From moving hundreds of pounds of dirt with a skid-steer to operating a giant rock-truck hauling massive stones weighing tons in an open pit mine, a heavy equipment operator is a career that comes with a wealth of responsibilities and requires diligent training.
In short, construction equipment operators are the individuals responsible for operating the machinery on construction projects. Careers in this high-demand field can provide you with valuable experience, competitive pay, and are relatively easy to get into. It’s also a very demanding job, with long hours and regular training, but if you’re a hard worker who loves a challenge and wants something a little (ok, a lot) more extreme than a standard desk job, being an operator might just be the right move for you.
In this ultimate guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about becoming a heavy equipment operator, including salary, education, job growth, and even what a typical day in the life of an equipment operator looks like.
What Do Heavy Equipment Operators Do?
The simple answer is that heavy equipment operators are the guys behind the big machines at construction sites, moving materials, earth, and more. On any given day an operator might be working at an excavation site, building construction, or even a mine.
Operators use heavy machinery to clear and grade land in preparation for roadways, buildings, airport runways, bridges, and other types of structures. They also use this equipment to lift heavy construction materials and equipment, as well as dig trenches to lay or repair pipelines and other kinds of utilities. Some heavy equipment operators may even work off shore on construction sites for oil rigs.
As a heavy equipment operator, you will be the person responsible for driving piles into the ground, operating heavy duty forklifts, paving, surfacing, and more. On top of this, machine operators are often (but not always) responsible for the care and maintenance of their machine—if repairs are more complex, the operator will likely not be responsible for the repairs.
They’re also responsible for completing the specified task(s) on time and correctly while keeping safety in mind.
Heavy equipmentoperating has very strict and important guidelines, as you can imagine. These machines are capable of being very destructive and dangerous, which is a part of their usefulness as well as their risk. Individuals looking to be equipment operators should be able to handle responsibility and work within rules to get the job done.
Not only will operators work on construction sites during the construction process, but they will usually be the first ones to a site. You will be one of the people responsible for preparing the site for the rest of the work that will need to be done, so you will have a unique opportunity to see a project through from inception to completion.
Because heavy equipment operators work on large-scale construction projects, they will spend just about all of their time on the job outdoors. Because these projects can be scheduled for any time of the year, operators have to be able to perform their job effectively in any weather condition. Severe weather conditions do create a safety hazard, however, so if you are working in a location that gets heavy snowfall or is experiencing severe storm weather, the site construction might be put on hold until better conditions return.
It’s important to always keep in mind that the machines heavy equipment operators work with are dangerous. This occupation has a higher-than-average worker injury rate, hence the competitive compensation if affords. Safety should always be a top priority for construction sites and following proper procedure will prevent most accidents.
Construction sites are often loud, dirty, and greasy. These sites could also be located in remote areas like offshore rigs or mining locations. Hours are also irregular since every construction project will have its own schedule. Some will only operate during the day hours, some will operate only at night, while others are active around the clock. Different milestones of a construction project might even call for a change in hours, so operators need to be flexible with their time.
Here are some of the most common machines found on a construction site:
Excavators: Excavators are the machines with the single, long arm that has a bucket on the arm. As the name and design would suggest, they are used for shoveling a large amount of dirt and digging into the earth in a short amount of time. The most common uses include digging, handling materials, brush cutting (with attachments), demolition, rough grading, heavy lifting, mining, and dredging.
Bulldozer: Bulldozers are some of the most durable and reliable machines that heavy equipment operators use. They have a long, flat blade in the front that is used to push dirt along large, open plots of land. They usually come in after a site has been cleared and are used clear out excess earth as well as rough/fine grading.
Backhoe-loaders: Backhoe-loaders are considered more medium-sized equipment. They have a flat blade in the front for moving earth as well as an adjustable arm with a small bucket in the back. They are used on smaller sites where navigating a bulldozer or excavator is not necessary or possible.
Dump Trucks: Dump trucks are used to carry and transport heavy materials and equipment to and from a construction site. They come in several different sizes and variations, most of which qualify as heavy equipment.
Graders: Motor graders are used predominantly for road building and maintenance. They can perform various duties including ditching and sloping in large landscaping operations as well as fine grading of road top surfaces.
While being a heavy equipment operator can be an exciting and rewarding job, it can also be extremely strenuous and demanding. In short, it is not for the faint of heart. Along with being responsible for accomplishing difficult tasks like controlling the various machines that move earth, freight, and other heavy materials, you also need to be able to operate construction equipment according to safety regulations.
One responsibility for heavy equipment operators is setting up and inspecting their equipment. Not only do they need to be able to operate their machinery, but also maintain and care for it. This includes general maintenance and minor repairs throughout regular use. More intensive repairs are generally not expected to be done by equipment operators, however.
