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How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

Heavy equipment operators are in high demand, offering a great career path that provides job security, a great salary, benefits, and growth opportunities. A heavy equipment operator is responsible for controlling and driving heavy machinery such as backhoes, cargo trucks, bulldozers, cranes, and forklifts. They operate the equipment that allows their team to complete construction projects ranging from trench digging and constructing buildings, to paving roads and constructing bridges.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry is expected to grow 5 percent over the next decade but the job outlook is good as there is a worker shortage in many areas. As the spending on infrastructure continues to grow, 51,500 heavy equipment operator jobs open up each year. As of 2016, there were approximately 426,600 heavy machine operators employed in the United States. There are technical school programs available but ultimately, it's hard to beat hands-on experience.

Every type of heavy machinery has one thing in common; they all require a skilled heavy equipment operator to control the machine and get the job done quickly, safely, and efficiently.

Using the right machine for the job is critical to job site safety and success. From digging to pushing, to lifting, the type of machine you use depends on the size and specifications of each job. Having skilled tradesmen to operate heavy machinery is essential to our country and our economy. Learning these skills will open up new job opportunities, provide higher pay, and create a sustainable career path for many years to come.

Joining the field of heavy equipment operators offers an array of benefits, including the opportunity to specialize in a variety of industries, types of equipment, and jobs. The industry also provides operators with stability in an ever-expanding market that has a constant demand for skilled tradesmen. The possibilities are endless, from construction teams to mining, and even starting your own business.

With so many options and opportunities available, it is important to learn more about the most popular machines, the average salary, and the demand for each type of machine. According to data collected in 2021, as a heavy machine operator you'd earn an average income of $54,889 to $74,493, depending on equipment type and experience level. However, there is a broad spectrum of equipment, skills, and uses, so it is important to look into each machine, and learn more about the skills and experience required, as well as the average salary range for each type.

Excavator Heavy Equipment Operator

Excavators are one of the most versatile, and therefore most popular, types of heavy machinery that are used on a large majority of job sites. For this reason, skilled excavator operators are always in high demand. With construction projects surging across the country, certified heavy equipment operators are in demand to help clear the ground, transport materials, and do all of the heavy lifting. Excavator operators are integral to the success of a construction project.

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What Is an Excavator?

An excavator is a piece of heavy machinery that is used to hoist heavy objects and building materials, demolish existing structures, dig holes or trenches in the earth, or handle landscaping jobs. They consist of a cab for the operator, a boom, and a bucket that is controlled using levers inside the cab. The machine sits on wheels or tracks and could be compared to an industrial-sized shovel that can be used for jobs such as:

  • Grading

  • Mining

  • Digging

  • Dredging

  • Snow removal

  • Demolition

  • Transporting materials

  • Landscaping

How Do I Become an Excavator Operator?

To become a professional excavator operator, it is important to receive the right training to learn how to operate the machine safely and effectively. Trying to operate an excavator without proper training could lead to serious injury, damage, or even hefty fines. Keep in mind their are smaller versions of this machine known as mini-excavators for smaller projects. Aside from formal training an excavator operator must:

  • Have received a high school diploma or equivalent

  • Be 18 years or older

  • Have no vision problems

  • Be in good physical shape

  • Possess a driver's license, and sometimes a CDL

  • Have a good understanding of basic mechanics

  • Have good coordination to operate levers and pedals simultaneously

What Does an Excavator Operator Do?

Some of the basic duties and responsibilities of an excavator operator include:

  • Inspect the equipment before each use

  • Operate the machine using foot pedals, levers, and dials

  • Keep track of load counts

  • Have a thorough understanding of the machine's capabilities

  • Know how to do basic maintenance and repairs on the equipment

  • Follow digging plans and understand how to use the equipment correctly

How Much Money Does an Excavator Operator Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an excavator operator in 2020 was $49,100. The employment of excavator operators is projected to increase 5% between now and 2030, and it is estimated that approximately 51,500 operators will be hired each year over the next 10 years.

Backhoe Operator

A backhoe loader, also known as just a backhoe, is another versatile piece of construction equipment that can be used for a wide range of tasks. A backhoe has two buckets, one called a "hoe" on the backside of the machine, and another called a loading bucket on the front of the machine. This kind of heavy equipment operator uses a variety of levers and pedals inside of the cab to help them operate each component on the machine.

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What is a Backhoe?

Also known as the "Swiss army knife of heavy machinery", backhoes are notorious for their versatility on a job site. They are can be used for jobs such as:

  • Transporting materials

  • Demolitions

  • Landscaping

  • Breaking up asphalt

  • Powering equipment

  • Digging holes

They are essential tools that can be used for a variety of tasks and on a wide range of job sites such as:

  • Uprooting trees

  • Digging trenches

  • Plowing snow

  • Grading

  • Loading

  • Farming

How Do I Become a Backhoe Operator?

