more complex, requiring a much more extensive skill set to maintain and operate. It's all part of the cost of progress." He also stated that the price to move dirt to build a new store, parking lot, or subdivision might have cost $1.25 a yard; it now costs $1.50.
"Maximizing equipment uptime with the complexity of modern off-road equipment is an ongoing challenge. Strong companies will survive by staying ahead of the technology and utilizing training programs such as OSU, LTAP, and TTAP," Epperly said.
Advancements in off-road equipment technology such as GPS, laser grade systems, and other tools require greater study and training but will also mean these jobs will command higher pay.
The off-road equipment environment is also improving for operators and is generally physically less demanding now. Annual salaries of $100,000 plus bonuses are entirely possible. Students and trainees can get a quick return on investment from education in this field. Epperly advised potential candidates to focus on math, computers, engineering, and reading up on jobsite planning for a leg up into the off-road equipment operator environment.
For More Information
For further information about Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT), OSU Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), or OSU Tribal Technical Assistance Program (TTAP), contact:
About the Author
Barbara Bonansinga is a public service administrator, Division of Vehicles, at the State of Illinois and is a member of the Government Fleet Advisory Board.