heavy equipment operator

Job Spotlight - Heavy Equipment Operator

Do you want to learn to work as a Heavy Equipment Operator? Feel the power of running heavy machinery and take pride in knowing you have put in an honest day of work. Learn all details about the education, duties and job outlook you need to know about working as a Construction Equipment Operator.

Quick Facts: Construction or Heavy Equipment Operators
2015 Median Pay (Annual)$43,810
2015 Median Pay (Hourly)$21.06
Entry Level EducationAt Least a high school diploma or GED
Recommended EducationPost-secondary education (certificate or degree)
2014-2024 Projected Outlook10% growth (faster than average)
2014 Number of Jobs424,800
2014-2024 Estimated Employment Gains43,200

Resource: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Heavy Equipment Operator FAQs

On this page you will find a list of the most-frequently-asked questions we have received about the job of a Heavy Machinery Operator. We break it down for you so you that can use this as a quick resource on what you need to do to get started in this rewarding profession that is very much in demand. If you have other questions or suggestions, please let us know.

What is a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Have you ever been driving and seen big heavy machinery being used to make roads, buildings or even the new multi-million dollar sports stadium? The people operating those machines are called Heavy Equipment Operators or Construction Equipment Operators. It takes a lot of experience and training to be able to get behind one of those behemoth machines and to operate it safely and precisely.

Most Heavy Machinery Operators work in almost every type of weather to fulfill the schedules of the project. This does include working some irregular hours and sometimes work is done at night. Nearly all those in this position are hired full-time and a majority belong to a union. Even though there isn’t a single union that covers all equipment operators, the largest is the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE).

The life of a Heavy Equipment Operator can be both very profitable and slightly dangerous. Construction equipment operators have a higher rate of illnesses and injuries than the national average. Most of these maladies can be avoided by following safety and proper operating procedures.

How Can I Work as a Heavy Machinery Operator?

Quick Info: What You Need to Know as a Heavy Equipment Operator
Types of education
• Vocational or trade schools
• On-the-job training/apprenticeships
• OECP certified apprenticeship
• Construction equipment instruction in U.S. military
Basic requirements
• Commercial driver’s license (CDL)
• Pass a drug test
• Must be at least 18 years old
• Physically fit
• Strong stamina
• Meet medical requirements issued by DOT

There are a few different ways you can go if you want to become a Heavy Equipment Operator. The path you choose is up to you and both of them offer both pros and cons to consider. Let’s take a look at each of these routes so you can make your own decision.

Trade Schools or Community Colleges

Most vocational schools offer instruction for Heavy Equipment Operators as well as some skills that can help you along the way. This is a great option for anyone who wants to get in this field but may not know which exact industry or type of heavy machinery they want to work with as you will become familiar with a diverse variety of machines and equipment.

The types of classes you will take in vocational school should include safety, mechanics, engineering and surveying. The knowledge you will gain from these classes can beneficial when you are looking for a job. It is best to find a trade school that offers both classroom and hands-on instruction so you don’t have to learn on your own with the equipment.


  • Full education on all aspects of the field
  • Learn to operate most of the types of equipment
  • Educational experience in field can be helpful in employment and salary opportunities


  • Some classes may not have any bearing in the field
  • Training takes anywhere from 6 months for a certificate to 2 years for an associate’s degree
  • No pay while you learn

If you are not a learn-by-the-book type of person, you can always seek out an apprenticeship with a local company or a governmental agency. Unlike a vocational school you will be getting on-the-job instruction while drawing a paycheck. Your duties will mainly depend on the needs and time afforded by the company to help train. More than likely you will start with lighter equipment and work yourself up the ladder of machinery building off the experience you have learned.


  • You will draw a paycheck
  • No tuition costs
  • Learn firsthand how to operate equipment


  • Takes 3 to 4 years to complete apprenticeship
  • Can find yourself out of work without completing the coursework
  • Will not have a full background in all areas of the field
OECP Apprenticeship

Sponsored by the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), this apprenticeship is both a hands-on and classroom program. Designed for members of the IUOE to learn how to work with a few different types of heavy equipment. Aspiring Heavy Equipment Operators will get the advantage of learning safety and productive skills from professionals in the field.


