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Heavy Equipment Operators: What They Do and How to Become One

Outdoors, a man wearing a brown short-sleeve shirt, black sunglasses and yellow gloves and hardhat, climbs up the right side of a crawler dozer.

Have you ever gazed in awe at a building being erected? Are you curious about the mechanics and machinery involved in construction? If these questions resonate with you, then a career as a heavy equipment operator might be a suitable path to explore.

Heavy equipment operators are a vital component in the construction industry. Their role is indispensable, and their expertise lies at the very foundation of any building project. Without the skilled hands of heavy equipment operators, the construction of buildings would come to a standstill.

These professionals handle complex machinery, a feat that may appear intimidating at first glance. Yet, this shouldn't deter aspiring operators. Becoming a heavy equipment operator is both accessible and achievable. Especially for those who harbor a genuine interest in this field.

We spoke with Construction Trades Account Manager Derek Burkhard who has over seven years of experience helping skilled trade professionals find the right work. He provided some insights into what it takes to become a heavy equipment operator and the work they perform.

What is a Heavy Equipment Operator? 

Heavy equipment operators handle a variety of large, specialized vehicles. Each tailored to different industry requirements. This encompasses everything from construction to agriculture to mining.

In the construction sector, heavy equipment operators maneuver cranes, bulldozers, excavators and more. These vehicles play vital roles in building infrastructure and shaping landscapes.

“A heavy equipment operator either excavates, grades, or hauls material around the job site. Job sites could vary from construction to heavy industrial manufacturing sites that deal with a lot of bulk/raw materials. On a construction site, heavy equipment operators are always the first on the job site to ensure there is a proper foundation for any project/building pad/parking lots and roads,” says Burkhard. 

The scope of heavy equipment extends to agriculture. In this industry, operators manage tractors and other machinery essential for planting and harvesting crops. Mining is another field that demands the expertise of heavy equipment operators. It involves drilling machines and other specialized equipment tailored to extract valuable resources from the Earth.

What unifies these diverse tasks is the operator's ability to control these complex machines. Heavy equipment operators often collaborate with fellow operators and work as part of a coordinated team. Depending on the job's unique requirements, an operator may specialize in handling a specific type of machinery. Or, they may have experience with various types of equipment. 

How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator 

Embarking on a career as a heavy equipment operator requires a specific set of interests and skills. This includes a genuine passion for working with your hands, as hands-on control of machinery is at the core of the job.

A strong affinity for the construction industry is also beneficial. This is the primary sector where heavy equipment finds its application. Your interest in construction will likely fuel your enthusiasm for the work. This profession allows you to play a major role in the building of structures and infrastructure.

A fascination with vehicles and automotive mechanics is another crucial element to consider. Understanding the mechanical foundations of heavy equipment is vital. This knowledge will enhance your ability to operate the machinery proficiently.

Becoming a heavy equipment operator requires a high school diploma or the equivalent. Next, you'll need to pursue additional classes and training. Specialized courses tailored to the type of heavy equipment you wish to operate will provide the necessary qualifications and expertise. These targeted classes will equip you with the skills and certifications required to excel.

“Training and licensure vary in specific markets. Some regions require National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCR) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training courses. Other clients and regions value experience over certifications. There are a few heavy equipment operator schools across America where individuals are able to learn the basics before heading out to the job site,” says Burkhard. 


What is The Career Path For a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Embarking on a career as a heavy equipment operator requires a specific set of interests and skills. This includes a genuine passion for working with your hands, as hands-on control of machinery is at the core of the job.

A strong affinity for the construction industry is also beneficial. This is the primary sector where heavy equipment finds its application. Your interest in construction will likely fuel your enthusiasm for the work. This profession allows you to play a major role in the building of structures and infrastructure.

A fascination with vehicles and automotive mechanics is another crucial element to consider. Understanding the mechanical foundations of heavy equipment is vital. This knowledge will enhance your ability to operate the machinery proficiently.

Becoming a heavy equipment operator requires a high school diploma or the equivalent. Next, you'll need to pursue additional classes and training. Specialized courses tailored to the type of heavy equipment you wish to operate will provide the necessary qualifications and expertise. These targeted classes will equip you with the skills and certifications required to excel.

Burkhard states that heavy equipment operators who gain experience in global positioning systems (GPS) are especially well equipped to take their careers to the next level.

“Knowledge within GPS, grading and elevation numbers, and understanding the design layout/blueprints are all ways operators can advance their careers. I have helped general laborers that have worked themselves up to foremen. It helps to have more knowledge and an understanding of the whole project as opposed to just knowing how to move a piece of equipment to complete a job,” says Burkhard.

How Much Does a Heavy Equipment Operator Make? 

It really depends on the project and the type of equipment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, operating engineers and other construction equipment operators earned a median annual wage of $59,420. This figure changes based on the equipment being used and the location of the jobsite. 

What Are The Most Common Types of Heavy Equipment?

Motor Grader

Also known as “road graders” or “graders”, this equipment is used to level surfaces, prepare soil for planting season, remove snow and more. 

Front-End Loader

These loaders are commonly used to remove dirt, snow, rocks and other materials. It normally has a rectangular “bucket” on the front, but this can often be replaced with other attachments. 

Skid Steer

Also know as a “bobcat”, a skid steer can perform many of the same functions as a front-end loader, but its compact size makes it better suited for smaller spaces and projects.

Bulldozers

This is the quintessential heavy machine. It’s used in all sorts of projects require masses of earth or material to be pushed around or flattened. 

Excavators

This is a very close runner-up to the bulldozer. As the name suggests, its primary function is to dig and remove large amounts of earth. They can be found in many projects. 

Dump Truck/Off-Road Dump Truck/Haul Truck

After bulldozing a building or excavating a pit, all that material needs to go somewhere. That’s the dump truck’s job — it’s essentially a very heavy truck with a container in the back that can dump its cargo where needed. 

Backhoe

This machine is almost like a combination of an excavator and bulldozer, with a smaller version of each machine on either end.  This unique hybrid may be a little smaller, but it’s no less important. They’re often used for smaller jobs, where the larger bulldozer or excavator would have trouble maneuvering around. 

Heavy equipment operators play an essential role across several industries. It demands a particular blend of interests and skills. This career presents a unique opportunity. It allows you to translate a fascination with machinery into a vital and fulfilling vocation.

“Heavy equipment operation is a very lucrative career when you are willing to take the time and learn all aspects of the project. If someone is willing to take the initiative to learn everything they can in the career, they will always have a job security if they are willing to travel. Between the longevity, career paths and good income, it’s a great profession to pursue,” says Burkhard.

When you’re ready to find your first or next heavy equipment operator job, search our job board.