What Is A Heavy Equipment Operator?
A heavy equipment operator is just what it sounds like—it’s someone who operates heavy equipment and typically involves driving the large vehicles you see on construction sites, such as backhoe-loaders, bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks. These trained professionals are operating dangerous, heavy-duty construction equipment which require a unique skill set and education in order to be qualified to safely and efficiently operate them.
On a day-by-day basis, heavy equipment operators will perform tasks such as grading land, transporting materials, lifting materials, digging trenches, and making repairs to pipelines, roadways and buildings. Most heavy equipment operators will spend their careers moving from one construction site to the next, making their way through oil pipeline sites, land developments, roadways and housing.
When you’re not driving these massive vehicles around, you’ll be responsible for making sure that they’re well-maintained. This includes doing regular checks on your machine and making minor repairs yourself. More complex repairs will generally be handled by specialists, though. You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with the regulations of each of the sites that you work on to ensure you’re qualified and ready to handle the workload.
The Different Kinds Of Equipment Operators
General Equipment Operators
General equipment operators are the primary role that most operators will fill. This includes being able to work with a variety of machines or even being specialized in one role. Most operators start off working with one kind of machinery and move on to learn more complicated equipment to expand their skill set. The more experienced a general equipment operator is, the more kinds of equipment they will be able to work with.
General equipment operators will work with excavation type machinery—such as excavators and loading machinery with scoops or buckets. These machines are used to dig up earth, sand, and gravel, and then load it into another vehicle that’s used for transportation.
Most general operators will also be familiar with the basic vehicles used on a standard construction site. This includes things like backhoe-loaders, bulldozers, excavators, motor graders and skid-steers. There may be jobs where you only man one vehicle for the entire project or others where you’re expected to work several in order to keep things on schedule.
Paving and Surfacing Operators
Paving and surfacing operators are equipment operators that specialize in equipment used for, well, paving and surfacing. The machines spread materials like cement, concrete, gravel and asphalt in order to construct sidewalks, parking lots, roadways, and even building foundations. These operators are responsible for making sure that the materials they spread are smooth and free of gaps and cracks.
Surface operators control the equipment through a series of valves and controls that regulate the temperature of the material they’re spreading and the rate that it’s flowing. Cement operators perform a similar function by using hand wheels, among other controls. The main difference between asphalt and cement operating is that asphalt is much thicker than concrete, which makes it more difficult to spread evenly.
Because concrete is thinner than asphalt, concrete spreading machinery comes with useful attachments and tools to simplify the process. Concrete surface operators can use these attachments to vibrate, spread, and level concrete while it’s still wet. They also use curing techniques to ensure that the concrete lasts as long as possible.
Piledriver operators are another specialty operator role and probably the least common type of heavy equipment operator there is. These operators use machinery to hammer piles into the ground on construction sites. These piles are used to support structures such as buildings, building walls, bulkheads, bridges, and piers. It’s not uncommon for pile driving equipment to be an attachment for another machine—like a crane—rather than being stand-alone machinery.
A pile is a long, heavy beam that’s usually made from either steel or wood. Pile drivers operate their machinery using a series of foot pedals and levers. While it is possible to become a piledriver operator right at the start of your career, most piledriver operators work their way into this position over time.
Piledriver operators need to be in great physical shape and have excellent hand-eye coordination in order to perform the role safely. These kinds of operators typically fall into this position by being one of the best operators within their company, so it’s not unlikely that a piledriver operator would move into a supervisory role at some point in their career.
Is A Heavy Equipment Operator Career Right For You?
The odds are pretty good that this may be the perfect career for you if you’re still interested in the position after learning more about what’s involved in being a heavy equipment operator. After all, who hasn’t watched with awe as bulldozers clear land or excavators shovel gravel?
Most people will never make it farther than admiring this equipment from a distance. As a heavy equipment operator, though, you’ll have the opportunity to work with this machinery up close. If you’ve ever found yourself enjoying working on cars, driving farm equipment, or any other type of mechanical role, you’ll find that heavy equipment operating isn’t so different.
Like any job, however, heavy equipment operating does have its drawbacks. It can be a tough and physically demanding job, which is why operators are in such high demand these days. You’ll be working in harsh environments with tight schedules and strenuous workloads. But if you’re up for a challenge, heavy equipment operating can be extremely rewarding.