  • Instructed by experience and skilled operating engineers
  • Work in the field on actual on-site projects
  • Most programs have simulators or indoor facilities to train in bad weather


  • Certificate apprenticeship program takes as much as 3 to 4 years to complete
  • Locations are limited
  • Very structured like a real job
Military Service

You can serve your country while learning a viable trade skill has always been one of the main benefits of joining the U.S. military. If you can qualify, you can receive instruction as a Heavy Construction Equipment Operator in a short amount of time. Instructors both in the field and in the classroom will enable you to learn a deeper range of understanding than a normal apprentice program by going over the ideas of engineering, mathematics, safety and operation of equipment, just to name a few topics.


  • Plenty of field or hands-on learning in all kinds of environments
  • Military service is well respect and can be a strong advantage when it comes to hiring
  • Full time job while learning a trade that will helpful in the real world


  • At least a 4 year commitment and go through basic training
  • Possible deployment to hostile areas
  • Not guaranteed to learn on all forms of heavy equipment

The position of a Heavy Equipment Operator does a few requirements that may have to be met in order to go through instruction or get a job. These requirements are:

Must 18 years or older

Must have a commercial driver’s license

Must be in decent physical shape and have excellent stamina

Must be able to pass a drug test

May have to meet certain Department of Transportation (DOT) medical requirements

 Our Recommendation
In our opinion, we highly recommend that you either go through some formal education to work as a Heavy Equipment Operator rather than a straight up apprenticeship. The reason being that you will most likely have more opportunities afforded to you with greater depth of knowledge. The combination of not only training on heavy equipment backed up with learning about safety and engineering should be a huge benefit for you and your career.

Where Can I Find Construction Equipment Operator Schools?

What to Look for in a Vocational School
Tips on what to look for
• Cost of classes
• Accreditation
• Student graduation rate
• Instructors with field experience
• Distance from home
• Successful job placements of alumni

Depending on where you live, you should be able to locate a vocational school or a community college that is offering either a certificate or degree program for Heavy Equipment Operator. A quick search of the internet will assist you in finding a program near you. We suggest that you do a little research in to programs held in your area to make sure that it can fulfill your goals in training, i.e. ability to get practical experience.

Another idea on how to find a program is to contact one of the local construction companies or a governmental jobs agency for suggestions. More than likely you will find someone at any of these places that will gladly give you information on Heavy Equipment Operator programs that have found to be worthwhile.

When you do get a list of vocational schools that offer Heavy Construction Equipment Operator training, it is important that you check to see if the school has been accredited. Accreditation by groups such as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) means that the institution has passed the standards to provide a quality education. This can also help you avoid some fly-by-night programs.

Armed Forces Offering Heavy Equipment Training

If you want, you can join the U.S. military you can gain some great training to become a Construction Equipment Operator. For more information on this, you can check out the sites listed below.

U.S. Air Force

U.S. Navy Seebees

U.S. Army

U.S. Marine Corps

U.S. Coast Guard

U.S. National Guard

Are There Any Online Heavy Equipment Operator Programs?

Believe it or not, there are some online programs for equipment operators. Online or distance learning should be used in conjunction with some sort of practical instruction or prior to going through an apprenticeship program with a local construction company or school that offers internships. This way you will gain some of the theoretical knowledge behind the field that you would not get if you just started an on-the-job learning.