A backhoe operator does not need to be licensed or certified, so attending a class or training is optional, but highly recommended. Having completed a formal training or earning a certification makes you stand out from the competition when it comes to applying for jobs, so it is encouraged to improve the chances of being hired. Alternatively, you may opt to participate in an apprenticeship through a union to get on-the-job training to become a heavy equipment operator. In addition to learning how to safely operate a backhoe, an operator must meet other qualifications such as:

  • A high school diploma or equivalent

  • Be 18 years or older

  • Have no vision problems

  • Be in good physical shape

  • Possess a driver's license, and sometimes a CDL

  • Have a good understanding of basic mechanics

  • Have good coordination to operate levers and pedals simultaneously

How Much Money Does a Backhoe Operator Make?

As of 2019, the average salary for a backhoe operator was $48,980, with the top 10 percent in the industry earning up to $85,640.

Bulldozer Heavy Equipment Operator

A bulldozer is a staple on many job sites from road construction, to mining, to building construction, and more. The bulldozer's most distinguishing features are the large blades that are fixed to the front of the machine, as well as the large tracks that are used to propel the machine forward across rough terrain.

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What is a Bulldozer?

Bulldozers are powerful machines that are used to move heavy materials such as earth, rubble, and rocks, or to level the ground to create an even ground for the foundation of buildings or roads. Their most common purpose is to demolish large structures, thanks to the massive rippers and blades on the front of the machine. With so much power and capability, bulldozers can also be used for:

  • Clearing land of brush or vegetation

  • Construct roads

  • Pushing or moving earth, rocks, sand, and other heavy materials

How Do I Become a Bulldozer Operator?

Learning to operate a bulldozer opens up many employment opportunities, as bulldozer operators are in high demand. When you pass by just about any job site from construction to forestry, chances are you'll see a bulldozer in their fleet to help get the job done.

Operating a bulldozer is a special skill that requires training or on-the-job learning. Since safety is always the number one priority when working with heavy machinery, it is important to learn how to operate the equipment correctly to ensure the safety of the crew on each job site.

In addition to training from either a course or an apprenticeship, a bulldozer operator must also:

  • Have received a high school diploma or equivalent

  • Be 18 years or older

  • Have no vision problems

  • Be in good physical shape

  • Possess a driver's license, and sometimes a CDL

  • Have a good understanding of basic mechanics

  • Have good coordination to operate levers and pedals simultaneously

How Much Money Does a Bulldozer Operator Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a bulldozer operator in 2019 was $49,160. However, the top 10 percent in the heavy equipment operator industry have the potential to make up to $84,650.

Crane Operating Engineer

A crane is an important piece of equipment for the construction of buildings, loading and unloading, and moving large or heavy materials up, down, and horizontally. There are fixed tower cranes, large gantry cranes used in shipyards, cranes that will be mounted on trucks for easy portability, as well as many other types of cranes. A crane operator is a crucial member of teams that need to move things like heavy materials, machines, and containers. 

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What is a Crane?

Made up of things like a boom, a jib, outriggers, a rotex gear, super-heavy counterweights, incredibly strong steel cables, and hooks. Crane operators help lift and lower heavy things like building materials, machines, heavy containers, and more to get them from one place to another efficiently. Cranes can be used for jobs such as:

  • Move heavy things up and down

  • Skyscraper construction

  • Container loading and unloading at shipyards

  • Moving building materials to higher floors

  • Building bridges

  • Moving cargo

How Do I Become a Crane Operator?

A crane operator does not need to be licensed or certified, so attending a class or training is optional, but highly recommended. Having completed a formal training or earning a certification makes you stand out from the competition when it comes to applying for jobs, so it is encouraged to improve the chances of being hired. Alternatively, you may opt to participate in an apprenticeship through a union to get on-the-job training to become a heavy equipment operator. In addition to learning how to safely operate a backhoe, a heavy equipment operating engineer must meet other qualifications such as:

  • A high school diploma or equivalent

  • Enroll in a trade school
  • Finish General Operator Training

  • Try and find an apprenticeship 

  • Complete a program like the one from the Crane Institute of America Certification (CIC) 

  • Be in good physical shape

  • Possess a driver's license, and sometimes a CDL

  • Have a good understanding of basic mechanics

  • Have good coordination to operate levers and pedals simultaneously

How Much Money Does a Crane Operator Make?

