Heavy equipment is a general term that applies to a wide range of machines including cranes, bulldozers, front end loaders, graders and others. Operators use this equipment to move materials and earth at construction sites and mines. Operators might need to have a CDL in order to get the equipment to a job site on a flatbed trailer.
This kind of work involves being outdoors in all kinds of weather, although some construction operations must be suspended in heavy rain or during hard freezes. If you plan on being a heavy equipment operator, you should enjoy working outside and be able to plan for times when there is no work due to bad weather or a slow economy.
Heavy equipment operators learn how to handle the equipment through on-the-job training or apprenticeship programs. A high school diploma is not strictly required, but it may be preferred by some employers. As the technology used in heavy equipment becomes more advanced, it is helpful to be computer and electronics savvy.
Some operators go through a formal apprenticeship program with the International Union of Operating Engineers, or IUOE. This is a three-year, 6,000 hour program that combines paid on-the-job training and classroom time. Union-trained apprentices get hands-on experience with a wide range of equipment, and this exposure can improve their job opportunities. About 27 percent of construction equipment operators belong to a union.
You can also go through a training program with a private vocational school, but it is best to research these programs thoroughly and ask around to see what employers think about the schools’ graduates. Although classroom training can help you in some situations, you can’t learn how to operate heavy equipment without real experience behind the controls.
Heavy equipment operators have a higher risk of injury than other construction trades. Big machinery is constantly vibrating, which shakes the driver. As the equipment moves, it can be jerky and jolt the driver around. Sitting still in the driver’s seat for hours at a time can strain your back and make you more prone to back injuries.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, jobs for heavy equipment operators are expected to grow at an average pace. Qualified applicants who already know how to operate equipment should be able to find employment quickly, because there are often too few trained applicants to fill jobs.
The pay rate for operators varies by region of the country. According to the BLS, the average hourly pay for heavy equipment operators was $18.88. In 2008, operators in nonresidential construction and highway construction earned more than $21 per hour on average. The amount of time worked in a given week or during the year can be impacted by bad weather.