How a Class 1 tractor mechanic views his life in the shop, and the future of the trade

In addressing the issue of a technician shortage that continues to worsen, improvements in four areas are frequently mentioned as potential solutions: pay, image, training, and working conditions.

To attract more young people with mechanical talent, the industry must raise technician pay so that it's more competitive with that of other trades. The perception of truck techs as mere "grease monkeys" must be elevated. Diesel tech training programs must be rejuvenated to attract more students. And working conditions in truck shops need to be improved. Which of these is likely to produce the most benefit for the industry?

In a non-scientific, yet highly revealing, attempt to find out, I asked a seasoned Class 1 technician for his opinions. For 25 of his 44 years, Steve Ploucher has toiled on trucks for LoBiondo Bros. Motor Express, a truckload carrier domiciled in Rosenhayn, N.J.

My premise was pretty straightforward. If there's so much that's not right in the truck techs' world, what motivates professionals like Ploucher to plug away year after year? The inquiry was conducted over the course of an extended shift that started at 6:00 a.m. and lasted till 3:30 that afternoon.

The energetic tech was eager to share his feelings -- almost as eager, in fact, as he was to earn some overtime.

The LoBiondo shop was shorthanded that day because one of the technicians was on vacation. In addition to making some extra money, Ploucher wanted to clock an extra half hour to help his co-workers shoulder the heavier workload.

Concern for his colleagues may stem in part from Ploucher's deep religious values. An ardent Baptist, he teaches Sunday school and serves as a deacon in his church. As the day progressed, the spirit of mutual respect and understanding that exists among the whole tech force, as well as between management and techs, became evident.

"A nice thing about this place is the utter honesty of the people," Ploucher commented. "Techs must invest $10,000 to $15,000 in tools just to get started. Here we can set them down without having to worry about whether they will be stolen. In many shops, stolen tools are a fact of life."

Fixing things with moving parts comes naturally to most techs, and Ploucher derives immense satisfaction from formulating and implementing repair strategies. He learns from his mistakes and divides complex, difficult jobs into small manageable chunks. In short, when he's around heavy equipment and exercising his "tradesman's genes," he's a happy man.

In chatting with Ploucher's foreman, Craig Weber, and maintenance director, Gaspar "Gap" Sparacio, it became clear that other LoBiondo techs experience similar feelings of accomplishment and gratification. One reason is the shop takes no short cuts and does things right.

Although it generally tries to follow flat-rate guidelines, the repair operation is not fanatical about trying to beat or even meet the book. "But quick, complete, high-quality work is our strong point," Sparacio emphasized. "Our suppliers understand our philosophy, and work hard to quickly and accurately provide the parts and supplies we depend on."

The tractor-shop day shift normally consists of Ploucher, another 1st Class tech, and a 2nd Class tractor tech. A trio of 1st Class trailer techs labor in the adjacent trailer shop. The LoBiondo facility, Sparacio pointed out, is an IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) shop, Local 676.

Situated in southern New Jersey, the repair complex, which was built in the 1930s, has been improved and expanded over the years to keep pace with new technology.

After trucking deregulation went into effect in 1980, the LoBiondo family trimmed back their common carrier operation. Today, it consists of 25 tractors with 400 trailers and about 25 owner-operators. The owners expanded their repair operation, however. The 24-hour shop has scant competition in its territory, and business is growing.

Half of the work that Ploucher and his fellow techs perform is for local truck operators, not LoBiondo's equipment. Since they work on so many different types of equipment, LoBiondo technicians derive intrinsic rewards from being masters of flexibility. Ploucher's first words after we met were, "When you work here, you've got to be prepared to fix anything management brings in."

For example, Ploucher had recently helped put a crippled straddle crane back into service. The crane, which dated back to the 1960s, is now in business doing container work.

My day with Ploucher began before the sun came up.

6:05 a.m. Ploucher reviewed the work order for his "project of the day" with foreman Craig Weber. The customer's Ford E-350 cutaway with 16-ft. van body had originally come in because of a worn left front tire. LoBiondo sent the vehicle to an outside alignment shop, and the report that came back was not good. Serious front-suspension defects had been discovered, including a very loose left-hand upper ball joint and radius arm bushings that were nearly pounded out.

