Heavy Equipment Operator: Career, Outlook and Education Requirements

Heavy equipment operators move materials, such as earth, concrete, wood, stone, and metal at construction and excavation sites. Heavy equipment operators are required to have a certain amount of experience in the industry and at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What You Need to Know

To become a heavy equipment operator, usually only a high school education or equivalent is required. You can even 'earn while you learn' in an apprenticeship program. Employment is expected to grow faster than the average for equipment operators.

Responsibilities Prepare construction sites and build roads, bridges and buildings
Median Pay (2017)* $46,080 (all construction equipment operators)
Projected Job Growth (2016-2026)* 12% (all construction equipment operators)
Education High school diploma or equivalent
Training An apprenticeship of at least 3 years that includes 2,000 hours of on-the-job training (paid) and 144 hours of classroom instruction for each year

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Do Heavy Equipment Operators Do?

Heavy equipment operators specialize in the use of machinery such as bulldozers, bucket loaders, cranes, all-terrain forklifts, and pile drivers. They prepare construction sites and build roads, bridges, buildings, canals, and off-shore structures, such as oil rigs. Beginning heavy equipment operators generally use lighter, smaller machines and gradually advance to larger, more powerful machines. Heavy equipment operators who qualify to operate numerous types of construction equipment are classified as operating engineers. Some states require these professionals hold a license; a pile-driver license is currently required in 17 states, for example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

How is my Career Outlook?

Although there is always opportunity for self-employed heavy equipment operators, that number is relatively small. Most are employed by private construction companies and state and local governments. Still others are employed by the mining industry or manufacturing and utility companies. The BLS states that spending on infrastructure across the United States is expected to increase as a result of needed repairs, which will result in new positions. Per the BLS, the employment of construction equipment operators is expected to grow at a rate of 12% for the 10-year period of 2016-2026, which should lead to about 52,700 new jobs.

What Education/Training Do I Need?

In general, employers consider high school graduates or GED holders for employment as heavy equipment operators. Candidates who possess other high school diploma equivalents are also considered.

Prospective heavy equipment operators often complete an apprenticeship program administered by the International Union of Operating Engineers or the Associated General Contractors of America. Although these organizations are unions, the governing body of the apprenticeship programs is non-union. Apprenticeships often consist of at least three years of paid, on-the-job training, in addition to 144 hours of classroom work each year. The on-the-job training totals around 2,000 hours Typically, apprentices start off on light equipment before moving on to becoming heavy equipment operators. Because of the need to transport heavy equipment to the job site, a commercial driver's license is often required. Apprentices will also learn about:

  • Global Positioning System (GPS) devices
  • Safety and first aid
  • Reading grading plans
  • Operating procedures

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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