Rush Truck Centers contest reveals technicians’ computer savvy

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By Olivia Grider

When his mother wanted to throw away a broken “Star Wars” toy, then-4-year-old Jon Newby took the spaceship apart, repaired a wing mechanism and reassembled it. Randy Hughes rebuilt his first heavy-duty engine – a Cummins 335 – when he was 16. Jason Swann bought a worn-out pickup when he was 14 and enjoyed fixing it so much, he spent the next several years working on other people’s vehicles.

If your truck has a mechanical problem, you’d be lucky to have one of them at the helm.

Hughes, Newby and Swann had a chance to demonstrate the talents they’ve honed since childhood during the recent first-ever Rush Truck Centers’ Technician Skills Rodeo, held in Nashville, Tenn. Of 350 Rush technicians who took a written test, 45 qualified for the two-day, hands-on competition. Eight – including Hughes, Newby and Swann – made it to the final round. Swann went on to win the overall competition.

“Finally, the technicians are getting recognition,” says Bill Bilbo, general manager of Rush’s Nashville dealership. “For a long time, people haven’t appreciated what it takes to be a technician. It’s not a blacksmith environment anymore. This is the future.”

Contestants spent as much time looking at computer screens as they did inspecting three new Peterbilts that were “bugged” for the event. The technicians’ knowledge of software often played more of a role in locating a problem’s source than their familiarity with the truck itself.

In the final round, contestants had to know Peterbilt’s program for diagnostics, says Hughes, who placed second all around and in two preliminary divisions. The trucks’ gauges were malfunctioning, but the problem was in the data link, which carries messages from multiple computer systems on the truck.

If technicians followed the steps laid out in the computer program, discovering the bug was easy, says Ken Carter, service manager at the Oklahoma City Rush Truck Center. But if they tried to tackle the problem mechanically, they were lost.

Hughes says successful truck technicians now have to understand how mechanical and electrical systems are integrated. “You have to read one to understand the other,” the Texarkana, Ark., dealership technician says.

The first phase of the skills rodeo consisted of three divisions – Caterpillar, Cummins and Eaton – with 15 technicians competing in each.

Caterpillar engineers developed six bugs for its test, but the most any technician found was three. “We made it tough,” says Darrel Phelps, a Caterpillar judge. Contestants also received points for doing a general inspection and knowing how to use Caterpillar’s online service information and diagnostic tools.

During the Eaton test, contestants used a computer program to diagnose a common failure and then update the transmission’s software. Contestant Pat Wall from the Lufkin, Texas, dealership says he found the failure, but didn’t have time to update the software. All the tests had a 45-minute time limit. “I learned that I need to be quicker,” Wall says.

One major flaw and several minor ones, including a bad sensor and an electrical short, made up the Cummins test. Technicians also had to update the engine software.

Contestants with the top three scores in each division each won $2,500 to $5,000. Swann won the final round, and an additional $5,000. The 25-year-old from Rush’s Dallas dealership is modest about his win. “I didn’t know I had a talent,” he says. “There were plenty of guys there as good as me.”

Bilbo says Rush held the skills rodeo to reward technicians for the vital role they play in the business. “Any good salesman can sell one truck to a customer,” he says. “The second truck is sold by the technician.”