TUNNEL HILL, Ga. — Once your vehicle's odometer goes past 200,000 miles, you might think you're making your car, truck or SUV last.
But for a diesel big rig, that's nothing.
"About 500,000 miles is when we start looking to flip them out of the fleet," said Jason Beason, corporate manager for maintenance at the Chattanooga-based trucking company, U.S. Xpress Inc.
So mechanics — or diesel technicians, as they're called these days — are a key part of a big trucking company like U.S. Xpress, which has a fleet of 7,000 tractors and 15,500 trailers. Diesel technicians are getting harder to find, company officials said. Some techs can command close to a six-figure salary depending on their skills, and other companies out there try to lure techs away.
As a way to keep its diesel technicians feeling appreciated and happy, U.S. Xpress held its second-annual Maximum Technician Competition Thursday at the company's repair depot near Interstate 75 in Tunnel Hill, Ga.
It drew 29 top diesel technicians from U.S. Xpress' 19 repair facilities across the country. They came to Tunnel Hill to take a battery of written and hands-on tests to further narrow down the field to seven diesel technicians who'll travel to Orlando, Fla., in September to compete in the American Trucking Association's Technology & Maintenance Council skills competition.
In the hands-on portion, Beason said contestants took turns inspecting diesel rigs that had such problems as a shorted-out exhaust temperature sensor, steering that vibrated when the rig turned left — even a single missing lug nut on a semi trailer.
Safety is key, he said. A technician who skips a safety-minded step, such as chocking a wheel to keep a rig from rolling, can fail that portion of the test — even after correctly diagnosing a problem.
Contestants received a number of prizes from 70-inch TVS to gift cards ranging in value from $100 to $2,000, Beason said. All of the prizes were sponsored by companies that supply U.S. Xpress, he said.
Gerry Mead, senior vice president of maintenance at U.S. Xpress, said the company's diesel technicians appreciate being able to take part in the competition.
"Hey, my company really cares," is their response, Mead said.
Employment of diesel service technicians and mechanics is projected to grow 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the best job opportunities for technicians with postsecondary training in diesel engine repair.