Heavy Equipment Operator Jobs: Salary and Career Facts

Research what it takes to become a heavy equipment operator. Learn about education requirements, job duties, salary and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Heavy equipment operators may be responsible for using bulldozers, cranes, backhoes and loaders, among other large machinery on the job. Operators are responsible for their machines, whether they need to be maintained or repaired. They ensure all equipment being used is working properly and set up correctly. In addition, heavy equipment operators must fully understand how the machine they are using works so they can operate the equipment safely. When moving materials around, operators keep note of what is moved and where it is moved to.

Consider the information in the following table to determine if a career as a heavy equipment operator is right for you.

Industrial Truck and Tractor Operator Crane and Tower Operator Loading Machine Operator
Education Required High school diploma or equivalent Vocational school or Associate's degree High school diploma
Training Required A few months to one year on-the-job training or apprenticeship 1-2 years training on-the-job or in an apprenticeship program A few months to 1 year on-the-job training or apprenticeship program
Key Skills Operation and control, monitoring, coordination, equipment maintenance Operation and control, monitoring, critical thinking, active listening Operation and control, monitoring, active listening
Job Growth (2014-2024) 2%* 8%* Little to no change*
Median Salary (2015) $32,090* $51,650* $52,320*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Training Do I Need for a Job as a Heavy Equipment Operator?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the main educational requirement for a heavy equipment operator is a high school diploma, although some employers seek applicants who have some formal training (www.bls.gov). Training programs are available at community colleges and commonly result in certificates or diplomas. Associate's degree programs are also available, but they're less common. Often, these programs require that you have a commercial driver's license prior to enrollment.

In these certificate programs, you can sometimes choose two types of heavy equipment upon which to focus; some programs require the completion of general instruction in heavy equipment operation. Still, some programs require that you take courses focusing on each of the different types of equipment you may encounter, including backhoes, forklifts, bulldozers, wheel-loaders and excavators. Certificates may require a minimum of 15 credits for completion.

Diploma programs require completion of more courses than certificate programs do. You can expect to take courses in construction safety, construction theory, preventative maintenance and even welding. You may be required to complete courses where you learn to operate graders, backhoes or excavators as part of your training. Diploma programs can take up to two years to complete in some cases.

What Might My Duties Be?

As a crane or tower operator, you'd utilize pedals and levers in order to operate cranes and other equipment to lift and move materials for placement onto a truck, solid ground or specified locations. You'd be responsible for cleaning and maintaining cables, pulleys and other devices to prevent problems. You'd direct truck drivers in their delivery of materials and load or unload materials as well, according to the Occupational Information Network (www.onetonline.org).

Excavator or loading machine operators use equipment with a scoop or shovel to take earth, sand and other materials from their original locations to other areas or onto trucks to be transported. The BLS notes that this equipment is often used in the mining industry.

As a forklift or industrial truck and tractor operator, your duties would likely include running equipment that moves construction supplies or other products, depending on the type of business your employer would work in. The Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), states that potential duties could include pulling and preparing products to ship, maintaining equipment to ensure safety and stacking and storing product in approved locations.

How Much Can I Earn?

In 2015, 46,490 people held jobs as crane and tower operators in the United States. The BLS notes that most of these employees earned a median wage of $24.83 per hour, or $51,650 in that year. In Ohio, where there were 1,860 crane and tower operators employed, workers averaged $20.01 per hour. By contrast, workers in California averaged $33.13 per hour, according to the BLS.

For the 49,880 individuals who worked as excavating and loading machine or dragline operators in 2015, the opportunity to make the most money was in nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing, where workers earned an average hourly wage of $27.64, according to the BLS. The second highest-paying industry was electric power generation, transmission and distribution, where employees earned an average of $26.62 per hour.

In 2016, many forklift operators earned $27,087-$43,567, according to Salary.com. The BLS, which includes forklift operators among industrial truck and tractor operators, reports that there were 53,810 employed in this category in 2015. Industrial truck and tractor operators earned a median salary of $32,090 in 2015, according to the BLS.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Most heavy equipment operator jobs only require a high school diploma, though some may need a little more education. If you are looking for a career with a similar education requirement that relates to a job in heavy equipment you have several options. One option is working as a delivery truck driver. Delivery truck drivers must have a high school diploma and primarily transport packages to consumers. If you're looking for a career with no education required, becoming a hand laborer and materials mover may be a career to consider. Hand laborers and materials movers are responsible for moving and packing freight and stock by hand.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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