Recently, I got the opportunity to look inside the working life of today's diesel truck technician courtesy of three top-notch pros — Matt Wheeler, Pat Driscoll and Michael Willoughby, along with added insight from Ken Carter, their service manager or “head coach,” as he prefers to call his position.
Wheeler, Driscoll, and Willoughby all work for Rush Enterprises, at the Rush Truck Center in Oklahoma City. They'd each spent 10 long months taking training classes to prepare for the “entrance exam” to Rush's second annual technician skills rodeo held last month in Nashville. All three passed, joining 57 of their colleagues from other Rush Truck Centers around the country at the competition.
What struck me the most about this particular group of techs, whom I quickly dubbed “The Oklahoma Crew,” was their calm approach to the contest, leavened with considerable humor. Talking with them during breaks during the day and over drinks in the evening, I learned their shop — like most truck service centers, I suspect — is a close-knit fraternity, where the techs kid each other mercilessly as a way to break up the tension they work under, trying to unravel and fix an ever-widening range of complex vehicle problems on tight deadlines for customers.
“Keeping up with the changes in technology is what I think is our biggest challenge,” said Wheeler, a seven-year Air Force veteran who has worked at Rush's Oklahoma City site for 11 years now. “For a guy to come in here fresh from school and start working on these engines today, it can be really overwhelming.”
Wheeler has the highest energy of the bunch: quick to laugh and tell a joke, even one at his own expense. (“I don't like heights,” he told me. “Which left my father wondering why the hell I joined the Air Force!”) A heavy equipment repair specialist stationed in Alaska for years, fond of heavy-metal T-shirts and a prized leather Harley Davidson jacket, Wheeler jumped at the chance to repair trucks somewhere-anywhere — in warmer climes after he left the service.
Driscoll is the relative newcomer to the group, an expatriate from Canada who's been in Oklahoma City for two years, but whose experience in diesel engine repair spans nearly three decades. “I wanted to work on motorcycles, but there wasn't any money in it,” Driscoll explained to me. “So I went into diesel engine repair.”
He still raced motorcycles in his spare time, up until 1994, largely in multi-day, 100-mile or more off-road endurance contests, suffering a broken foot and ribs along the way. But when his wife finished nursing school at the same time Canadian hospitals were going through layoffs, they decided to try their luck south of the border.
Willoughby followed the most unlikely path of them all into the business. Built like a boxer, sporting a shaved head and a series of complex tattoos, he started out in a lawn mower repair shop, then spent a five-year hitch in the Army repairing Soviet armor and Vietnam-era Sheridan tanks for the “Red Teams” in war games training in California.
He literally joined the diesel truck technician ranks with no truck experience at all, yet more than made up for it with unstinting hard work — and would be the only one from the Oklahoma crew to join 11 technicians in the final round of the competition, winning $3,000 and a $1 an hour raise in the process.
“I may not have talent, I may not be fast, but you will never outwork me,” he said. After 12 years in Oklahoma City, Willoughby believes he knows why people like him become — and stay — technicians, despite the grease, the scraped knuckles, sweltering heat and cold, and the fast-paced technology upgrades that keep them hunched over computers more than they turn wrenches much of the time.
“Repairing trucks is like a puzzle: You want to figure it out and you hate to give up,” he explained. “You also feel perpetually like the new kid, telling yourself ‘I can't WAIT to get experience, because then this job won't be so hard.’ But what you really are is a full-time student — you are always learning something new. This job will make you mad many times, but it's never boring. If you get bored, then there's something wrong.”
“It's such a fast-paced business now that you can't afford to be set in your ways,” noted Ken Carter, the service manager at Rush's Oklahoma City site. “It takes a special personality to do this: you must have a passion for it.” Originally from Massachusetts, Carter has worked on trucks and engines his whole life, starting around age seven helping out in his dad's trucking business, followed by vocational school, work for Caterpillar, running his own shop, then joining Rush about eight years ago.
“We have about 25 technicians, five managers — one assistant manager, three shop foreman, and a warranty manager — and me,” he said. “I'm like the head coach — focused on strategy, finding and hiring the best players. My managers are like offensive and defensive coaches, focused on developing and executing the individual plays.”
It's a wry comparison; one Carter delivers with laughter and an easy smile — traits that carry over into how he deals with his crew on a daily basis. For to Ken's mind, the most important asset in any shop is chemistry and teamwork: that's what really makes a shop function at a high level.
“That's why I am a coach, in that my job is to figure out how to pull a team together,” Carter said. “They didn't hire me as just a manager either — they hired me to think, to find ways to do things better. And I can't do this alone — all my guys help me do it. That's what great about our place: no one has an ego and they don't watch the clock. They all help each other out.”
It's tougher now on the whole crew, as their two best and beloved senior technicians died back to back this year: Melvin Young and Charlie Sossaman. “They were like uncles, looking out for me,” recalled Willoughby, who still gets emotional talking about them. “They would watch out for you and yell at you sometimes, but that's because they wanted to make sure you didn't get hurt — and that you remembered what they told you 10 minutes ago. In many ways I felt like I grew up in this shop; it felt just like a family at times.”
“They were absolutely great guys,” added Wheeler. “Melvin actually wore out a hammer working there — a hammer! Who wears them out? But he also taught me you don't have to be fast, just persistent. Charlie taught me how to think, sometimes telling me the wrong thing to see if I'd figure it out.”
Now, Wheeler and Willoughby both find themselves taking on the role Melvin and Charlie played for so long. “One of the most poignant moments for me was when one of the younger techs asked me for help and I told him, ‘Go find one of the older guys.’ Then he came back to me and said, ‘You're it.’ That stopped me in my tracks,” said Willoughby.
But it's also a responsibility they are both accepting, too. “It's like the old saying: ‘Give a man a fish, he has a meal. Teach him to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.’ But then most of the younger guys would rather us just give them the fish,” said Wheeler.
But Willoughby added thoughtfully that this is the way it works in the diesel technician world. Knowledge isn't just acquired from books and the classroom; it's handed down from one generation of techs to the next. “It's really not me in this shirt — it's Melvin, Charlie, and all the technicians I've learned from in here. They taught me all that I know. I am their hands now.”