Construction Equipment Operator

Job Description

Crane operator lifting bridge beams
••• Apostrophe Productions/Getty Images

A lot of work on a construction site cannot be done by hand. That is where a construction equipment operator comes in. He or she operates equipment that moves heavy materials, excavates gravel and earth, drives piles into the ground, or spreads and levels asphalt, concrete, and other paving material.

There are different types of construction equipment operators. Operating engineers use bulldozers, trench excavators, and road graders.

Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators handle equipment that spreads cement and asphalt to pave roads. Piledriver operators control large machines that hammer massive beams, used to support building foundations, bridges, and retaining walls, into the ground.

Quick Facts

  • The median annual salary is $46,080 (2017).
  • Approximately 426,600 people work in this occupation (2016).
  • Primary employers are state and local governments; highway, street, and bridge construction companies; utility system construction companies; and other specialty trade contractors. 
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics designates construction equipment operator a "Bright Outlook" occupation because of its excellent job outlook. Employment is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026.

A Day in the Life of a Construction Equipment Operator

Job announcement on Indeed.com included the following job duties:

  • "Perform and report on, daily safety and maintenance checks"
  • "Works with and assists the crew in digging ditches and trenches, hoisting material, tools, equipment, and any related work with a backhoe, excavator, or front-end loader"
  • "Place, remove or maintain underground utilities as directed. This includes but is not limited to: carrying pipe, bags of material, and other heavy items, jack hammering, shoveling, tamping, and installing pipe, duct, or cable"
  • "Operates equipment of various sizes and weights in the loading, hauling, and unloading of various equipment, materials, and supplies"
  • "Assist in restoring worksite at completion of daily work"

How to Become a Construction Equipment Operator

Imagine coordinating your hands and feet to operate a huge and heavy piece of equipment. Now picture doing it in a very tight space. Such is the life of a construction equipment operator. If parallel parking befuddled you on your driving road test, imagine needing even greater eye-hand-foot coordination. If you don't have it, this may not be a suitable occupation for you. Since operating construction equipment frequently involves also maintaining it, good mechanical skills are essential. If you meet these specifications, move on to the first step in preparing for this occupation.

Often someone who wants to become a construction equipment operator will learn his or her trade through on-the-job training. More in-depth training is required to operate technologically advanced equipment. 

Many who aspire to this occupation choose to enroll in three or four-year apprenticeship programs. Through a combination of 144 hours per year of technical training and 2,000 hours annually of paid on-the-job training, apprentices learn equipment operation and maintenance, how to use specialized technology such as GPS units, map reading, as well as safety practices and first-aid procedures.

Unions and contractor associations typically sponsor apprenticeship programs. You must be at least 18 years old and have earned a high school or equivalency diploma to be eligible to enroll in one. When you complete the program, you will be considered a journey worker. This means you can work without supervision. To learn about programs in your area, contact the local union that represents construction equipment operators or find one on the International Union of Operating Engineers Website.

Some states require construction equipment operators to have an occupational license. For jobs that involve moving equipment from one site to another, a commercial driver's license (CDL) is needed. To operate some equipment, for example, backhoes, loaders, and bulldozers, one needs a special license. Piledriver working in some states must have a crane license.

Check with the state in which you want to work to find out about specific licensing requirements or use the Licensed Occupation Tool from CareerOneStop to learn about requirements for a particular occupation in your state.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Employers specified the following requirements, in addition to training and experience, in job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Must be comfortable working in all weather conditions"
  • "Punctual, reliable, and able to maintain a consistent work schedule"
  • "Must have strong interpersonal skills, along with the ability to interact with all levels of management; must have a high degree of initiative, and the ability to work alone and effectively with other people"
  • "Able to define and solve problems in the field to ensure job completion"
  • "Flexibility to work overtime, weekends, and nights when necessary"

Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

If an occupation matches your interestspersonality type, and work-related values, you are more likely to be satisfied with it. A self assessment can help you discover if you have the following traits, which will make construction equipment operator a good fit.

  • Interests (Holland Code): RCI (Realistic, Conventional, Investigative)
  • Personality Type (MBTI Personality Types):  ISTP, ESTJ, or ESTP
  • Work-Related Values: Support, Relationships, Working Conditions

Occupations With Related Activities and Tasks

 DescriptionAnnual Salary (2017)Educational Requirements
Rail-Track Laying and Maintenance Equipment OperatorLays, maintains, and repairs railroad track$56,060H.S. Diploma and On-the-Job Training
Highway Maintenance WorkerMaintains condition of highways and other roads$38,700H.S. Diploma and On-the-Job Training
Construction HelperPerforms basic tasks on a construction site.$34,530H.S. Diploma and On-the-Job Training
Earth Driller, Except Oil and GasOperates drills to remove core samples, tap sub-surface water, and facilitate the use of explosives in mining and construction$43,850H.S. Diploma and On-the-Job Training

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited August 16, 2018).