Testing The Next Generation of Diesel Mechanics

Diesel mechanics are in high demand, but supply is low. Unfortunately, it seems every year we’re reminded of the lack of skilled diesel mechanics in America. Worse yet, the prospects for improvement don’t look promising at the present time. However, what this shortage means for anyone considering a career in diesel—be it heavy equipment, the agriculture side of things, or even automotive—is that with the right education and skillsets you’ll be in the driver seat should you choose to travel this road. Trust us, there will be a job waiting for you—and the pay is good. It’s not uncommon for a heavy equipment field tech to bring home more than $100,000 a year.

For a glimpse into the world of upcoming diesel technicians, we attended the 2021 Diesel Equipment Technology career competition, a workforce development event put on by SkillsUSA Illinois in partnership with Caterpillar, and hosted at Altorfer CAT in Springfield, Illinois. Technical schools and high schools—specifically Illinois Central College, Johnsburg High School, and Marengo Community High School—sent their best and brightest students to compete. A win-win for all parties involved, students were able to put their skills to the test in front of potential future employers, employers on hand were able to scout for talent, and schools were obviously able to tout their technical program’s success with a win.

Despite the restrictions and guidelines associated with Covid-19, the technical committee behind the event was committed to holding an in-person competition. As a result of all their hard work and dedication, the Diesel Equipment Technology career competition was the only in-person SkillsUSA event held in Illinois this year. That’s commitment. We spent the day at Altorfer CAT watching some of the brightest young minds in the state troubleshooting equipment, working through schematics, performing component identifications, and carrying out inspections. In the following pages, we’ll cover each test station to give you a sense of just how proficient, time-aware, and multi-faceted today’s diesel technicians have to be.