The duties and requirements that an operator needs to be able to fulfill include:
- heavy machinery to accomplish specific tasks and goals, like lifting, moving, and placing heavy materials
- Using heavy machinery to clear or level land, grade surfaces, and move earth
- Using attachments to dump materials, dig trenches, transport materials, and break rocks or concrete
- Make minor repairs to equipment
- Keep equipment clean and well-maintained
- Follow safety regulations and coordinate safety procedures while on-site
- Keep supervisors updated on mechanical problems or potential delays
- Work together and coordinate with the rest of the construction team
- General mechanical skills, including the ability to work with most hand and power tools
- Mathematical skills for calculating weight and mass
- Great communication skills, including speaking and writing
- Great hand-eye coordination
- Enough physical strength to lift 50-pounds
Kinds of Heavy Equipment Operators
The focus of your work as a heavy equipment operator depends on what kind of operator you end up becoming.
There are three primary types of operators:
General Equipment Operators
General equipment operators are able to work with a variety of equipment, making them versatile on construction projects. This could include working with excavation or loading machines equipped with scoops and buckets, used for digging earth, sand, and gravel, and loading it onto trucks or conveyors. General operators should also be familiar with common construction site equipment like bulldozers, trench excavators, and road graders.
They might also be responsible for driving trucks and tractors with a forklift or boom attachments to lift materials or with hitches for pulling trailers. Other equipment might include compressors, pumps, and other power equipment.
Paving and Surfacing Operators
Paving and surfacing operators, as the name suggests, operate machines used for spreading asphalt and concrete to pave roadways and other structures. Asphalt spreader operators are the engineers responsible for making sure that the asphalt is spread evenly, without gaps or voids. They do this by adjusting a series of valves and controls on the asphalt spreader that regulate temperature and rate of flow.
Concrete paving machine operators use hand-wheels and other controls to perform a similar function with concrete. The main difference is that concrete is not nearly as thick as asphalt, so more care has to be put in to smooth and level it. Operators that are working with concrete use attachments that spread, vibrate, and level wet concrete. They also spray curing compounds on the concrete and cut expansion joints to ensure that the concrete lasts as long as possible. A concrete operator might have to break up old concrete or drive guardrail posts into the ground depending on the job requirements.
A piledriver operator uses machines that hammer piles into the ground. A pile is a long, sturdy beam of steel or wood. They are used to support structures like building walls, bulkheads, bridges, piers, or the foundations of buildings. Piledriving machines usually come as attachments for things like cranes or barges. To control these machines, operators use various hand and foot levers to push piles deep into the earth.
How to Become A Heavy Equipment Operator
There are a few different ways to become a heavy equipment operator, depending on what works best for you. There are also some standard licenses, qualifications, and education certificates you’ll need to secure a job as an operator.
The three primary ways to become an operator are through a formal apprenticeship program, on-the-job training, heavy equipment operator school, or some combination of these. None of these is necessarily better than the other, it just depends on what your personal situation calls (or allows) for.
High School Diploma or GED Equivalent
First and foremost, you will usually need a high school diploma or an equivalent GED to land a job as an equipment operator. There are exceptions to the rule, but it is definitely in your best interest to have if possible, especially if you plan on pursuing any operator-related courses at a college or a technical school later on.
If you are still in high school and hoping to one day become a heavy machinery operator, courses in automobile mechanics are good to take because they will prepare you for making repairs on heavy construction equipment. Courses in science and mechanical drawing are also helpful, as they will help with your understanding of how the machines work.
Formal training programs provide new operators with the most comprehensive set of skills and make landing a job much easier. Formal training includes programs like apprenticeships, vocational schools, and other heavy equipment operator schools.
Vocational schools are a great alternative to apprenticeships that give you hands-on experience and classroom teaching over specific heavy machinery. A heavy equipment operator school gives you the opportunity to learn and practice with the same equipment that you will be using on the job in a controlled and safe environment. This helps beginners familiarize themselves with the duties and responsibilities they will encounter when working without putting themselves or their career at risk.
Heavy equipment operator training programs are a solid way to set yourself apart from the competition without having to invest all of the money and time that technical schools or a college program require. If you want to improve your chances of getting hired and learn with hands-on training as quickly and affordably as possible, then a reputable vocational school is your best bet. 5th Wheel Training Institute offers a school for Ontario students looking to get a jumpstart on their career. Always research a vocational school before making a final decision so that you can be sure of their reputability.
Even if you don’t get your initial education for becoming an operator on-site, on-the-job training will still be a big part of your time as an operator. Different sites will require the use of different machinery, have their own regulations, and their own methods of operating. On-the-job training is usually done between the new operator and a seasoned one. The more experienced operator will take the new recruit through the steps of operating lighter equipment, and gradually make their way up to more heavy-duty machinery.
