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Heavy Equipment Operator

The perfect career for girls and boys who love big toys!
Career Overview*
  • Median Salary$48,160
  • Career Outlook4% growth through 2029
  • Certifications CDL Recommended

For some people, driving a truck full of dirt from point A to B might seem like a rudimentary task. After all, everyone drives massive SUVs nowadays, and a dump truck can’t be much different. This impression couldn’t be further from the truth.

Operating heavy equipment of any kind requires a substantial amount of training. The drivers of the semi-trucks you pass on the highway and the dump trucks you see on city streets receive a similar amount of education, not unlike what a bus driver would get. However, some construction equipment can require months upon months of training to operate, such as excavators, bulldozers, and telehandlers. 

What does it take to join the select few who can run pile drivers, operate oil rigs, and control tower cranes that sit hundreds of feet from the ground? How do you become a heavy equipment operator?

What Does a Heavy Equipment Operator Do?

Heavy equipment operators are engineers who have completed specialized training courses to operate their choice of machinery. They sit behind the wheels of massive excavators, bulldozers, and wheel loaders to carefully demolish buildings, move massive amounts of dirt, or dig foundations for future skyscrapers. 

Some engineers train to operate material handling machinery, such as telehandlers, complex conveyors, and industrial trash compactors, where they shift, convert or sort through massive amounts of industrial matter.

No matter what they operate, heavy equipment operators go through intense training and work long hours to fulfill the demands of their project managers and contractual obligations. One wrong move behind heavy machinery can cause thousands of dollars in damages, serious physical injuries, and huge fines from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

Common duties for heavy equipment operators include:

  • Accomplishing tasks with heavy machinery (obviously), such as digging, lifting, hauling, etc.
  • Reading and implementing project plans
  • Maintaining and cleaning equipment 
  • Inspecting equipment 
  • Adhering to safety rules and regulations
  • Monitoring site and weather conditions
  • Coordinating activities with other team members
  • Calculating load requirements
  • Communicating project requirements and problems

Depending on the scope of your position, you may also need to do some degree of work outside of your equipment, which may require lifting, crouching, or standing for long periods. For instance, equipment operators that work with dirt may occasionally need to work with a shovel by hand.

How To Become A Construction Equipment Operator

Education

Back when all anyone needed to work in construction was handiness and a hammer, people thought that blue-collar work, such as being a carpenter or handling heavy equipment, was a job for the uneducated. 

With today’s advancements in electronics, mining, and earthmoving machinery, becoming an equipment engineer has become a specialized vocation. You’ll need at least a high school diploma or a GED to be considered for any training program.

Generally, contractors and training facilities don’t require a college diploma for equipment operators, although they do call them engineers when they’ve finished training. Many equipment engineers get their start in high school, where they join vocational training programs before graduating. 

If you want to operate complicated machines, such as conveyors, road graders, and asphalt pavers, it helps to find someone to mentor you before you go off to training. 

Offer your services to the community by joining farm crews and DIY construction projects, and then observe how professional operators drive and care for their machinery. If you can find someone to take you on as an apprentice, you might learn everything you need to know before stepping into a training program.

There are many ways to get certified as a heavy equipment operator, but before you get to that stage, you need to make a firm decision on what type of equipment you want to operate. Training to run a crane and a bulldozer are two entirely different things, with two differing externalities.

Before you go into a training school, think about your work environment. 

Do you want to work in a city full of skyscrapers? Do you want to move hay and livestock while enjoying the fresh air in the countryside? Do you want to work in the airports and docks with never-ending rows of trailers?

You can sign up for a training school or a union apprenticeship. You can also learn on the job, although you may have trouble finding openings if you don’t have any experience or training at all.

Heavy Equipment Operator Training

As you’ve read earlier, there are three routes to becoming an equipment engineer:

  • On the job training
  • A union apprenticeship
  • Graduating from a technical school

These three routes have their pros and cons. A union apprenticeship might mean better pay, training, healthcare benefits, and working conditions, but if you have some non-union working experience, a union might disregard it. You will also have to follow more rules. 

Graduating from a technical school means you can choose any employer you like, but you might be more vulnerable to layoffs and lower pay.