Some of the courses you may encounter in Heavy Equipment Operator online classes include:

  • Fuel Systems and fuel types
  • Maintenance, repair and inspection of vehicles
  • Firefighting
  • Soil testing
  • GPS basics
  • Land clearing planning
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations
  • Grade reading
  • Electronics and laser equipment
Benefits of Online Education

One of the biggest reasons for the increased enrollment in online education programs is largely due to the vast amount of benefits that distance learning students enjoy. Besides being a way to learn a new skill or trade, online learning can be helpful for people who already have other responsibilities such as taking care of children. Other potential benefits include:

  • Study at your own pace
  • Learn from anywhere at any time of the day with an internet connection
  • No commute or relocation necessary
  • Attend a school from out of state or across the country
  • Better balance for education and life
  • Greater flexibility in learning

How Long Does Equipment Operator School Take?

Depending on which route you choose, it can take as short as 6 weeks for a certificate to as long as 4 years through an apprenticeship. However, you can get all the education you need in 2 years and have an associate’s degree by attending one of the Heavy Equipment Operator programs held a vocational school or a community college.

Those who may be interested in the IUOE’s program called the Operating Engineers Certification Program (OECP), expect this to take 3 to 4 years. After this time, you will be encouraged to take advanced classes that the IUOE offers. This is mainly to stay on top of the newest technologies or issues related to the industry.

What Is a Good Heavy Equipment Operator Job Description?

Those working as a Heavy Equipment Operator are fully or partly responsible for a number of duties around a work site. It is hard to give a definitive job description for this position since it depends a lot on the type of equipment one is in charge of, the type of company one works for and the type of job that is being done.

Job Responsibilities

A generic list of potential responsibilities of a Heavy Construction Equipment Operator may include:

  • Comply with OSHA safety regulations and procedures
  • Daily inspection and handle preventative maintenance on equipment
  • Follow operational plans and site grading
  • Operate heavy equipment in all types of weather, ground conditions for upwards of 12 hours a day
  • Be able to perform landfill operations, when needed
  • Maintain equipment and supplies, reporting any issues to supervisor
  • Assist co-workers on workplace safety and environmental practices
  • Transport and deliver materials to proper place
  • Collect and load dirt, gravel and waste products to trucks or onsite location
  • Keep accurate logs and maintenance records
  • Coordinate tasks and resources
  • Help direct other crew members using hand-held radios or hand signals
  • And of course, operate, drive and maneuver heavy equipment

Types of Heavy Equipment
There are several types of machines that someone who works as a Heavy Equipment Operator may learn to operate. These include:

  • All-Terrain Forklifts
  • Articulated Haulers
  • Backhoes
  • Bulldozers
  • Dump Trucks
  • Excavators
  • Front End Loaders
  • Graders
  • Hydromatic Tools
  • Rock Trucks
  • Scrapers
  • Skid Loaders
  • Track Loaders
  • Tractors
  • Wheel Loaders

What is the Median Construction Equipment Operator Salary?

The median salary for those working as a Construction Equipment Operator is pretty solid. According to the most recent posting by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary in May 2012 was $43,810 a year or $21.06 an hour. The top 10% made over $72,000 a year while the bottom 10% made roughly $26,000.

A breakdown of specific Heavy Equipment Operator median salaries for different positions can give you an idea on where the highest pay may be found.

  • Pile-driver operators $48,480
  • Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators $41,870
  • Paving, surfacing and tampering equipment operators $35,840

heavy equipment operator salary

Take note: The starting salary for those working as an apprentice is 60% to 70% of what a fully skilled and certified operator can make.

What is the Outlook for Heavy Equipment Operator Jobs?

Not a surprise here that the projected demand for new Heavy Equipment Operators is growing faster than the average of all occupations. The combination of new construction and the infrastructure improvements found around the country has helped push the need for new jobs in this field. It is estimated by the U.S. government that there will be a growth of 144,400 new jobs or an increase of 10% through the year 2024.

Truck Driver Projected Job Growth

Do I Need a Special License to Operate Heavy Equipment?

More than likely you will need to have a commercial driver’s license to haul the equipment to the job sites. As far as operating the heavy equipment, it depends on the state or locality you live in as far as any special licenses. It is best to check with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in your city or the place of the work site to find out if there are any licenses you will need to obtain prior to working.

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