Here are a few ways to know if the job is right for you.
Are You Comfortable With Working Outdoors?
To be successful as a heavy equipment operator, you need to be comfortable working in the great outdoors. It’s where you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time while on the job, since for obvious reasons, you won’t be able to operate heavy machinery indoors. Some machinery does have a closed cab that keeps you air-conditioned while you work, but this isn’t a guarantee.
You’ll also find yourself working in all kinds of weather. Construction projects run a very tight schedule, so they’re unlikely to slow down when the going gets tough. You’ll need to be willing to work rain or shine, snow or sweat. That said, there are times when sites will close down due to severe weather conditions. This includes flooding rain, snow storms, and the like.
Heavy equipment operators tend to go home covered in dirt and sweat, so if that doesn’t sit well, then being a heavy equipment operator may not be for you.
Can You Work Odd Hours?
Another thing that can turn some people off from a career in heavy equipment operating is the odd work hours. Once again, this is due to the strict schedules that construction projects are under. You could find yourself working varying hours every day of the week or having to work overtime if a project is running behind schedule for one reason or another.
Additionally, since the construction field is project-based, you may find yourself working on a particular site for months on end and then suddenly be out of work for a few weeks while you wait for the next assignment to come up. One of the pros of being a heavy equipment operator is that it gets you out of the 9-5 grind, but you’ll have to keep in mind that you’re replacing a standard schedule for an unpredictable one.
If you require stability and consistency when it comes to your work schedule, you might want to consider this career path more carefully to ensure it’s aligned with your personal life.
Are You Willing To Work From The Bottom Up?
Getting the right education for becoming qualified for heavy equipment operator jobs is a vital first step. However, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’re going to be able to walk into a top-tier job right out of the classroom. Like any job—but even more so with heavy equipment operating—experience is going to trump any certification or degree.
This means that even if you’re a complete newcomer to the construction industry, you’re probably going to start off at the bottom when you do get your first heavy equipment operator job. This might even mean working as a laborer on a construction site rather than an operator.
While this may feel like a step in the wrong direction, it’s really just preparing you even more for your role as an operator. It’ll give you insights into how the different levels of the industry work, and add to the value of your heavy equipment operating degree. Just make sure that you’re prepared to work from the bottom up when considering this career.
Can You Admit When You’re Wrong?
In some lines of work, the “ask for permission afterward,” approach isn’t the worst way to get ahead. You can get away with a reasonable amount of on-the-job trial and error while you’re still getting the hang of things. This does not apply to heavy equipment operating, however.
While it’s an exciting and fun job, heavy equipment operating also involves being behind the wheel of vehicles that weigh several tons. Simple mistakes can have dire consequences, both financially and ethically. One of the quickest ways that an operator can cause serious problems in this field is by assuming they know more than they do or by hesitating to ask questions.
If you’re going to be a heavy equipment operator, you’ll have to be able to swallow your pride and admit when you don’t know something. It can be tempting to try and save face, especially when you’re new to the job, but doing so at the wrong time can quickly end your career.
The Three Steps To Becoming A Heavy Equipment Operator
If at this point you still feel like heavy equipment operating could be a new and rewarding career path to take, here are the three steps you’ll need to go through in order to launch your career.
Step 1: Get Your Education
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “wait a minute, I didn’t think you needed an education to work in construction?” Well, yes and no. Technically, you don’t have to have any education to work in construction, which includes heavy equipment operating. There are those who have managed to work their way up within the ranks of the industry with nothing but a GED.
However, these cases are becoming less and less common. And even when individuals are able to pull this off, it takes a substantial amount of time and effort before any real progress is made. Trying to make it as a heavy equipment operator without any kind of qualifications or education should be considered a last resort and not your initial plan of attack.
There are different levels of education within the heavy equipment operating field, with each one designed to set you up for even greater success. Every job will require a different kind of education, so if there’s a specific company you hope to work for, look into their requirements before committing to a learning plan.
High School Diploma or Equivalent
First and foremost, you’ll need your diploma to make it in this industry at pretty much every level. Some worksites will hire you without one, but your opportunities will be pretty limited. So if you don’t have your high school diploma or a GED equivalent, take the time to invest in obtaining one. Having a high school diploma will not only help you in the heavy equipment operating field but in several other areas of your life.
