How Do I Become a Heavy Machinery Operator?

Find out state licensure requirements and what training is needed for heavy equipment operators. Learn about typical duties, median salaries and employment figures. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Heavy Machinery Operator Do?

Heavy machinery operators are trained to use machinery equipment on construction sites. They may operate bulldozers, road graders, forklifts, excavators and other construction equipment. They need good hand-eye coordination to operate their equipment and navigate it through a construction site. They also need to have basic mechanical skills because they maintain and may need to repair the equipment they use. Some of the tasks they perform include moving earth, lifting items and relocating them, and leveling road surfaces. Paving and surfacing equipment operators spread asphalt over the road, or may spread concrete or compact the earth in preparation for paving. Pile-driver operators insert heavy beams into the earth. The beams may be used for retaining walls, foundations or piers.

Paving, Surfacing and Tamping Equipment Operators Pile Driver Operators Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators
Degree Required High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Training Required On-the-job training or training from a heavy equipment operator program On-the-job training or training from a heavy equipment operator program On-the-job training or training from a heavy equipment operator program
Key Responsibilities Operating, prepping, inspecting, maintaining and repairing equipment like stone spreaders, tampers and pavers Operating, prepping, inspecting, maintaining and repairing pile drivers Operating, prepping, inspecting, maintaining and repairing equipment like bulldozers, front-end loaders and tractors
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 9% 17% 10%
Median Salary (2015)* $38,270 $49,430 $44,600

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Heavy Machinery Operator?

When you hold a job as a heavy machinery or construction equipment operator, your primary objective is to run the heavy machinery used at construction sites. You drive and operate those machines that move materials and earth at the sites of roads, buildings, bridges and similar structures. You might operate paving equipment, bulldozers, excavators, road graders, pile-drivers, tractors, forklifts or asphalt spreaders.

Different types of heavy equipment have different specific tasks associated with them. For example, when you operate an asphalt spreader, you need to know how to manage those controls and valves that regulate the asphalt being laid over the ground. When you work as pile-driver operator, you need to know how to use equipment to pick up beams and hammer them into the ground.

As a heavy-machinery operator, you need to be able to read construction markings and navigate large machines around construction sites. You may also be required to provide some maintenance and small repairs to heavy machines.

What Educational and Training Programs Are Available?

If you find a position as a heavy-machinery operator, you may receive supervised, on-the-job training that prepares you for your job. However, you might also elect to complete a formal training program through a community college or vocational school.

An associate's degree or certificate program in heavy equipment operation provides you with the specific tools and skills you need to operate heavy machinery in the field. Either option teaches you how to safely and effectively operate and maintain heavy equipment in a construction area. Specific courses might cover safe operating procedures for heavy equipment, GPS for field equipment, machine electronics and heavy construction machinery technology. A certificate program lasts less than one year and includes only core courses, while an associate's degree program can last two years and also offers general education units.

Will I Need a Special License?

Most states do require you to earn a commercial driver's license before you can work as a heavy machinery operator. Each state has its own particular requirements for individuals aspiring to earn a commercial driver's license. Most require you to have a strong driving record and be in good physical health before they grant you licensure.

What Salary Could I Expect to Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, heavy machinery operators in general held about 424,800 jobs in the country as of 2014 (www.bls.gov). In 2015, paving, surface and tamping equipment operators held nearly 53,110 jobs and made a median annual salary of $38,270. Pile-driver operators held about 3,670 jobs and made a median annual salary of $49,430. All other construction equipment operators and operating engineers numbered upward of 355,140 and earned a median salary of $44,600 per year.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

The work that heavy machinery operators do is similar to the work of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers and material moving machine operators. Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport materials over long distances. They need good hand-eye coordination to navigate with large vehicles that weigh more than 26,000 pounds. These drivers do need a CDL driver's license and a high school diploma. Material moving machine operators often need a high school diploma, and they use equipment to move materials, which is similar to the work that some heavy machinery operators do. They may use an excavator and move dirt out of a mine, for example.

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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  • Lincoln Tech

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    • New Jersey: South Plainfield
    • Tennessee: South Plainfield, Nashville
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  • Washington-Holmes Technical Center

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    • Florida: Chipley
  • Washington County Community College

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    • Maine: Calais
  • Washburn Institute of Technology

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    • Kansas: Topeka
  • Uintah Basin Applied Technology College

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    • Utah: Roosevelt
  • Southern Maine Community College

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  • South Louisiana Community College

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    • Louisiana: Lafayette
  • The University of Montana

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    • Montana: Missoula
  • Somerset County Technology Center

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    • Pennsylvania: Somerset