After repairing a faulty backup lamp and straightening out the rumpled driver's-side floor mat, Ploucher readied himself for some front-end work. He jacked up the vehicle, placed safety stands underneath it, and evaluated the state of the suspension. As he separated the ball joints from the axle with a hammer and pickle fork, a puzzled expression came over his face. "I've never replaced ball joints on an E-350 before," Ploucher said.

Third Class mechanic and hookup man Joe Bartee, a trailer technician with a background in school bus repair, was walking by. He peered over Ploucher's shoulder and passed on a quick tip on removing the spindle/hub assembly.

"Everyone in this shop has different areas of expertise," Ploucher told me. "We often rely on each other's experience to get jobs completed." Ploucher decided to unbolt the front sway bar to gain some room around the axle. When he did, he noted the bar's LH rubber bushing was also missing.

As he proceeded to partially disassemble the front suspension, Ploucher said he had not begun his career as a truck mechanic. "I took an assembly line job for a year, but soon got bored. My father and grandfather were truck techs and always enjoyed their work. By then I was beginning to understand that fixing mechanical things was in my blood."

Ploucher attended technical school for a year, where he learned to work on Detroit Diesel 8V-71 and 6V-92 engines, which were popular at the time. At 19 he came to LoBiondo Bros., where he basically learned about trucks on the job. Demonstrating a special flair for electrical and electronic diagnosis, Ploucher worked his way up through the 3rd and 2nd shifts, and from 3rd Class to 1st Class mechanic.

"It's a lot harder for a person to enter the trade that way today," he pointed out. "Fleet shops expect their new techs to arrive prepared to tackle any mechanical or electronic job. That's because trucks are more complicated now. You really need a comprehensive two-year trade school education to get a flying start."

7:00 a.m. With the spindle/hub separated from the axle, Ploucher looked around for the hand truck, which he would use to transport it 50 ft. to the shop's 40-ton arbor press. The press would be used to drive out the worn ball joints and install new ones. "Physical strength helps in this job," he admitted. "There's a lot of grunt work to be done. Lifting, bumps and bruises, and cuts to your hands all wear the body down."

That's why the LoBiondo shop invests in lots of specialty jacks and other labor-saving equipment. "Much of the responsibility for safety lies with the individual technician. Management can't be looking over everyone's shoulder every minute. If a tech is wise, he'll get in the habit of using labor-saving equipment at every opportunity, take his time, and work as safely as he can. There are many potential dangers and risks in this job, regardless of how new or how old a shop is."

I could see Ploucher wince as he rolled the spindle onto the hand truck. Obviously, he's a wiser man now, and more protective of his back. Quite a difference from his younger days, when he fearlessly raced motorcycles through the woods in Endura competitions.

As Ploucher passed by Gene Stoms' workbay, he answered a question that Stoms had about preventive maintenance he was performing on a LoBiondo tractor. He then briefly helped another tech, who was in the process of dropping an oil pan.

I asked Ploucher: Would you want one of your kids to became a truck tech? "No way." He most definitely feels that diesel technicians are underpaid. His $12.50/hr. labor rate, while relatively good for the area, does not reflect his skill level. "A kid can bag groceries in the local Acme Supermarket for $9 an hour," he pointed out. For the Ploucher family to survive financially, it's necessary for his wife, a school receptionist, to work.

"There is a new contract being negotiated, but I doubt whether it will mean more than a dime per hour increase in our wages," he stated glumly.

What makes Ploucher feel even worse is that when he looks back to the days when he first began working at LoBiondo, his standard of living was higher. But a truck tech has to be farsighted, he says. Ploucher is fully aware that when he is ready to retire, a generous Teamsters' pension awaits. And with the addition of Social Security benefits, he'll be better off financially than at any other time in his life. That awareness helps keep him going.

Sparacio pointed out that LoBiondo technicians receive many insurance benefits that are not reflected in net wages. "When these benefits are figured in, our techs are actually up in the $27 or $28 an hour range. In addition, our techs are entitled to paid vacations and paid time off."