Internships & Training

If you want to start your career with neither an apprenticeship nor a technical certificate, you will need to work your way up. 

You might be assigned to do the literal groundwork, digging trenches and holes with a shovel and pick, until you earn your way into driving a small skid steer or excavator. As long as you work hard consistently, arrive on time, and show dedication even with menial tasks, you move up quickly.

You might spend a few months up to a couple of years doing backbreaking work. Your employer will prioritize people with more seniority and experience. The operators you come into contact with will not have the time to coach you to operate their equipment. They’re busy doing their jobs.

Technical Schools

Vocational schools and technical colleges are the quickest way of landing your first job as a heavy equipment operator. 

Their tuitions and curriculums might vary, so do your research and sign up for a program with good student ratings and testimonials. A technical school will cost you $4,000 to $18,000 on average, depending on the type of equipment you want to study.

The curriculum will typically feature hands-on or virtual reality training along with classroom sessions that cover everything you need to ace the certification exams.

Apprenticeships

In many states, apprenticeship programs are the best way to get started working as an equipment engineer. They are typically funded by joint employer and labor training trusts, meaning you’ll save thousands of dollars on tuition. Some apprenticeship programs are free, although the competition to access them is pretty strong.

The International Union of Operating Engineers is the biggest and most recognizable union in America. They’re active in Canada as well, and they have a growing member base of over 400,000 thanks to the strength of their apprenticeship program.

You’ll need to pass an entrance exam and an interview before qualifying for most union apprenticeships. It will help if you’ve had prior mentorships and experience with the equipment you want to operate. Apprenticeship programs differ from one another.

If you sign up for an IOUE apprenticeship, you will have to complete 6,000 hours of combined classroom and hands-on training with pay.

For every 1,000 hours that you finish in the program, your pay will increase. Upon completion, you will get a journeyman certificate, which is the highest certification a person can receive as a tradesman. The training to become a journeyman usually lasts three years.

Certification and Licensing

When you finish your apprenticeship, on the job training, or vocational school, you will need one other item to work as a professional: a commercial driver’s license (CDL). 

A CDL is not required to operate all heavy machinery, but construction companies generally favor applicants who have one. In some states, you have to pass an operator exam with a testing fee of $75 to $200, along with acquiring further licenses to operate specific heavy vehicles.

For example, to operate a crane in Nevada, you would need certification from the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators and the National Association of Heavy Equipment Training Services.

Both certificates expire after five years, and you can renew them by obtaining 1,000 hours on the seat and passing a re-certification test.

Recommended Skills For Heavy Equipment Operators

The soft skills that you need to have to become a heavy equipment operator are pretty basic. You need to be able to read and write and have the dexterity to operate the controls. However, there are other skills that prove useful in the field.

Mechanical Aptitude

Naturally, as a heavy equipment operator, you’ll be working with a lot of machines. That makes mechanical aptitude one of the most important skills for this line of work. You need to understand how machinery works, and ideally, even have a basic idea of how to repair those under your specialty.

Detail Oriented

While operating machinery, you’ll need to stay diligent and focus your attention on multiple things at once, such as the gauges and controls in the machinery, whatever you’re doing with the machinery, and the surrounding area for safety concerns.

Critical Thinking + Problem Solving

While how much problem solving you’ll be doing will vary by the type of machinery you choose to operate, some fields require a fair level of quick thinking and the ability to decide the best course of action on the fly.

Communication Skills

While heavy equipment operators generally are alone in the machinery, many work with a team, or at the least have to deliver items to people, follow instructions, or make reports. You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively with others.

Earth Science Knowledge

A large chunk of heavy equipment jobs involve moving earth or moving very heavy objects over it. Understanding soil compaction, slope, and other aspects of ground movement that affect your equipment is important.

Strength + Stamina

This point may seem a bit odd, but unfortunately, many heavy equipment operating positions are very rough on your back. It’s often the combination of the vibration of the machinery and the constant sitting. If you already have a bad back, pursuing a career in heavy equipment operation isn’t recommended. 

Pros & Cons Of Being A Heavy Equipment Operator

Now that you have a good understanding of what a heavy equipment operator does we can talk about the pros and cons of this career to help you decide if it is right for you.