If you’re familiar with the SkillsUSA name, it’s because it’s a national partnership between students, teachers, and industry professionals, and designed with the mission of ensuring America continues to have the most highly skilled workforce in the world. The SkillsUSA Illinois organization in particular enjoys support from over 600 business and industry partners, all of which have a vested interest in the workforce of the future being as skilled as it can be. All of its career competitions are run by industry experts, trade associations, and labor organizations, and are specifically designed to test competencies established by professional industry standards.
In business since 1957, Springfield, Illinois’ Caterpillar dealership, Altorfer CAT, stepped up in a big way in volunteering to be the host site for the competition. Altorfer CAT is the leading dealer of construction and agricultural equipment in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, with mulitple locations scattered throughout the region. The Springfield store offers both new and used construction equipment, equipment service and maintenance, equipment rental, on-highway truck service, and a convenient parts drop program.
To meet state-mandated Covid-19 guidelines, the competition was held outdoors and was composed of four test stations rather than its typical 12. In a normal year, and as part of the larger (all-inclusive) SkillsUSA State Leadership and Skills Conference, the Diesel Equipment Technology career competition would’ve been hosted in the Peoria Civic Center in Peoria, Illinois, the official home of Caterpillar. But despite the forced relocation and overall downsizing of the event, it was the only in-person SkillsUSA event scheduled to be held in Illinois in 2021, which speaks to the dedication of everyone involved.
For the competition, students are assigned numbers instead of name tags. This to be. is done to avoid any bias and keep things anonymous from school-to-school. To make sure they earned their points, each contestant’s number had to be included on every test sheet submitted. Beyond that, each batch of contestants were bused in prior to their start time, and kept completely separate from the group that was just finishing up.
The competition was configured in a way that allowed each test station to accommodate three contestants at a time. With four stations total it meant that a dozen-contestant maximum was in play. Students were given 20 minutes to complete their given task(s) at each test station before being rotated to the next one.
The hydraulic test station was built around the use of a John Deere 317G compact track loader, all three of which were supplied by nearby Martin Equipment. After completing a 15-question, multiple choice quiz, students performed an “on-machine” component ID exercise.
On the hydraulic component identification portion of the test, 15 ID tags were present. However, more than 15 components were listed on the accompanying answer sheet. There was no process of elimination lifeline for students to use.
Here, a student took a break from the component ID portion of the hydraulic station test to take the multiple choice quiz. During their 20-minute session, contestants were allowed to bounce back and forth between the ID tag exercise and the quiz.
Station number 2 called for live engine troubleshooting on a Cat 926M wheel loader. The simulated customer complaint was that a check engine light had come on. To save the contestants some time, the need to perform a warranty report/product status report (something a tech in the field would have to conduct) was waived.
A host of tools were available for contestants to use at the live engine test station. Among them was a laptop with access to SIS 2.0 (Service Information System), Cat’s online parts and service manuals. Additional items at students’ disposal were Cat’s ET (electronic service tool), a multimeter, and a few other small tools.
On top of being given a paper copy of the sensor signal test for the 926M wheel loader, the full wiring schematic for the machine was provided. Additional tools and parts beyond what was provided could be requested from a judge, and provided if they were required.
Showing your work is a huge part of the SkillsUSA competition scoring system. Each contestant is required to document, in writing, how they came to each particular troubleshooting answer.
Prior to making any repair, contestants had to confirm their findings (and the proper fix) with the judge assigned to that particular station. Nick Rummel, a former Caterpillar field tech, current Services Manager in Peoria, Illinois, and member of the competition committee, told us that he expected a 50-to-60-percent pass rate for high school contestants and a 60-to-70-percent pass rate for tech school competitors at the live engine station.
At the third test station, contestants were given a multimeter and electrical spoons to assist them in troubleshooting electronic issues. This type of troubleshooting is known to stump many folks who are otherwise sound mechanics. We looked on as most ICC students appeared to work through the questionnaire steadily and systematically.
The components within the boxes shown here represented a lighting circuit. The aforementioned supplied multimeter and electrical spoons were to be used to complete the troubleshoot test. Circuit number 3 (of 6) was the reference circuit. Contestants were not allowed to remove any light bulbs or fuses, but connectors A (visible here) and B could be disconnected without penalty.
Over at station 4, a 21-point inspection had to be conducted on a medium duty field service truck. The test station was overseen by members of nearby truck dealer, Rush Truck Centers. We learned it was essentially the same inspection its techs perform every day at the dealership, which is geared around maximizing the customer’s uptime.
On top of coordinating the truck inspection portion of the competition, Rush Truck Centers supplied the guinea pigs: three brand-new extended cab MV series Internationals with 240hp B6.7 Cummins engines under their hoods. At the conclusion of the SkillsUSA competition they were delivered and immediately put into service.
The truck inspection checklist was developed using Rush Truck Centers’ typical in-house checklist, and believe it or not things like dipsticks are in fact missing on some of the vehicles that come through its shop… Most of the inspection was visual (steering components, engine oil leaks, a glance at the suspension and exhaust systems, etc.), but several accessories were purposely rendered inoperable in order to make sure students checked everything, along with documenting the problems they found in writing.
Some of the issues at the truck inspection station were more glaring than others, such as a missing lug nut, coolant cap, or the aforementioned MIA oil dipstick. Other problems were a little covert, like the fact that the air box was void of an air filter, the windshield washer motor wasn’t working, and the A/C blower motor wasn’t functioning.
In our time spent around both high school groups, we found two highly passionate and energetic teachers in Martin Sands of Johnsburg High School and Dan Schirmer of Marengo Community High School. Both were enthusiastic about the opportunities their programs provide for their students, such as paving the way for them to excel in post-secondary education (tech school) or land them job placement right out of high school. Both also agreed that the ability to diagnose a problem is huge in the heavy equipment, agricultural or automotive field, and that if you can troubleshoot you can work anywhere and on anything.
Each wave of students had its picture taken in front of this brand-new dozer sitting on Altorfer CAT’’s lot. The D8T, considered a medium dozer in Caterpillar’s extensive line of 16 different models, makes use of a 354hp C15 and boasts an operating weight of 87,600 pounds. One day soon, many of these students will get to work on equipment like this for a living.


The ICC Connection


As for the cream of the crop at the SkillsUSA competition, Illinois Central College (ICC) sends the best of the best from its Diesel Powered Equipment Technology and Caterpillar Dealer Service Technology programs. The latter program was developed as a joint venture between Caterpillar and ICC, and the two-year program is designed to train students to become entry-level Caterpillar dealer service technicians upon graduation. While enrolled in the program, students are able to serve four 8-week paid internships at their sponsoring Caterpillar dealership, accumulating invaluable on-the-job training in the process. That’s right, they pay you to go to school—and you get a dollar per hour raise each time a new 8-week internship begins. Started in 1998, the goal of the program was to meet the expanding need for heavy equipment technicians, and that still remains true today. The world needs diesel technicians in a bad way. If you’re ready to get on the fast-track to a rewarding career, check it out for yourself at icc.edu.










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