The average salary for a backhoe operator is around $55,480, with the top 10 percent in the industry earning up to $85,000+.

Skid Steer

Skid steers are small but mighty pieces of construction equipment that can be found on virtually any job site. They are defined by their unique maneuverability that allows them to "skid" into tighter spaces that larger pieces of equipment cannot fit into. They are also ideal for smaller job sites that need the job done quickly and efficiently but do not require much heavy machinery.

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What Is a Skid Steer?

Skid steers are primarily used for jobs that require digging and are ideal for smaller, more delicate job sites that may be compromised by the use of excessively large or heavy machinery. Since the tracks of a skid steer are locked or fixed, each side of the machine must be maneuvered separately using its own engines. This allows the machine to "skid" around to make zero-degree radius turns into small or tight spaces. This is a common machine for a construction equipment operator to know how to use. Skid steers are commonly used for:

  • Snow removal

  • Digging

  • Transporting materials

  • Clearing landscape

  • Grading

They are the perfect machine for jobs that require more precision and require a skilled heavy equipment operator who can maneuver the machine safely and correctly.

How Do I Become a Skid Steer Operator?

A skid steer operator is responsible for operating large equipment and materials. This can be dangerous if you don't have the necessary skills. To become a skid steer operator, it is important to receive training from an accredited company or join an apprenticeship for on-the-job training and learning. In addition to adequate training, a skid steer operator must also:

  • Have received a high school diploma or equivalent

  • Be 18 years or older

  • Have no vision problems

  • Be in good physical shape

  • Possess a driver's license, and sometimes a CDL

  • Have a good understanding of basic mechanics

  • Have good coordination to operate levers and pedals simultaneously

How Much Money Does a Skid Steer Operator Make?

According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a skid steer operator is $48,683, with top earners receiving up to $52,000 a year. This type of heavy equipment operator is usually in demand.

Dump Truck Operators

Dump trucks are vehicles with large engines and massive beds that can be used to haul large quantities of materials from one destination to another. They can be used in just about any industry that requires the use of heavy machinery, and are invaluable for transporting construction materials.

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What Is a Dump Truck?

Also known as haul trucks, dump trucks are useful for hauling large amounts of materials such as soil, rocks, sand, and even rubble and other demolition waste. They come in a variety of sizes to suit the unique needs of each project and are equipped with a special hydraulic system that allows the entire bed of the truck to tip backward, allowing the materials inside to easily slide out at the delivery site.

How Do I Become a Dump Truck Operator?

While most companies don't require any sort of specialized training to operate a dump truck, many drivers do take the opportunity to learn how to operate a variety of heavy machines to be a more valuable asset to their company. They will typically enroll in a course to learn more about the trade or join an apprenticeship to learn more while working on jobs at an entry-level. To drive a dump truck, a heavy equipment operator will need to earn their CDL to drive heavy machinery from one work site to another.

Since most dump truck drivers will also operate other machines on the job site, it is important that an operator:

  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent

  • Be 18 years or older

  • Have no vision problems

  • Be in good physical shape

  • Possess a driver's license, and sometimes a CDL

  • Have a good understanding of basic mechanics

  • Have good coordination to operate levers and pedals simultaneously

  • Have a basic understanding of mechanics

How Much Money Does a Dump Truck Operator Make?

Since dump truck drivers typically operate other machinery, there is a wide range of salaries available for this position. The national average is $42,793, with the potential to earn up to $71,000 depending on experience, duties, and skill level.

Heavy Equipment Operator Duties & Responsibilities

While each piece of machinery has slightly different requirements, the duties and responsibilities of heavy equipment operators are often very similar. Some of the most common responsibilities include:

  • Safely operating equipment and complying with company's policies

  • Loading and unloading machines from trailers or transport vehicles

  • Maintain equipment and materials at the job site

  • Complete all paperwork and documentation required

In addition to the basics, there are a few skills that will help you succeed as a heavy equipment operator, such as:

  • Hand, eye, and foot coordination to maneuver the machine accurately and fit it into tighter spaces

  • Ability to read dials, gauges, and other meters on the machine

  • Troubleshooting skills to identify and repair different components of the equipment

  • Critical thinking skills to come up with cost-effective solutions to issues that may arise

Educational Requirements to Be a Heavy Equipment Operator

All heavy equipment operators must have a basic education, and have received a high school diploma or GED. In some cases, employers may require that an operator have further education including courses in mechanics and mathematics to help operators better understand their equipment. Other companies may require the operator to attend a vocational school to learn more about heavy machinery.

