How Can I Become a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Learn the median salaries of heavy equipment operators and the number of workers employed in the field. Find out about the typical duties, along with licensure and training requirements. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Heavy Equipment Operator?

A heavy equipment operator is a construction or industrial worker with expertise in running large machines, such as cranes, forklifts and paving equipment. While some are qualified to run multiple types of machines, others specialize in the use of a single one. In addition to directly operating the controls on heavy machines, operators are also responsible for routine inspections and basic repairs, in order to keep equipment in good working condition. They may also use radio equipment or hand signals to coordinate their activities with other workers on a particular site in order to ensure safety and improve the efficiency of the operation. Follow this chart as an overview of how to prepare for this career field.

Education Required High school diploma or GED; Postsecondary programs and apprenticeships available
Education Field of Study Auto mechanics or heavy machine operation
Training Required On the job training
Key Knowledge Areas Electrical & mechanical background, machine operations
Licensure Required CDL license required
Job Growth (2014-2024) 10%* (for all construction equipment operators)
Median Salary (2015) $43,810* (for all construction equipment operators)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Are the Job Duties of a Heavy Equipment Operator?

As a heavy equipment operator, you'll be responsible for managing the controls of the large machines typically found on construction sites. These might include bulldozers, forklifts, tractors, excavators, asphalt spreaders and any other type of machine that hauls materials or moves earth. Your job is to man those machines and use them to start the construction of buildings, runways, bridges, roads, tunnels and other large structures. You may also be tasked with providing light maintenance to the machines you operate.

When you work as a heavy equipment operator in the construction industry, you might choose to specialize on a particular type of machine. For example, you might train to operate a bulldozer and learn to use it to gather earth from the ground and clear space for building foundations. Another option would be to learn how to operate a pavement spreader or a pile driver. No matter what type of equipment you specialize in, you typically need to have a few additional skills in order to work on a construction site. You need to understand the safety precautions inherent in working with heavy equipment, and you need to be able to read construction markings and plans.

What Education and Training Will I Need?

Many contractors provide on-the-job training for new heavy equipment operators. If you're new to the industry, you may learn how to drive and operate heavy equipment by following the instructions of supervisors in the field. However, you may also get a boost up in the industry by completing a certificate or associate's degree program in heavy equipment operation before you seek out a job.

Some community colleges and vocational schools offer programs specifically designed to provide you with the knowledge and skills necessary to operate heavy equipment. Such programs take between a few months and two years to complete, and they include courses on heavy equipment safety, operating procedures, machine electronics and global positioning systems (GPS) for field equipment. Some include classroom laboratory work designed to replicate actual field experience.

What Licensure Is Available?

In some states, you'll be required to have a commercial driver's license (CDL) in order to work as a heavy equipment operator. You can apply for such a license through each state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). While the requirements do vary from state to state, most will demand that you have a clean driving record. They might also require you to pass an examination on commercial driving laws and prove that you have a clean bill of health before they'll issue your license.

What Salary Could I Expect to Make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) divides up the statistics for heavy equipment operators into different categories based by machine ( According to its 2015 statistics, pile driver operators held about 3,670 jobs in the United States, while paving, surface and tamping equipment operators held about 53,110 jobs. All other types of construction equipment operators held more than 355,140 jobs in 2015. The median salary for this group was $44,600, while the corresponding figures for paving equipment operators and pile driver operators were $38,270 and $49,430.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of working as a heavy equipment operator, you might be interested in becoming a heavy equipment technician. In this job, you would be responsible for scheduling maintenance on large machines, as well as identifying malfunctions and conducting major repairs. Like heavy equipment operators, heavy equipment technicians need to have at least a high school diploma. Another career alternative is a position as a heavy truck driver. These professionals drive trucks that weigh over 26,000 pounds and carry commercial goods long distances. The minimum educational requirement is a high school diploma, but aspiring truckers must also complete a professional training program and earn a license.

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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    • Tennessee: 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
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    • Maine: South Portland
  • 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