If you’re still taking high school courses and have an interest in heavy equipment operating, you can start setting yourself up for success right now. If your school offers any mechanical, welding, or automotive classes, taking these will give you the fundamental skills necessary to make you a successful heavy equipment operator.
Taking these classes isn’t a necessity, though, since everything you need to know will be covered in your heavy equipment operator training. Still, having the basics down will put you ahead of most of your peers.
Once you’ve got your basic education down, it’s time to start specializing in heavy equipment operating know-how. This can be obtained in a few different ways, with the first method being in-person training. In-person is when you learn how to operate heavy equipment on-the-job. While this might seem like the most ideal way, it’s the most incomplete way to work your way into the field.
It’s also the most difficult way to get your heavy equipment operator training. Few jobs—if any— will hire someone with little to no experience in this field with the intentions of teaching them everything themselves. The only way to really get in-person training is by working for a specific construction company for a long time and working your way up for several years. And even then, you’re still going to have limited opportunities compared to those who have formal equipment training.
That said, if you do have a heavy equipment operating education, you will likely end up doing in-person training when first starting with a company while they teach you the ropes of the industry.
The next best way to prepare for your career in heavy equipment operating is to obtain an apprenticeship. This is similar to in-person training in that you learn the tools of the trade while also working for a construction site. The difference is, though, that apprenticeships are more structured and follow certain requirements.
Apprenticeships are a great way to break into the field, as you get a good blend of hands-on training and practical industry experience. Going through an apprenticeship makes it easier to get a job as well since you typically will start working for the company that you’re training under once your apprenticeship is complete.
The downside of going the apprenticeship route is that it’s a fairly long-term commitment. They usually last around three years or require 6,000 hours of on-site training, along with 144 hours of classroom training. And while you are paid during an apprenticeship, it’s often lower than what you would be making as a full heavy equipment operator.
The best way to secure a heavy equipment operator job is through a training institute. These institutes offer access to certified educators that provide you with the perfect blend of hands-on training and classroom education. They also offer the most complete education so you can begin your first day as an operator with a high level of confidence.
These institutes allow you to train in a safe environment where everything is only there to be tested and learned with. So there’s no pressure when it comes to scheduling or contracts like there would be in an apprenticeship. These institutes are also the quickest way to get started, as most can be completed in a matter of weeks. This means that you could go from having zero construction site experience to working on your first project in only a few months!
Having a certification is a requirement by some employers in this field, so having your training institute certificate(s) will help you land the best job possible. 5th Wheel Training Institute offers courses for a variety of heavy equipment operator jobs which we’ll cover later.
Step 2: Get Your Qualifications
Once you have your education in order, the next thing you’ll need to have is your qualifications. This includes the certificates and licenses required to operate certain equipment, as well as being allowed to work on a construction site at all.
Depending on how you go through with your heavy equipment operating education, you will probably get your qualifications taken care during your studies.
Your certifications are what will give you the credentials to work with certain equipment. Many of these certifications are employer required, so you won’t be able to operate machinery without these. Most heavy machinery will have its own certification, so you’ll have to earn a one for every vehicle you want to operate.
How you get these certifications is primarily decided by how you choose to gain your heavy equipment operator training. If you choose to go through an apprenticeship or on-site training, then your company will walk you through obtaining your certifications. Training institutes will help you earn certifications as you go, which allows you to enter the industry with them already in hand.
While certifications are going to be your bread and butter as a heavy equipment operator, there are some licenses you may need for certain kinds of equipment. First, you’re going to need your driver’s license, which we’ll assume you already have. The next license you might be required to have is an AZ license.
A commercial driver’s license – or CDL – is usually intended for those driving 18-wheelers and other large transportation vehicles. Having your CDL isn’t an industry requirement, but it definitely improves your chances of being hired as a heavy equipment operator. Some sites will require you have one, so obtaining one will give you a bigger pool of jobs to apply to.
Your AZ will normally be used when you’re transporting equipment to and from a construction site. Having a CDL enables you to drive your own equipment, which saves employers from having to hire drivers for the sole purpose of equipment transportation.
Not everything that makes a great heavy equipment operator can be written on paper. Some of the aspects that qualify you for the job go beyond your certifications and licenses. These qualities are what make up the qualifications that heavy equipment operator jobs will look for before hiring you. This is how you can stand out among the competition.