Physical Training for Heavy Equipment Operators

While formal education is helpful when beginning a career as a heavy equipment operator, most of the knowledge will come from on-site training and experience. Many entry-level operators will work directly with a more experienced crew member to learn more about the equipment, its capabilities, and the expectations of the job. Most operators will be required to learn how to maintain and fix their machines, as well as all of the relevant safety practices that the company requires. In some cases, you may be required to earn a commercial driver's license (CDL) before operating a piece of heavy machinery.

Apprenticeships

Choosing to take an apprenticeship is a great way to get technical and on-the-job training in the field. During your apprenticeship, you will learn how to properly maintain and operate the machinery, as well as the company's safety policies and procedures and first aid protocols in the event of an emergency.

Licenses

Depending on the municipality in which you will be working, you may need to obtain a CDL license to operate the machinery or haul it to different job sites. Depending on the state, pile-driver operators may need to obtain a crane license.

Industries & Work Environment

Most heavy equipment operators work in industries such as construction and civil engineering, while others work with specialty trade contractors. In some cases, operators may find positions in government, mining, or oil and gas.

No matter the industry, it is important to note that a heavy equipment operator must be comfortable working in all weather conditions, including rain or snow. The job site may get slippery, wet, muddy, or dusty, and some projects require that an operator work late nights or early mornings, depending on the specifications of the job. Heavy equipment operators should be comfortable working in cold temperatures as well as extreme heat and must be willing to work in enclosed spaces and heights up to 80 feet.

Heavy equipment operators are most successful in large cities where construction is a growing industry, and operators are always in demand. Work tends to slow down during the freezing winter months due to frequent inclement weather but picks back up again in nicer weather during the spring, summer, and fall.

Skills and Requirements

It takes a combination of basic physical and mental skills to become a successful heavy equipment operator. For the skills that do not come as naturally as others, it is possible to sharpen and fine-tune your abilities over time.

The physical requirements that are necessary to be a heavy machine operator include:

Good Vision: Good vision is essential to safely operate a piece of heavy equipment. If you were not born with great vision, you will most likely need to wear corrective lenses to improve depth perception and visual acuity.

Coordination: Operating heavy machinery requires you to have a good eye, hand, and foot coordination to operate a variety of levers, pedals, and dials. Heavy equipment is complex, and it is important to fine-tune your coordination to safely operate a piece of machinery.

Quick Reflexes: Your ability to adapt to changing conditions is vital for everyone's safety on the job. Practice will help, but you also need the initial physical capacity.

Stamina: You will most likely be working long days, unusual hours, and in stressful conditions. Some heavy equipment careers will expose you to the elements regularly, require you to move heavy equipment, and require you to stand all day, so having the stamina to keep up will be essential.

The mental requirements that are necessary to be a heavy machine operator include:

Intermediate Math Skills: You may be required to perform calculations related to mass or weight, measurement conversions, ratios, and areas or volumes, based on your area of expertise and job role.

Computer Skills: Computer systems are playing an increasingly important role in heavy equipment operation, so you'll need to have the capacity to continuously keep up with evolving technology throughout your career.

Ability to Multitask: Being a heavy equipment operator involves many moving parts - both literally and figuratively. An operator must have the ability to multitask and be able to monitor progress, other crew members, and the machine simultaneously.

Attention to Detail: When it comes to a construction project, every inch matters. Heavy equipment operators must have an eye for detail and precision to avoid costly mistakes.

Steps to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

Now that we've gone over some of the basic requirements of being a heavy equipment operator, let's take a closer look at each step of the process to get you well on your way to building a successful career!

Step One: Maximize Your High School Experience

Since most employers require equipment operators to graduate high school or at least have a high school diploma or GED, it is important to maximize your high school experience. While all courses are necessary to graduate, it is especially important to focus on subjects such as algebra, geometry, and applied math. If you can attend a vocational high school, or if your school offers technical education, try to take courses such as applied math, engineering, shop class, industrial technology, or auto mechanics. These courses will help you build a strong educational foundation on which you will build your career as a heavy equipment operator.

If you do not attend a vocational school, or your school does not offer technical education courses, take a look at what your local community offers. Some may have groups or clubs that you can join that will allow you to develop some skills that you can carry into the next step of the process.

Step Two: Learn How to Operate Heavy Equipment

Like many trades, learning how to operate heavy equipment can be done in a variety of ways. Some individuals prefer a formal classroom education at community college or heavy equipment colleges, while others prefer to jump right into it and learn as they go on the job. Let's take a closer look at the different training methods, as well as some of the pros and cons of each option.

