Insane Hydraulics

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Being a Hydraulic Tech...

I have been an industrial hydraulic technician for twenty years, now... Seems unreal it's been that long! I am definitely not the best tech out there, and this is partially due to the fact that I eventually transitioned from a purely technical role to a more commercial one, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take away a considerable chunk of my shop and field time, and this means that my "pump and motor" skills may not be as sharp as they used to be when I would overhaul and test a couple of units per day every day, plus would do assistance calls to all sorts of machinery every other day. Still, I have enough experience and a formed opinion about the traits of this profession, and I want to share my thoughts. So if you (or someone you know) consider pursuing this career, you may want to hear about the good and bad things about being a hydraulic tech.

First of all - let me define what a hydraulic tech is, at least for the context of this article. A hydraulic technician is a professional who deals with industrial oil hydraulics for a living and takes care of hydraulic systems installation, commission, adjustment, maintenance, and troubleshooting. This also includes component test and repair - from cylinders and valves to hydraulic pumps and motors. Of course, being any kind of tech involves a ton of other things - but my point is - a hydraulic tech is someone who does exclusively oil hydraulics and does it for a number of clients. A general mechanic, who works with hydraulic excavators, is not a hydraulic tech, even if he is familiar with the hydraulic system of the excavators that his company owns.

Good and bad are highly subjective notions, so you have to understand that this list comes from my own experience. All I can say is that I know a lot of people who work in this area and are or have been in the same position as I, and their opinion more or less coincides with mine.

Let me start with the good stuff first. No particular order.

Good Things About Being a Hydraulic Technician

1) You get to travel.

This, naturally, depends on the company you work for, and your position in it, but in general, even a beginner tech will travel a lot. This includes both domestic and foreign travel. I love getting to know new places, so I consider this to be a huge benefit. I started working in Lisbon, and five years later I got to see practically all of Portugal, including the islands. I am an immigrant, yet I have a lot of Portuguese friends who don't know even the tenth part of Portugal that I'd seen in such a short time thanks to hydraulics.

2) You get to work in places "normal" people don't get to see or ever get access to.

This, again, is another big plus for me, a person who loves all new. Bridges or highway columns under construction in most exotic locations, closed factories, strategic industries, mines, boats, airports, military locations (I am passionate about aviation, and one of the coolest assistance calls for me was at a military airbase where I got to work on a landing gear test stand in a hangar full of beautiful planes!), forests, mountains, tunnels - you name it! Industries rely on hydraulics for everything - and if you choose a respectable place to work at - you'll get to see it all!

3) You get to operate a lot of cool stuff.

Maybe it's an inner child in me talking, but I really love operating heavy equipment. This is a minor advantage, I agree, but then again - you can't just walk up to an excavator operator and ask him to let you "give it a go", can you? Now, if you are the one fixing it - you'll get to play with it as much as you want!

4) Respect.

You will be treated with respect, almost like a doctor. And, indeed, we are doctors of sorts, only instead of fixing people, we fix machines. Often very important machines. And if we are good at it - we get the same treatment that a good doctor gets. Naturally, such respect must be earned, so it won't come in one day. But as you clock in these service hours, and your fame of an "industrial healer" expands - you'll see what I mean.

5) Hydraulic is not that hard to learn (if you want to learn it).

For some reason, a lot of people believe that hydraulic is very hard. It's not. It's very basic. At least for the techs level. Especially in this day and age, when you literally have internet in your pocket. It's all out there! All you have to do is know how to read and be willing to. That's it. Specialist courses and whatnot are good, but you will do most of the learning on the job and from the books/articles/catalogs (maybe blogs?) that you read, so it's entirely on yourself. However, since a lot of people treat hydraulics as something prohibitively complicated, the value of this easily attainable education is increased tenfold! Sounds like a paradox, doesn't it? I guess it falls under the category of life's great mysteries.

6) You become the bearer of very exclusive knowledge.

