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What Does a Construction Equipment Operator Do?

Construction equipment operators keep construction sites humming. 

They go by many names, including heavy equipment operator, construction machine operator, construction operator or operating engineer. They run and may maintain the machines that move dirt, construction materials and other big items needed to build roads, bridges and buildings.

No matter what you call them, they are in demand, especially in the construction industry. 

They control machines like bulldozers, front-end loaders, excavators, concrete pumps, dump trucks, graders and backhoe loaders.

Equipment operators usually specialize. For example, construction equipment operators drive excavators, the machines used to dig and lift dirt. Paving and surface equipment operators drive the machines used in road construction to spread concrete and asphalt. Pile driver operators control the equipment that hammers heavy beams called piles into the ground. 

This is a good career for those who don’t want to sit behind a desk. However, equipment operators work in almost all weather conditions, and the job can be seasonal.

The payoff for the hard work is a stable, good-paying job — not to mention the satisfaction of playing a part in creating structures that improve the community. 

Keep reading to learn more.

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$ 31,000 - $ 87,000
$ 50,000
45,400+
A construction equipment operator will manage an excavator to clear the way for a new road
Being a heavy equipment operator at a construction site requires patience and a steady hand. (Credit: Juan Enrique del Barrio/Shutterstock)

Why Becoming a Heavy Equipment Operator Is Worthwhile

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Rachel Ratican, construction equipment operator

Why Becoming a Heavy Equipment Operator Is Worthwhile

Rachel Ratican always thought she'd go into a medical profession, but seeing the pride that her father showed every time they drove by one of the places he'd helped build changed her mind. 

"I wanted that for my children; I wanted them to see a strong woman who did her part to help the community the way my father did," she says.

A sense of pride brought her to the construction industry, but it's the good pay and teamwork that keeps her there. 

"Turns out earning a living wage and not going into debt was the best choice I’ve ever made!" 

Find out what else she has to say about becoming a heavy equipment operator

Job Responsibilities

  • Operate heavy machinery to move materials at building sites
  • Maintain equipment and make basic repairs 
  • Communicate effectively 
  • Monitor machine gauges and adjust as needed
  • Follow all safety standards

How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator: FAQs

What steps do I need to take to get this job?

First, you’ll need to earn a high school diploma or equivalent. 

To get the training you need, you can take several paths, including technical school, community college, military training or apprenticeship. 

Technical schools and community colleges offer certificate or degree programs, which are a combination of classroom time and on-the-job training. Courses will typically include math, how to repair and maintain equipment, soil science, safety regulations and how to read grading plans and blueprints. Training may include simulator training before you control the bigger machines. Many of these programs focus on one type of machine, such as a bulldozer or backhoe. 

You can also learn to operate heavy machinery in the military. This translates to civilian life with certification, which we'll cover in more detail below.

Apprenticeships are offered by trade unions, governments and some businesses. They are more comprehensive, providing supervised training on several types of equipment. Apprentices attend classes and get on-the-job training. 

No matter which path you choose, prepare to gain knowledge and plenty of operating experience. 

The more you can learn from experienced equipment operators, the better. 

The next step is earning your certification. Most states and some cities require certification or a license to operate certain machines, such as cranes and pile drivers. For example, the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) offers certification to operate mobile or tower cranes.

Certification requires passing a written test and a practical exam.

Even if it’s not required, certification is worthwhile. It’s proof to employers that you are well-trained and that your skills and knowledge have been independently verified. (You are also less likely to have an accident.) 

There’s plenty of opportunity for heavy equipment operators who love being in the cab, but there’s also room for growth. Some operators start their own businesses.

How long is heavy equipment operator training?

The length of training depends on the path you choose. 

Technical school and community college programs typically take one to two years if they are focused on one type of machinery. An apprenticeship typically takes from three to four years, but you’re earning a paycheck while you learn.

Continuing education to maintain licenses or certifications is ongoing.

Are there any other qualifications?

You must be 18 years or older and have a valid driver’s license.

You may need to earn a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive the trucks that can transport the heavy equipment.

Depending on what state you plan to work in, you may also need to get a Department of Labor (DOL) card, which is proof of basic Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) training.

Are construction equipment operators in demand?

Jobs for equipment operators are projected to grow 5% from 2021 to 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The massive amount of money that will be spent on infrastructure upgrades in the coming years means heavy equipment operators have job security.

What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

Successful heavy equipment operators tend to share these traits: 

  • Steady hands and feet and good coordination to operate the equipment 
  • Detail-oriented
  • Excellent vision
  • Good mechanical skills and understanding
  • Not afraid of heights

The bottom line on becoming a construction equipment operator: If you like working outdoors and have no interest in being behind a desk, consider this in-demand career. It’s an opportunity to literally help your community grow by building new roads and structures. Plus, it’s a satisfying career that doesn’t require a four-year degree that could leave you in debt. (Instead, you’ll be ahead of the game and earning a paycheck!) If this appeals to you, check out SkillPointe’s training links for programs near you.

Construction Equipment Operator Training in Your Area

Coordinates
North Arkansas College logo

Construction Equipment Operation Certificate

North Arkansas College
Harrison (157.4 Miles)
Southern Arkansas University Tech logo

Crane Training Technician/Operator Training

Southern Arkansas University Tech
Camden (292.5 Miles)
Southern Arkansas University Tech logo

Pallet Jack Technician/Operator Training

Southern Arkansas University Tech
Camden (292.5 Miles)
Lincoln Land Community College

Aerial/Scissor Lift Certification

Lincoln Land Community College
Springfield (376.9 Miles)
Lincoln Land Community College

OSHA 10 Certification

Lincoln Land Community College
Springfield (376.9 Miles)
Lincoln Land Community College

Forklift Certification

Lincoln Land Community College
Springfield (376.9 Miles)
Lincoln Land Community College

CDL License with Hazmat Endorsement

Lincoln Land Community College
Springfield (376.9 Miles)
Rend Lake College logo

Heavy Equipment Transportation Certificate

Rend Lake College
Ina (378.5 Miles)
West Kentucky Community and Technical College logo

Front-End Loader Operator Certificate

West Kentucky Community and Technical College
Paducah (388.9 Miles)
West Kentucky Community and Technical College logo

Hydraulic Excavator Operator Certificate

West Kentucky Community and Technical College
Paducah (388.9 Miles)
West Kentucky Community and Technical College logo

Motor-Grader Operator Certificate

West Kentucky Community and Technical College
Paducah (388.9 Miles)
West Kentucky Community and Technical College logo

Backhoe Operator Certificate

West Kentucky Community and Technical College
Paducah (388.9 Miles)