  1. Vocational School

    A vocational school will teach students how to operate a variety of equipment, from excavators and forklifts to bulldozers and dump trucks. Students receive classroom education, along with hands-on training. The classroom training will teach students about each piece of equipment, safety procedures, maintenance and repair, soil science, site grading, and how to read a blueprint. From there, students will have the opportunity to move onto simulators or even real equipment for real-life training. However, most of the focus will be on studying, rather than hands-on learning.

    The downsides to vocational school are that they take a few months to a couple of years to complete, do require that students pay tuition, and usually cost a few thousand dollars to attend and receive a certification. For those who have the means and resources, vocational school training is a great way to prepare for a career as a heavy equipment operator. For those who do not have the desire or means to attend a vocational school, there are other options available.

  2. Apprenticeship
    Apprentices are employees who have the opportunity to learn a skilled trade by being supervised on-the-job, and also receiving classroom education related to their specialty. The apprentice will sign an indenture agreement with the Joint Apprenticeship Committee or Trade Improvement Committee that will outline the details and expectations of the apprentice.

With this method of training, you will learn how to operate heavy equipment, as well as routine maintenance, repairs, and general safety procedures.

In addition to acquiring skills and expertise through on-the-job training, apprentices are regular and valuable members of the workforce. In addition to their on-the-job training, apprentices are required to take classes and complete educational courses related to their trade. They must maintain satisfactory job performance, otherwise, they may be cut from the program or be required to repeat a section of their training until the results are adequate.

An apprentice will be required to have a reliable form of transportation, as the job will require them to drive out to work sites while they are in the apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeships that employ heavy equipment operators are usually funded by unions, and take an average of 3 or 4 years to complete, before moving on to regular full-time employment.

While apprenticeship programs are a great way to make money while mastering your craft, apprentices often make less money than they would as full-time employees. This trade-off is worth it to some, as they prefer to "earn as you learn" rather than pay tuition for a vocational school. Apprenticeships are also structured programs that provide invaluable on-the-job training that you will not get with vocational training that focuses more on studying than hands-on learning.

Apprenticeships are also more comprehensive, as they often teach you how to operate a variety of equipment. These skills give your resume a boost and make you more appealing to future employers.

Unfortunately, apprenticeships are often difficult to get into, as the class sizes are usually very small, and they only accept a handful of apprentices at a time.

On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training comes with its fair share of uncertainties, but it allows you to earn a full-time wage while sharpening and building upon your skillset as you work. This is also a great way to explore alternative career paths if you are unsure that heavy equipment operation is not the best option for you.

In most cases, you will begin as an entry-level employee in a related field such as warehousing, mining, or construction. Your employer will provide training on-the-job as you learn your way around smaller pieces of equipment that are easier to learn and navigate. Once you've proven your skills, your employer will give you more responsibility with larger machinery.

This method has become less popular over the years, as it proves to be a bigger risk for employers for liability reasons. Equipment has gotten more technical and complex over time, which makes employers more hesitant to put new employees on machines before they've been fully trained or certified. However, it doesn't hurt to speak with some employers to find out if they'd be willing to provide on-the-job training.

Step Three: Get Your License

The license you will need will depend on the type of work you plan to do, and which type of machinery you plan to operate. The first step is to look into your local regulations, as well as the requirements that are listed on the job postings you are considering.

Getting your license or certification is usually a two-step process. First is the written test, which will assess your knowledge of topics such as math, measurements, problem-solving, mechanics, and inspection. From there, you will take a practical exam with an instructor to prove your knowledge of the machine's functionality, as well as your coordination and capacity to operate a machine.

Some states will require an aspiring heavy equipment operator to earn a DOL card, which is proof of basic safety training before you can be hired by an employer. The best way to get a DOL card is to take an online course that is OSHA-authorized.

Step Four: Get a Commercial Driver's License (CDL)

While having a CDL is not required for all machine operations or industries, it will make you more appealing to potential employers even if it is not required by law.

Since heavy machinery is transported between job sites using large trailers, an operator who holds a CDL license will be able to both transport and operate the machine. This will make you stand out from the competition when looking for a job. Either way, it is important to check your state's guidelines to find out if a CDL is a requirement or a preference in your area.

Step Five: Ongoing Education

Just because you've landed a job, doesn't mean you should give up on your education. Equipment and technology are constantly evolving, which means it is important to make sure your training is always up-to-date with the latest equipment and information about the industry. Doing so will give you the leverage you need to consistently increase your salary over time as you master your craft.

No matter how you gain your skills, you will be required to take a safety compliance course periodically. Most employers will require their heavy equipment operator to take refresher courses for liability purposes, while others will just request them as-needed. These courses can be taken online through OSHA, making them a quick and convenient way to stay up-to-date on safety compliance procedures.

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