How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

Insight - 99 Min read

January 3, 2024

Heavy equipment operators are in high demand. This construction industry career path offers a substantial salary, great benefits for you and your family, growth opportunities, and job security during otherwise turbulent economic climates.

Before we discuss how to become a heavy equipment operator, it's important to understand what exactly heavy equipment operators do. Heavy equipment operators are the backbone of a construction site.

Massive Cat Wheel Loader Heavy Equipment Operator

What is Heavy Equipment?

Heavy construction equipment (often very expensive equipment) is an industrial vehicle endowed with some seriously powerful functions. Some commonly known examples include:

  • Backhoes

  • Bulldozers

  • Cranes

  • Forklifts

  • Skid Steers

  • Dump Trucks

  • Excavators

These industrial machines can be used for aerial, earth-moving, paving, power generation, and hauling functions.

Heavy Equipment Operator Duties & Responsibilities

The purpose of each machine can vary widely, but the duties and responsibilities of heavy equipment operators are generally the same. Common responsibilities include:

  • Operate construction equipment to complete a project

  • Comply with the company's policies and procedures (this may include such safety measures as wearing personal protective equipment or "PPE")

  • Facilitate the transportation and storage of equipment between construction sites

  • Maintain the equipment to ensure its long-term functionality and performance

  • Complete all required paperwork and documentation

Construction equipment operators must be able to complete these tasks in often challenging work environments.

Work Environment

Most heavy equipment operators are employed by construction companies, civil engineering firms, or specialty trade contractors. These employers may be funded by private or government contracts.

Regardless of the employer, a heavy equipment operator must be able to work in all types of weather conditions. This may include extreme hot or cold temperatures and precipitation such as rain or snow. A job site may get slippery, wet, muddy, or dusty.

Many projects require heavy equipment operators to work late nights or early mornings. This is because a large number of projects must be done during low-traffic hours while the general public is at home or asleep.

Large cities provide great job opportunities for heavy equipment operators because they tend to have a large number of ongoing construction projects. Newly trending "hot spots" are also a good source of work as they tend to receive fast, large infusions of funds from investors looking to expand while the iron is hot.

Generally speaking, a heavy equipment operator's workload is likely to slow during freezing winter months and then pick back up through spring, summer, and fall.

If you're tough enough to reap the rewards of being a heavy equipment operator, it'll take a few skills and minimal training. The option is available to a broad range of individuals as it does not require an expensive, time-consuming college degree to get your foot in the door.

Heavy Duty Gomaco Concrete Equipment OperatorEducational Requirements & Skill Sets Required

This career path is driven primarily by hands-on experience. Most jobs require only a high school diploma or GED to apply. You can increase your value (and salary) with the addition of technical school training or vocational training specific to operating heavy machinery. These may involve courses in mechanics and mathematics.

Another good way to improve your job outlook is through apprenticeship programs. These will give you the ultimate heavy equipment training through on-the-job training.

If you intend to operate machinery with a gross vehicle weight rating of over 26,000 pounds or a trailer that weighs more than 10,000 pounds, you will need to secure a commercial driver's license ("CDL") for employment. To apply for a CDL you must have a valid driver's license, zero incidents of DUIs within the previous five years, be felony-free, and be able to pass a substance abuse test and physical exam.

In addition to the education outlined above, all heavy equipment operators generally must:

  • 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

  • Be able to read dials, gauges, and other meters

  • Be able to troubleshoot to identify and prevent equipment damage

  • Have strong critical thinking skills to develop cost-effective solutions to issues that do arise

  • Be able to handle basic maintenance and repairs

In the end, the majority of heavy equipment training comes from on-site training and experience. Entry-level operators work directly with experienced crew members to learn about the equipment, its abilities, 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.

Excavator Operator Working Until DuskSalaries & Demand by Type of Heavy Equipment

As spending on infrastructure continues to grow, 51,500 heavy equipment operator jobs open up each year.

The profitability in heavy equipment operation varies by state and heavy equipment type. Before you start the process of how to become a heavy equipment operator, it's worth taking the time to consider the ideal equipment types to learn based on your skills, location, and lifestyle needs.

As of 2023, New Jersey ranks number one in average pay for heavy equipment operators coming in at approximately $65,000 per year. The best city for heavy equipment operator jobs is Trenton, New Jersey. Alaska, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Montana closely follow New Jersey with average salaries between $45,000 and $56,000 per year.

While these averages may sound mediocre, salaries can skyrocket based on the type of equipment you operate. Just take a look at these ZipRecruiter statistics for 2023:

  • Belly Dump Driver - approximately $110,000 per year

  • Tower Crane Operator - between $52,000 and $91,000 per year

  • Gantry Crane Operator - approximately $76,000 per year

  • Commercial Frontload Driver - between $42,000 and $70,500 per year

  • Backhoe Operator - between $42,000 and $72,000 per year

Heavy Equipment Sany Crane OperatorHaving 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 with long-term growth. Heavy equipment operators also enjoy stability thanks to a constant demand for skilled tradesmen. Many go on to start their own small business making all the challenges of heavy equipment operator training worth it.

