Heavy Equipment Operator

Job Description

Female forklift driver in sunny industrial container yard
••• Hero Images / Getty Images

A heavy equipment operator drives or controls construction equipment including bulldozers, forklifts, back hoes, dump trucks, cargo trucks, and hydraulic truck cranes. They operate this equipment to assist in the construction of structures including bridges, roads, and buildings. 

Construction equipment operators, who are 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.

Quick Facts

  • In 2016, heavy equipment operators earned a median salary of $45,890 annually or $22.06 hourly.
  • Almost 427,000 were employed in this occupation as of 2016.
  • Heavy and civil engineering construction firms, specialty trade contractors, and local governments are the primary employers of heavy equipment operators. 
  • Jobs are usually full-time.
  • Heavy equipment operators have an excellent job outlook. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment will grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. To increase your chances of getting a job, learn how to operate multiple types of machinery.

Job Duties of a Heavy Equipment Operator

Here are some typical job duties found in job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Operate heavy equipment in compliance with the company's operating safety policies and procedures"
  • "Provide recommendations for maintaining and improving environmental performance"
  • "Load and unload equipment from vehicles and trailers "
  • "Ensure company equipment and material is maintained, kept cleaned, and stored in a safe manner"
  • "Check filters and grease equipment"
  • "Observe distribution of paving material to adjust machine settings or material flow, and indicate low spots for workers to add material."
  • "Keep work area and equipment clean by collecting and disposing of scrap, excess materials, and refuse"
  • "Proactively communicate with foreman, superintendent and coworkers"
  • "Complete required paperwork, reporting, and other documentation as required"

The Truth About Being a Heavy Equipment Operator

  • Because construction projects take place at all hours of the day or night, construction workers, including heavy equipment operators, have schedules that may include late nights and overnight hours.
  • They work in all types of weather.
  • Heavy equipment operators are at a high risk of Injuries due to slips and falls.

Required Training and Licenses

You can prepare to work in this occupation by first learning to operate light equipment under an experienced operator's guidance. Another option is to do a formal apprenticeship. This option includes 3 or 4 years of a combination of technical instruction and on-the-job or field training. You will learn how to operate and maintain equipment during your on-the-job training. In the classroom, instructors will teach you about safety practices and first aid, as well as operating procedures.

Labor unions such as the International Union of Operating Engineers offer apprenticeships.

The municipality where you work may require a license to operate equipment or transport it to job sites. For example some state require a commercial driver's license (CDL) to haul machinery. In some states or cities pile-driver operators need a crane license.

What Soft Skills Does a Heavy Equipment Operator Need?

In addition to formal training and a license, certain soft skills, or personal qualities, will allow you to succeed in this occupation.

  • Hand and Foot Coordination: You need to be able to coordinate movements of your hands and feet in order to guide very large machinery in tight places.
  • Operation Monitoring: .The ability to read gauges, dials, and other indicators, adjust them is necessary.
  • Coordination: On busy construction sites, you must be able to coordinate your actions with those of other workers.
  • Troubleshooting: It is essential that anyone operating heavy equipment is able to detect and fix operating problems.
  • Critical Thinking: Your job will require you to identify the strengths and weaknesses of solutions to problems in order to choose the one that is most likely to be successful.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

These are some of the requirements specified by employers in job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Must have the ability and willingness to work in all types of adverse conditions such as extreme weather, enclosed spaces and heights up to 80 feet"
  • "Experience reading plans and understanding tasks at hand"
  • "Able to pass a drug test"
  • "Be able to recognize safety issues"
  • "Willing to accommodate a schedule that can require weekend work"
  • "Ability to work without close supervision once directed on task"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

When deciding what career to pursue, consider your interestspersonality type, and work-related values. The following traits are compatible with this occupation:

Occupations With Related Activities and Tasks

 DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2016)Minimum Required Education/Training
Construction LaborerPerforms physical tasks on construction sites

$33,430

HS Diploma
Highway Maintenance WorkerPatch broken or work roadways, repair guardrails, and mow grass or clear brush$38,130HS Diploma
Railroad WorkerDrives trains or operates switches in the rail yard$57,160

HS Diploma

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 January 12, 2018).