First, you’ll need to be in pretty good shape. The actual process of driving your equipment and adjusting the controls isn’t very physical, but there are physical components of the job. One example is doing the maintenance for your equipment. Not to mention that construction sites are laborious environments where you could easily find yourself tasked with something other than equipment operation.
You’ll also stand out from your peers if you have some kind of mechanical know-how. Taking technical classes, working on vehicles, or having grown up on a farm will all give you an extra edge against other operators.
Step 3: Get A Job
The last step to beginning your new life as a heavy equipment operator is to actually get a job! This is the most critical step after all, and it’s what everything else has been leading up to. You can improve your chances of finding work by going through with the proper training and certifications, but in the end, it’s going to be up to you to land that first gig.
While getting a job is easier said than done, fortunately, the job market for heavy equipment operators is excellent right now. In fact, those who graduate a heavy equipment operator training course often have a better job outlook than college graduates. There is a shortage of workers throughout the labor industry, which means that several high-paying positions are yours for the choosing.
The heavy equipment operators who take the time to go through the best courses and get the proper certifications will have the smoothest time navigating the job market. Employers will prefer those who already have all of their qualifications in order, as these operators are the most cost-effective to employ.
How 5th Wheel Can Help
5th Wheel Training Institute is one of Canada’s leading vocational schools for heavy equipment operators. 5th Wheel has been helping dedicated individuals to get the best heavy equipment operator jobs in Ontario since 1985. Our courses are affordable and designed to get you from the classroom and onto the construction site as quickly as possible.
5th Wheel has an exhaustive list of courses for all sorts of equipment, so no matter what kind of operating you’re hoping to do after graduating, 5th Wheel can set you up for success. We provide students with access to the real equipment that they would be using in the actual workforce. This way, our students are able to begin their careers on the best foot possible.
Here are some of the courses that 5th Wheel Training Institute has to offer.
5th Wheel offer threepletely comprehensive courses. The first is the Truck Driver: DZ and Heavy Equipment Certification: 8-piece, the second is the Heavy Equipment Operator: 6-piece, and the third course is the Heavy Equipment Operator: 7-piece. Each of these courses will cover all of the major equipment you’re going to come into contact with on just about every construction course, as well as some additional specialization.
Each of these courses will give you the best job outlook out of the courses we offer, and both last for several weeks. You’ll learn to work with equipment like forklifts, bulldozers, dump trucks, excavators, graders, and backhoe-loaders. The certifications you walk away with after graduating these courses will give you a wide degree of flexibility within your career.
5th Wheel also offers more bite-sized courses for those who are looking for a faster and more niche entry point into the industry. These courses cover either a few pieces of machinery or even just one. Our 7-Piece Heavy Equipment course covers most of the basic equipment you’ll work with throughout your career and takes seven weeks to complete.
The 6-Piece course covers one less piece of equipment and only takes five weeks to complete. Both the 7-Piece and 6-Piece courses are great alternatives to new operators as opposed to the 8-Piece program which is more intended for experienced operators requiring safety certifications. These courses are still extremely solid and will give you a firm place to start your career.
5th Wheel’s equipment-specific courses are for those who need to fulfill a specific job requirement centered on a single piece. These courses cover just one piece of equipment each, last around two weeks, and give you all of the basics to land a job behind the controls of that piece of machinery.
Last but not least, 5th Wheel Training Institute features bi-monthly Demo Days. Attending Demo Days is a way for those considering a career in heavy equipment operating to see what the field is all about. It also gives you a chance to look at our facilities and decide if 5th Wheel is right for you.
Demo Days is a one-day event where you can visit the 5th Wheel Training Institute, explore our facilities, look at equipment up close, learn more about what a job in heavy equipment operating is like, and more! During your time here you can talk to experienced staff about anything industry-related, from what a career path looks like to how your first day on the job might go. You can register for Demo Days online if you’re curious to see what 5th Wheel has to offer.
Heavy equipment operating is one of the most rewarding career paths out there. The industry is booming, so there are plenty of heavy equipment operator jobs available to dedicated, hard-working individuals. If you’re interested in getting prepared through a professional training institute, check out our courses and consider registering.