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Heavy Equipment Operators: 2 Ways to Move Up


You know your way around a bulldozer. Backhoes and skid steers? No problem. And you’ve got the safety skills down.

But are you thinking about what’s next?

There are two main paths in moving up — and making more money — for heavy equipment operators: specializing in a specific piece of equipment or moving into a leadership role.

One thing’s for sure — construction is booming. That means there’s a strong demand for qualified workers, especially heavy equipment operators (HEOs). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 10% job growth for HEOs in the coming decade, faster than the average for all occupations, which echoes our experience on the ground.

We spoke with Eric Starling, a construction and engineering recruiter at Aerotek. Before becoming a recruiter, Starling spent six years in construction management. He gave us the scoop on how heavy equipment operators can take the next step in their careers.

1. Specialize on a machine

One sure way to get ahead — and increase your take-home pay — is to specialize in using a specific machine, especially ones that use technology like GPS and lasers.

“It’s one thing to move 100 pounds of dirt from one place to another, but it’s another thing to cut a piece of grade at a 10th of an inch over a half-mile,” says Starling. “That’s where things get tricky. That’s why those skills are in demand and pay well.”

When are you ready to specialize? According to Starling, a heavy machinery operator with hands-on experience — usually 3–5 years on the job — and a working knowledge of basic equipment is in a position to specialize.

Once you’ve mastered a piece of equipment, it becomes your calling card.

“Folks who have been extensively trained on specialized equipment, that becomes their piece,” Starling explains. “They don’t leave that equipment, and they never will. That’s their baby.”


2. Become a foreperson or superintendent

Becoming a foreperson or superintendent is a natural career step for a heavy equipment operator who is interested in a leadership role.

In Starling’s experience, HEOs who move into these roles share these qualities:

  • They’re disciplined
  • They have experience with different equipment
  • They’re team players
  • They’re looking for longevity

Given this list, it’s no surprise that military veterans often succeed in transitioning into leadership positions. They know what it takes to be part of a team and make it succeed.

“I’m working with someone now who’s fresh out of the military,” says Starling. “He knows he wants to be a superintendent in three years, so he’s set on knowing about all of the equipment and understanding how construction projects come together.”

Even if you’re just beginning to consider if a leadership role is right for you, Starling encourages you to get as much information as you can from people who have experience and perspective in heavy equipment operating.

“When I talk to someone who’s thinking about moving into a superintendent or project management level someday,” says Starling, “I give them the heads-up early on about the work they should go after for the next three or four years. That gives them a better understanding of what it takes and if it’s right for them.”

Build a career plan

Once you decide where you want to go in your career, you’ll need a plan to get there. With the strong demand for qualified HEOs, you’ll have opportunities to gain relevant experience — whether that means operating GPS machinery or moving into leadership.

One option is contract work, where you can pick and choose the gigs that match your objectives and work with a recruiter to develop a long-term plan. It helps to work with an agency and a recruiter who has connections in the business.

“We have a good understanding of what projects employers are working on,” says Starling. “Having that market knowledge allows us to coach our candidates into the right career path.”

Ask your boss for feedback so you’ll know you’re meeting performance expectations, especially on projects that relate to your goals. If you’re contracting, a good recruiter can help.

“If someone’s aiming for a leadership role, I’ll let the manager know and find out how that person’s doing,” says Starling. “Having constant communication and getting regular feedback is a great tool for anybody in any business.”

Learn on the worksite

If you want to be a specialist or a foreperson, use your current gig as on-the-job training. Get to know the operator of the equipment you’re interested in. Ask questions. Observe what your manager does. If you’re capable of taking some of the workload from your boss, volunteer to step up.

You’ll get noticed and gain valuable experience at the same time. And you’ll be one step closer to your goal.

“My favorite part about recruiting in the trades is when I see someone who’s driven to go to the next level, being able to coach them and watch them grow,” says Starling. “It’s great to see how their careers are progressing and how they’re reaching their goals. It’s really rewarding.”