Let's take a closer look at specific heavy equipment operator opportunities available today.

Excavator Operator

Skilled excavator operators are always in high demand. With construction projects surging across the country, certified heavy equipment technicians are in demand to help clear the ground, transport materials, and do some heavy lifting.

Transporting Cat Excavator by TrailerWhat is an Excavator?

An excavator consists of a cab for the operator where he or she controls a boom and a bucket using levers. The machine can be used for:

  • Grading

  • Mining

  • Digging

  • Dredging

  • Snow removal

  • Demolition

  • Hoisting building materials

  • Landscaping

If you're wondering how to become a heavy equipment operator who specializes in excavators, the first step is heavy equipment operator training. We discussed these options (training programs and hands-on experience through apprenticeship programs) above.

Backhoe Operator Working in the Mountains SnowBackhoe Operator

A backhoe is another versatile piece of construction project equipment that can be used for a wide range of tasks. It is easy to confuse with an excavator at first sight but tends to be smaller, lighter, and more agile than your average excavator.

What is a Backhoe?

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 the cab to operate each component.

Heavy Equipment Backhoe Operator Working in Grassy FieldBackhoes are most commonly used for:

  • Transporting materials

  • Demolition

  • Grading

  • Breaking up asphalt

  • Digging holes

  • Clearing snow

  • Forestry and farming

How do you become a heavy equipment operator that specializes in backhoes?

The good news is that a backhoe operator often does not need to be licensed or certified, so attending a class or training is optional, but highly recommended if you want to amplify your value (and potential salary) at a job interview. Or, you may opt for an apprenticeship instead.

Bulldozer Operator

One of the most commonly known pieces of heavy equipment, the bulldozer is a construction site staple.

What Is a Bulldozer?

The bulldozer typically uses a "ripper" attachment to dredge up or break down material, then uses its powerful off-road tracks to push broken-up material out of the way.

Bulldozer OperatorBulldozers are powerful machines that are used to move heavy materials such as earth, pavement, and rocks, or to level the ground to create an even foundation for buildings and roads.

Bulldozers tend to be used for:

  • Demolition

  • Level ground to create even foundations for buildings and roads

  • Clearing the land of brush or vegetation

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

Heavy equipment operator training programs are your best bet when it comes to excelling as a bulldozer specialist. With the proper training, bulldozer skills can open up a wide array of employment opportunities as these operators are in high demand.

Crane Operator

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.

Heavy Equipment Crane Operator CareerWhat is a Crane?

The crane is a complex piece of heavy equipment. Just a few of its components include a boom, jib, outriggers, rotex gear, counterweights, cables, and hooks. A crane may be fixed in one place or attached to a vehicle for mobility between projects.

Due to their complexity, cranes can be a bit more daunting than other pieces of heavy equipment. Like any competent heavy equipment operator knows: safe equipment operation is key.

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 are popularly used to:  

  • Move heavy things up and down

  • Construct tall buildings and fixtures

  • Move and load containers

  • Lift building materials high to upper floors

  • Move heavy cargo across a site

Future crane operators will certainly want to hit the technical school training programs. Not only will this improve your job outlook, but it will also help make you a more successful heavy equipment operator.

Skid Steer Operator

Skid steers are small but mighty pieces of construction equipment that can be found on virtually any job site. They are defined by the unique maneuverability that allows them to "skid" into tighter spaces that larger pieces of equipment cannot fit into.

Cat Skid Steer OperatorWhat is a Skid Steer?

Skid steers are ideal for smaller, more delicate job sites that may be compromised by the use of excessively large or heavy machinery and can be used throughout the entire construction process. Since the tracks of a skid steer are fixed, each side of the machine is maneuvered separately using its engines. This allows the machine to make zero-degree radius turns. This is a common machine that a typical construction equipment operator knows how to use.

Skid steers are frequently used for:

  • Clearing snow

  • 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. Just like the others, it only takes a high school diploma or equivalent to get the ball rolling on this career!

Dump Truck Operators

Dump trucks are vehicles with large engines and massive bucket beds that can be used to haul large quantities of materials from one destination to another.

Dump Truck Operator Careers and JobsWhat is a Dump Truck?

Also known as haul trucks, dump trucks are useful for hauling large amounts of materials such as soil, gravel, sand, and demolition waste. The heavy machinery is 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.

To drive a dump truck, a heavy equipment operator will need to earn their CDL. Other than that and a high school diploma or GED, it does not take much to become a heavy equipment operator specializing in dump truck driving.

What is a Dump Truck?

Also known as haul trucks, dump trucks are useful for hauling large amounts of materials such as soil, gravel, sand, and demolition waste. The heavy machinery is 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.

To drive a dump truck, a heavy equipment operator will need to earn their CDL. Other than that and a high school diploma or GED, it does not take much to become a heavy equipment operator specializing in dump truck driving.

