The future is looking pretty bright for diesel mechanics and service technicians. And for once government regulations might actually prove a boon and a windfall, at least for this demographic. New emissions, fuel economy, and performance standards mandated by both government and industry are leading to the development of a new generation of diesel engines, using innovative, cutting edge technologies and fuels, and those who understand the science and engineering and can work with these new technologies will be able to command higher salaries and a have wider variety of fields to work in.
The overall employment and salary outlook for diesel technicians is already looking pretty good from a general perspective. According to the U.S. Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, a typical bureaucratic mouthful and always a couple of years behind, the median pay for diesel technicians and mechanics was $43,320 annually in 2012, or $20.35 per hour. There were a little over 250,000 people working in the field nationwide, and job growth is forecast to be about 9% through 2022, about the same on average as other occupations.
Clean Technology Drives the Future of Diesel
But those future estimates are based mainly on previous statistical trends, and don’t necessarily present an accurate forecast of what will be the reality in a rapidly changing industry. New and developing technologies seem likely to create jobs at a faster growth rate and higher salaries for those willing and able to embrace the opportunities. The biggest driver of change is emissions.
Diesel engines have a higher thermal efficiency and are much more fuel efficient than gasoline engines, and these advantages have made the diesel the go-to powerplant for trucks and construction equipment. The major, almost the only, disadvantage of diesel engines is that they are dirty. Diesel emissions have high levels of tiny particulate matter (PM), and NOx, the common term for both nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide, pretty nasty pollutants, as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
In response to environmental concerns and increasing complaints, in 2004 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced what are known as the Tier-4 emissions standards. These standards have been slowly phased in between 2008 and 2015. New diesel engines must be Tier-4 compliant, which means that PM and NOx emissions must be 50% to 96% lower than the previous generation of engines.
Phase 1 of those standards has just been successfully accomplished. And now it’s time to begin
Phase 2. As part of the Green Power Plan, a larger global initiative to decrease greenhouse gases, Phase 2 is an even more ambitious program to lower emissions and increase fuel economy.
Speaking at a recent rulemaking hearing attended by top-level government environmental and highway safety officials, Allen Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum, said, “Now achieving near zero emissions, clean diesel technology powers the overwhelming majority of medium and commercial trucks today and thanks to these improvements is poised to continue as the prime powertrain technology for commercial vehicles in the future. The engine may look and perform somewhat differently, and may be burning different kinds of low carbon fuels. But in the end, it will still be a diesel engine and an integral component of meeting the needs of a growing economy and a cleaner and more sustainable future.”
What Does All This Mean?
It means to reach these lofty goals, even more advanced technologies and new fuels are required. And that means an ever growing demand for highly-trained diesel mechanics and technicians capable of designing, installing, and maintaining a new generation of engine components and all the support technologies that go with them, with the leverage to command ever higher salaries.
What are some of these new technologies? While each engine manufacturer develops their own designs and innovations to bring their product into compliance, several technologies are, by necessity, becoming somewhat standard among all of them. These include:
- Exhaust Gas Recirculation – This involves recirculating exhaust gases back into the combustion chamber, lowering the temperature of combustion, which helps to limit the formation of NOx gases. This is hardly a new concept, but the way it’s being done and the design of the components to make it happen is breaking new ground.
- Filter Regeneration – Filters need to be clean to work effectively, and this process uses either very high heat, from the engine or another source, or a catalyst incorporated into the filter, to burn off accumulated particulate matter and soot as the engine operates, increasing filter efficiency and service life.
- Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Fuels – Compliant engines must be able to use these new ULSD fuels.
- Filters, Catalysts, and After-Treatment Systems – A plethora of other components on new engines will treat emissions in a variety of ways as manufacturers strive to achieve zero emissions output. Most of these will have to be changed, cleaned, inspected, and replaced on a very regular basis.
It’s an exciting time to be entering the field of diesel technology, and those who pursue diesel mechanic jobs in the future stand poised to reap considerable rewards.