PROS

  • Opportunities for travel
  • Pay can be very good
  • High demand career
  • Driving big toys is fun

CONS

  • Hours can be long and on-call is common
  • Physically demanding
  • Loud vehicles can affect hearing
  • Work can be seasonal
  • Work may happen in bad weather

How Much Do Equipment Operators Make?

Heavy equipment operators enjoy great perks and salaries commensurate with the risks and pressures of their jobs. Working in the mud, rain, and snow for long hours, even on weekends, with hard-to-control machines pays well, although it’s never glamorous.

The media average pay for equipment engineers is $48,160 a year.

Where you fall will depend on your location and the type of machinery you choose. Whether you decide to join a union can also affect your earning potential. 

The highest paying states are New York (average salary of $83,840), Illinois ($79,330), Hawaii ($78,500), New Jersey ($78,120), California ($75,440), and Connecticut ($71,900). The lowest paying states are Mississippi ($37,010), Arkansas ($37,900), Georgia ($38,290), and South Carolina ($40,680).

However, don’t go moving to New York just yet. Notice that several of those states with the highest average salaries also have a very high cost of living.

Heavy Equipment Operator Job Outlook

Heavy equipment operators are consistently in-demand, and the career outlook is generally favorable. As of 2020, there are 468,300 heavy equipment operator jobs in the US.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the industry will grow by 4% by 2029, which equates to a total of 19,200 new jobs in the next decade. Most of these jobs are expected to be within the construction field, which is typical for the industry. 

One massive benefit of choosing to be a heavy equipment operator is that there’s a wide range of career choices that are closely related, and your skills will transfer well if you decide you’d like to try something else.

Here are some examples:

  • Truck or bus driver
  • Warehouse working
  • Merchandising and freight
  • Heavy equipment repair or sales
  • Agricultural worker
  • Airport runway support
  • Snowplowing or sanding
  • Maintenance worker

Heavy Equipment Operators Schools

As we mentioned earlier, a technical school typically costs between $4,000 and $18,000. We know that’s a pretty broad range, but there’s a lot of variance in training programs. Price is often dependent on the location, school, and duration of the program.  

For instance, a five-week beginners course comes in at $4,250 in Virginia, and an eight-week course in Washington runs $9,613. These prices don’t include other expenses, such as books, materials, or room and board. Additional costs can range between $500-$5,000.

Of course, vocational schools aren’t your only option. Apprenticeships tend to cost less. Some programs are even sponsored by local governments or unions and don’t cost anything at all. In most cases, though, there is an application fee (typically under $100).

The advantage of an apprenticeship is that once you’re in and complete the training courses, you’ll likely be paid for your hands-on training. It will be less than you’ll make after your apprenticeship, but it’s a livable wage.

After your training, your biggest expenses will be acquiring and maintaining a commercial driver’s license and certification. How much a CDL and the necessary certification will cost varies by the state but often runs around $600 between the two.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about this career. If you have other questions that are not listed here – please email us or leave a comment below and we will be sure to add it!

What Are The Physical Work Conditions For An Equipment Operator?

Physical work conditions can be tough for this career. Employees often work in a variety of weather conditions including the cold and rain. There is a large amount of noise with most equipment so ear plugs can be helpful. Dust, grease and gravel can be extreme as well in many projects which can be inhaled or tossed around.

The actual physical demands include lifting, climbing, kneeling and more so it will take toll on your physical health, but not as much as some other careers.

What Are The Hours Like For An Equipment Operator?

A standard work week is 40 hours, but depending on deadlines and weather related issues, extra hours may be required to finish a project. Weekends can also be required by many employers.

Meet Your Mettle: Is Being a Heavy Equipment Operator the Job for You?

Being a heavy equipment operator might be an intimidating job for people who like working with keyboards in air-conditioned offices, but if you can put in the work and take on the risks, it will be worth it. There’s no shortage of job opportunities, and the pay is great. For more information about becoming a heavy equipment operator, fill out the form below. 

Not sure operating heavy equipment is right for you? At Blue Collar Brain, we’re on a mission to help people find the perfect vocational or trade career. Check out our other in-depth employment profiles.

*Data source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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