Excavator Operator on Job Site

Important Steps on How 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 on your way to building a successful career wielding the power of heavy machinery!

#1 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, you may as well get the most out of this education. Take extra time to focus on math, physics, and auto mechanics.

In many places, you can even attend a vocational high school that will let you graduate a step ahead in your career.

Not an option?

If these options are not available, research what your local community organizations have to offer. You may be surprised to find free or affordable programs designed to help students establish trade skill careers.

#2 Get Specific with Heavy Equipment

As we briefly discussed already, there are multiple approaches to getting the education and hands on experience you need to be a great heavy equipment operator.

Let's take a closer look at the different training methods:

Vocational School or Technical Training Program

These programs will teach students how to safely operate a full range of heavy construction equipment. They combine classroom education with hands on experience. You will learn about the functions of each piece of equipment, safety procedures, how to read a blueprint, and more.

Outside of the classroom, students have the opportunity to move onto simulators and then real equipment for real-life experience.

These programs can take anywhere between a few months and a few years. They require time and tuition funds (usually a few thousand dollars), though there are many available scholarships if you take the time to do the research.

Apprenticeship Program

An apprentice is an employee who has the opportunity to learn a skilled trade alongside an on-the-job mentor. Some apprenticeships also involve classroom education in a desired specialty. Often, an apprentice will sign an indenture agreement with the Joint Apprenticeship Committee or Trade Improvement Committee outlining the details and expectations of the role.

Apprentices learn first-hand how to operate heavy equipment, as well as perform tasks such as routine maintenance and repairs. If an apprentice does not maintain satisfactory job performance they may be cut from the program or be required to repeat a section of their training until the results are adequate.

Unfortunately, apprenticeships are often difficult to get into given small class sizes and a limited number of open positions for new apprentices.

If you are able to snag yourself a spot, apprenticeships that teach how to operate heavy equipment are typically funded by unions. You will need a reliable source of transportation to get to your on-the-job training sites.

The average apprenticeship program takes three to four years to complete before moving on to full-time employment as a heavy equipment operator.

It should be noted that apprenticeships are an "earn as you learn" program. However, although you will be paid you will most likely make less than your standard full-time employees. Many feel this trade-off is worth it when compared to paying vocational school tuition. Apprenticeships are also structured programs that provide invaluable on-the-job training.

Completing an apprenticeship program will certainly give your resume a boost and make you stand out among other applicants when applying to future employers.

Entry Level On-the-Job Training

One alternative approach to entering the industry of heavy equipment operators is to apply for an entry level position with a warehousing, mining, or construction company.

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 increasingly hesitant to put new employees on machines before they've been fully trained or certified. However, it doesn't hurt to speak with potential employers to find out if they'd be willing to provide on-the-job training.

On-the-job training will get you up close and personal with how to operate heavy equipment of all kinds. Not to mention, it allows prospective operators while building a strong skill set. This particular career path calls for natural growth within an employer who may even subsidize the cost of certifications and licenses that allow you to elevate your value if you prove to be a strong and reliable employee.

#3 Get Certified!

Not all heavy equipment requires a license or certification to operate, but it is significantly easier to get your foot in the door and increase the salary or wage you can negotiate.

A smart way to get started is to look at heavy equipment operator job postings that meet your individual pay and schedule goals. These postings will typically list the certifications and licenses they are looking to hire. Some certifications might be listed as "optional," which means if you do have them (or communicate your intent to secure them) you can ask for higher pay.

In other cases, job applicants will need to look into what state law requires of heavy equipment operation to understand the minimum requirements for the specific equipment the individual is looking to work on.

The most commonly required license is 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. A CDL license is required to transport heavy machinery between job sites, making an operator with a CDL more desirable as employers will not need to hire a second employee to get the job done.

Getting your license or certification is usually a two-step process. First is the written test, which may test 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 demonstrate knowledge of the machine's functionality and your personal capacity to operate a machine.

#4 Continued Learning Education

Way to go, you landed a gig! Now it's time to keep that upward momentum going. In addition to piling years of job experience under your belt, operators can continue to maximize the salary or wage they can negotiate through continued education.

Heavy equipment and technology are evolving faster than ever. This means there is always a valuable opportunity to update your skills with the latest equipment and information about the industry. Staying dialed into industry progress will allow you to stay a step ahead of your coworkers and even identify profitable new roles that are entering the market.

All heavy machinery operators will be required to periodically complete a safety compliance course. This is a requirement of most employers for liability purposes. These courses can be taken online through OSHA, making them a quick and convenient way to stay up-to-date on safety compliance procedures.

Best of Luck on Your Journey to Success!

Whether you choose to become an excavator operator or specialize in equipment maintenance, heavy equipment careers have proven to be reliable and worthwhile. Most require only a high school education or equivalent to get started on one's career path operating heavy equipment. In the long term those that make themselves an expert can maintain equipment, own equipment, or even become teachers at local vocational schools.

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