How to Become a Construction Equipment Operator

Hard Hats Construction Careers

Construction equipment operators drive, maneuver, or control the heavy machinery used to construct roads, bridges, buildings, and other structures. While such jobs have great pay, there are some steps you need to take before the boss hands you the keys to crane or bulldozer. The education, skills and process for operating heavy equipment is outlined below, including the average pay you can expect.

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      Quick Facts: Construction Equipment Operators
      2019 Median Pay$48,160 per year
      $23.16 per hour
      Typical Entry-Level EducationHigh school diploma or equivalent
      Work Experience in a Related OccupationNone
      On-the-job TrainingModerate-term on-the-job training
      Number of Jobs, 2018453,200
      Job Outlook, 2018-2810% (Faster than average)
      Employment Change, 2018-2844,000
      Data Source: BLS.gov

      Planning your Career as a Construction Equipment Operator

      Many workers learn equipment operation on the job after earning a high school diploma or equivalent, while others learn through an apprenticeship or by attending vocational schools.

      Education

      A high school diploma or equivalent is required for most jobs. Vocational training and math courses are useful, and a course in auto mechanics can be helpful because workers often perform maintenance on their equipment.

      Learning at vocational schools may be beneficial in finding a job. Schools may specialize in a particular brand or type of construction equipment.

      Some schools incorporate sophisticated simulator training into their courses, allowing beginners to familiarize themselves with the equipment in a virtual environment before operating real machines.

      Training

      Many workers learn their jobs by operating light equipment under the guidance of an experienced operator. Later, they may operate heavier equipment, such as bulldozers. Some construction equipment with computerized controls requires greater skill to operate. Operators of such equipment may need more training and some understanding of electronics.

      Other workers learn their trade through a 3- or 4-year apprenticeship. For each year of the program, apprentices must have at least 144 hours of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training. On the job, apprentices learn to maintain equipment, operate machinery, and use technology, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. In the classroom, apprentices learn operating procedures for equipment, safety practices, and first aid, as well as how to read grading plans.

      A few groups, including unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

      • Minimum age of 18
      • High school education or equivalent
      • Physically able to do the work
      • Valid driver’s license

      After completing an apprenticeship program, apprentices are considered journey workers and perform tasks with less guidance.

      Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

      Construction equipment operators often need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to haul their equipment to various jobsites. State laws governing CDLs vary.

      A few states have special licenses for operators of backhoes, loaders, and bulldozers.

      Currently, 17 states require pile-driver operators to have a crane license because similar operational concerns apply to both pile-drivers and cranes. In addition, the cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC require special crane licensure.

      Important Qualities

      Hand-eye-foot coordination. Construction equipment operators should have steady hands and feet to guide and control heavy machinery precisely, sometimes in tight spaces.

      Mechanical skills. Construction equipment operators often perform basic maintenance on the equipment they operate. As a result, they should be familiar with hand and power tools and standard equipment care.

      Physical strength. Construction equipment operators may be required to lift more than 50 pounds as part of their duties.

      Unafraid of heights. Construction equipment operators may work at great heights. For example, pile-driver operators may need to service the pulleys located at the top of the pile-driver’s tower, which may be several stories tall.

      Duties

      Construction equipment operators typically do the following:

      • Clean and maintain equipment, making basic repairs as necessary
      • Report malfunctioning equipment to supervisors
      • Move levers, push pedals, or turn valves to control equipment
      • Drive and maneuver equipment
      • Coordinate machine actions with crew members using hand or audio signals
      • Follow safety standards

      Construction equipment operators use machinery to move construction materials, earth, and other heavy materials at construction sites and mines. They operate equipment that clears and grades land to prepare it for the construction of roads, bridges, and buildings, as well as runways, power generation facilities, dams, levees, and other structures.

      The following are examples of types of construction equipment operators:

      Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators work with one or several types of power construction equipment. They may operate excavation and loading machines equipped with scoops, shovels, or buckets that dig sand, gravel, earth, or similar materials. In addition to operating bulldozers, they operate trench excavators, road graders, and similar equipment. Sometimes, they may drive and control industrial trucks or tractors equipped with forklifts or booms for lifting materials. They may also operate and maintain air compressors, pumps, and other power equipment at construction sites.

      Paving and surfacing equipment operators control the machines that spread and level asphalt or spread and smooth concrete for roadways or other structures.

      • Asphalt spreader operators turn valves to regulate the temperature and flow of asphalt being applied to the roadbed. They must ensure a constant flow of asphalt into the hopper and that the machine distributes the paving material evenly.
      • Concrete paving machine operators control levers and turn handwheels to move attachments that spread, vibrate, and level wet concrete. They must watch the surface of the concrete carefully to identify low spots that need additional concrete.
      • Tamping equipment operators use machines that compact earth and other fill materials for roadbeds, railroads, or other construction sites. They also may operate machines with interchangeable hammers to cut or break up old pavement and drive guardrail posts into the ground.

      Pile-driver operators use large machines mounted on skids, barges, or cranes to hammer piles into the ground. Piles are long, heavy beams of concrete, wood, or steel driven into the ground to support retaining walls, bridges, piers, or building foundations. Some pile-driver operators work on offshore oil rigs.

      Work Environment

      Construction equipment operators held about 453,200 jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up construction equipment operators was distributed as follows:

      Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators402,400
      Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators47,100
      Pile-driver operators3,600

      The largest employers of construction equipment operators were as follows:

      Heavy and civil engineering construction30%
      Specialty trade contractors28
      Local government, excluding education and hospitals13
      Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction6
      Construction of buildings5

      Construction equipment operators work in nearly every weather condition, although rain or extremely cold weather can stop some types of construction. Workers often get dirty, greasy, muddy, or dusty. Some operators work in remote locations on large construction projects, such as highways and dams, or in factories or mines.

      Injuries and Illnesses

      Construction equipment operators risk injury from hazards such as slips, falls, and transportation incidents. Workers can generally avoid injury by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices. Bulldozers, scrapers, and pile-drivers are noisy and shake or jolt the operator, which may lead to repetitive stress injuries.

      Work Schedules

      Construction equipment operators may have irregular schedules because work on construction projects must sometimes continue around the clock or be done late at night. The majority of construction equipment operators work full time.