A heavy equipment operator drives or controls construction equipment, including bulldozers, forklifts, backhoes, dump trucks, cargo trucks, and hydraulic truck cranes. They operate this equipment to assist in the construction of structures, including bridges, roads, and buildings.
Heavy equipment operators usually specialize in one of three areas:
- Construction equipment operators, also called operating engineers, handle loading and excavation machines. They use these machines to dig and lift sand, gravel, or earth.
- Paving and surface equipment operators use machines to spread concrete and asphalt during the construction of roadways.
- Pile-driver operators control equipment to hammer heavy beams of wood, concrete, and steel, called piles, into the ground.
Heavy Equipment Operator Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for construction equipment operators was $48,160 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,780, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $84,650.
The starting pay for apprentices is usually between 60 percent and 70 percent of what fully trained operators make. They receive pay increases as they learn to operate more complex equipment.
Heavy Equipment Operator Job Outlook
Overall employment of construction equipment operators is projected to grow 4% from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment growth is expected to vary across the construction equipment operator occupations.
Spending on infrastructure is expected to increase, resulting in some new jobs over the next 10 years. Across the country, many roads, bridges, and water and sewer systems are in need of repair. In addition, population growth will require new infrastructure projects, such as roads and sewer lines, which is also expected to generate jobs.
Workers with the ability to operate multiple types of equipment should have the best job opportunities. In addition, employment opportunities should be best in metropolitan areas, where most large commercial and residential buildings are constructed, and in states that undertake large transportation-related projects. Because apprentices learn to operate a wider variety of machines than do other beginners, they usually have better job opportunities.
Education, Training & Certification
You can prepare to work in this occupation by first learning to operate light equipment under an experienced operator’s guidance. There are few, if any, education requirements.
Apprenticeships: This option includes three to four years of a combination of technical instruction and on-the-job or field training. You’ll learn how to operate and maintain equipment during on-the-job training. Instructors will teach you about safety practices and first aid in the classroom, as well as operating procedures.
Licensure: The municipality in which you work might require that you have a license to operate equipment or transport it to job sites. Some states require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to haul machinery. Pile-driver operators need a crane license in some cities and states.