There are opportunities to change professions and make more money. "Several years ago my wife wanted me to take a position as a prison guard. The state was building several new penitentiaries here. Lots of local blue-collar workers took jobs as prison guards; with overtime, they have tripled their former salaries. Personally, I doubt whether I could be happy cooped up in a jail environment with the inmates. Truck work is what I like."

In Ploucher's view, though, the future of the trade appears bleak. "Yes, there's a terrific shortage of qualified people coming into the trade. Yes, America needs these people to keep trucks rolling. The problem is that the tech has to get adjusted to the reality of low pay; he has to understand that shops pay what they can afford. Whether you work in a union or non-union environment, fixing trucks means being locked into a low hourly wage. On the other hand, if you like mechanical challenges, there's no better place to work."

10:00 a.m. Ploucher was notified that he'd have to make a road call, which he generally doesn't mind. That day, however, was an exceptionally rainy one. A customer phoned Weber to report that the night driver of its Ottawa YT-30 yard tractor had an accident, and the right-hand mirror was smashed. That meant no trailers could be spotted till repairs were made to the unit.

Ploucher and another tech placed a heavy arc welder in the bed of the service pickup and secured it to the sidewall, just in case some bracket welding was necessary. They also put a portable oxyacetylene welder on board. "You never know what you may need on a road call. When we arrive, the wheels could be off the vehicle. Better to be over-prepared," he said.

Ploucher went to the parts department, where he picked up a West Coast, a spot mirror, and assorted bracketry and fasteners.

We arrived at the customer's warehouse complex and spent about 10 minutes driving between storage buildings, trying to locate the spotting tractor. When we found it, the driver motioned us to follow as he drove into a warehouse to get out of the rain. Ploucher followed him in with the service pickup.

Once inside, it took about an hour to straighten the mangled mirror bracket and re-install new mirrors. The spotter could return to action. "This road call turned out be an easy fix, but sometimes it can be an experience," Ploucher said.

11:30 a.m. Back to the shop, and the cutaway's front end.

12:30 p.m. Half-hour lunch break. Other techs talk shop, discussing the questionable practice by some fast-growth common carriers of doing mass hiring of techs when they are overwhelmed with work, then refusing to pay time-and-a-half for overtime.

1:00 p.m. Now that the left radius arm is re-bushed, Ploucher turns his attention to the more challenging right-hand side. Deciding it was fruitless to try and disconnect the radius-arm bracket because access to its bolts were blocked by the muffler, he disconnects the twin I-beams and is able to swing the entire suspension forward. This gives enough access to remove the worn bushings and install new ones.

"The truck tech is always being asked to take special training and acquire new skills," Ploucher said. "We need A/C and brake work certifications, even ASE certifications. Although we need these skills and special qualifications to do our work efficiently, they don't always translate into more take-home pay. In addition, techs are now being asked to get CDL endorsements for haz-mat, doubles, and triples."

How does Ploucher feel about union vs. non-union shops? He leans to the union viewpoint -- sort of. "Union seniority rules are rigid, designed to shield long-term techs from certain forms of abuse, including being put back on 3rd shifts or being required to do things they don't want to do, such as refueling trucks. I can understand why young people would feel stymied by these rules.

"On the other hand," he continued, "a young tech may not be too happy working in a high-pressure non-union shop. No doubt, a forward-thinking non-union shop might offer better pay than our shop, but the benefits won't be as good."

3:00 p.m. With the right-hand bushing replaced, twin I-beams reunited, and the left-hand wheel about to be reinstalled, Ploucher is feeling pretty good about his day's accomplishments. "There's a lot of peer pressure in this shop to do a good job. I really want to get this vehicle completed before I punch out. I don't want to leave an incomplete job for the next shift."

3:30 p.m. Ploucher put away his tools and cleaned up. We said goodbye. He got into his 1972 pickup and drove the three miles to his home.

Yes, the Steve Plouchers who work on trucks are concerned about wages and working conditions, and would like to see their contributions to the nation's economic well-being more deeply appreciated. But deep down they are performing work that they enjoy and are well-suited for. Despite all the difficulties, they get real satisfaction out of fixing things.