I've said many times that oil hydraulics is a very reserved industry. And for the reasons that I will discuss in my next article devoted to bad and horrible things about being a hydraulic tech, not a lot of people, especially these days, want to follow this career. I absolutely don't judge them. In fact - I am thinking about making a shift in my career as well. However, being a bearer of an exclusive, rare, and useful knowledge is definitely a good thing for a professional.

7) Good connections.

If you do a lot of troubleshooting - you constantly get to know a lot of new people from all walks of life, and since hydraulic equipment is often related to large industries - a lot of these contacts are highly valuable and can take your life, or your career, to a better place.

8) Getting a job is easy.

In these uncertain times, when the pandemic closes one industry after another, finding a job is a challenge, but not for a good hydraulic tech. If you know your way about hydraulics - a lot of companies will be willing to give you a job "on the spot".

9) Troubleshooting is fun.

Troubleshooting, when done properly, is a lot of fun. After you've done all the right steps and nailed the malfunction right in the middle of its forehead - you get what I call "a troubleshooter's high!" This is awesome and addictive - but in a good way. And the better you become at troubleshooting, the more addictive you become, always looking for the next challenge. This is great!

10) You get to make things.

I am a maker. I love making things. If you are hydraulic tech you will be making a lot of stuff, sometimes very big stuff, stuff that you will be able to touch, and look at for many years, and be able to point at and say - I built that! A nice way to show the fruit of your work, don't you think?

11) "Satellite skills".

As you go along with your hydraulic technician's carer - you will be picking up and learning a lot of new and very useful skills. I am referring to stuff like welding, machining, electrics and electronics, PLC programming, software development, CAD work - I learned all of this stuff on this job, and people were paying me to learn! Isn't it the best way to get education?

12) Privileged access to tools and supplies.

You get direct access to sophisticated tools and supplies. If you are a maker, having access to industrial tools and surplus is a huge benefit. You wouldn't believe the stuff I made with industrial scrap. A lot of DIY projects are much more accessible to folks who work at a workshop.

13) Transition to sales or design.

If you are a good tech - the shop and field experience will put you miles ahead of the competition should you eventually decide to transition to sales. The same goes for engineering. Commercial representatives or designers of hydraulic equipment can have all the courses in the world, and still - when you see a hydraulic solution in front of you, you can immediately tell if it was sold or designed by a person who knows how someone will actually use it, and especially - service it in the future. This means that your sales and/or projects will leave clients happier and the world of hydraulic equipment a better place. Like I said - a huge advantage!

14) Not a desk job.

Yes - working at a shop definitely beats the desk job as far as the lack of movement and the related health issues are concerned. Most of the time you work on your feet, and most of the time you move. It has always been like that for me. In fact, even after I began to deal with the commercial stuff - I never sit at a desk for more than half an hour straight - there's always a need to go fix something, or pick some parts at the warehouse, or go see a client's machine or a component, plus I still repair pumps and motors... In short - I'm always on my feet, so the 10,000 steps per day is not even remotely a challenge.

15) The Money.

Pure and simple. If you are a decent hydraulic tech, and you understand how the corporate world works, your paycheck is above average and it will only get better.

16) This profession is not going away.

I have zero worries about my future career-wise. This profession is not going anywhere. The need for skilled hydraulic technicians is permanent, and since fewer and fewer people are joining this club, I believe that our professional value (and eventually the paychecks) will only go up. Let's see what happens in a decade or so from now, when the older folks begin to gradually retire, and the millennials won't be able to satisfy the demand. If you are thinking about jumping on the hydraulic bandwagon, the right time is now!

17) After becoming an experienced tech, starting your own business is another perfectly viable option.

Even during the pandemic, when a lot of industries are at a halt, we are still getting more service demand than we can supply. So being a good hydraulic tech gives you all the tools and the connections to be your own boss, should you choose to give your entrepreneurial muscle a flex.

These were the good things about being a hydraulic technician. But, of course, there's a cloud for every silver lining out there (or something like that), so there are a lot of bad, very bad, and horrible things about this profession as well, so stay tuned for the second part of this article. Due to come out next week.