Nowadays, most sites use more computerized and electronic equipment, which will require an additional set of skills for an operator. These skills can typically be acquired on the job, so long as the operator has a basic understanding of computer systems.
An apprenticeship is one of the best ways to prepare for a career as a heavy machinery operator. People who choose to take this route will gain hands-on experience with a wide variety of construction equipment, leading to great job opportunities later on. Apprenticeships are also paid, and consist of three years, or 6,000 hours, of on-site training. Apprentices are also required to take at least 144 hours of classroom lessons each year of their apprenticeship.
Certifications, Licenses, and Qualifications
As you would expect, there are some certifications and licenses that you should obtain before becoming a heavy equipment operator. Every area has its own unique set of qualifications, so check around your area to figure out which certifications you will need to be hired. The best way to do this is to check the websites of companies you might end up working for, see what they require, and compile that information.
Each type of equipment will usually require its own certification or license. However, you decide to go about becoming a heavy equipment operator (vocational school, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training) is how you will obtain these certifications. You will be trained on the necessary equipment, and once you have met the requirements, a certification for that machinery will be issued to you.
This is what makes heavy equipment operator schools such a convenience, as they walk you through the process of obtaining these certifications in a short amount of time. Some of these programs also offer their own certification showing that you have graduated their course, which you can use to show to potential employers.
Certification from a training school will improve your opportunities while job-searching by proving to an employer that you can handle your own while on-site. Some employers require that employees have a certification or some formal education before being eligible for hire. Having a certification can also improve your odds of advancement in your career as a heavy equipment operator.
Heavy equipment operators will almost always benefit from having acommercial driver’s license(CDL). Every construction site has their own set requirements, so having a CDL means that you will be able to work at more locations than someone without. Like a normal driver’s license, there are a few different ways to go about obtaining a CDL, and it will vary depending on where you are located. Aside from a heavy equipment operating license (which you will receive during your training, i.e. a vocational school or apprenticeship) and some equipment licenses, a CDL should be the only license you will need to get. Think of the advantage you will possess over other job seekers if you can not only safely operate your equipment but you are also certified to load and transport the equipment from site to site.
Operators will need to be in good physical condition so that they can perform physically demanding tasks when necessary. Having a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distance and reliable eye-hand-foot coordination are also a plus. You might also have to work at heights on some projects, so the ability to remain comfortable and collected under those conditions is important.
If you are already good at or have a natural talent for working with mechanics, then you will have an easier time picking up the skills of an operator. Having experience working with machinery like farm tractors or in the military is a good precursor to becoming an operator as well.
Let’s Talk Earnings: How Much Do Heavy Equipment Operators Make?
One of the most important questions to ask when considering any new career path is salary. Because operators are required to work odd and flexible schedules, operators will typically be on an hourly pay system rather than a fixed salary. How much an operator makes per hour depends on their experience level. The median pay in Ontario is $26/hour, with a spread of $17/hour to $37/hour, based on results from 2016. This means that the median annual salary for operators is around $50,000/year, with a spread of $32,500/year to $71,000/year.
There are other factors to consider as well, like whether an operator is working full time or part time, that determine their earnings. Working in metropolitan areas typically pays more since the work is restricted by space and time. In general, though, operators have a lot of opportunities to grow their salary as their experience increases. There is also the opportunity to advance beyond an operator position into upper-management positions that will pay significantly more.
The heavy equipment operator field is typically has a higher than average growth rate due to a high demand for workers and a general shortage of operator job seekers. There is a general reluctance and stigma around working in construction, which keeps lots of qualified workers from seeking a job opportunity like becoming an operator. This means that dedicated workers looking for a job in this field should be able to find a job relatively easily compared to similar paying careers. There are also a lot of job openings from operators moving into higher positions or retirement.
Operators seeking employment will have a much better chance of securing a job if they are experienced with a variety of equipment. Employers value this because it means there will be less time and resources dedicated to on-the-job training, and give them more confidence that an employee will be able to complete work successfully and within guidelines. You can improve your chances of being hired by going through heavy equipment operator training before applying. This will give you valuable experience and industry certifications to put on your resume and use in the field.
The employment of heavy equipment operators is expected to grow by 26% from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than average. The demand for operators is increasing as populations continue to grow and old infrastructures need replacing. Even the employment of pile driver operators, which is the smallest niche of heavy equipment operators, is expected to grow by 15% over that timeframe.
Like any career path, the employment of operators is subject to changes in the economy. There may be a shortage of work during times where construction levels fall. However, predictions say that constructions levels will continue to rise for some time. The more kinds of equipment that an operator can work, the less of an effect that fluctuations in construction levels will have on them, as their broader skill set makes them more versatile.
While some may only look at heavy equipment operating as an in-between job, it can definitely be a career. Construction is a broad field of work with lots of opportunities to learn and grow. Because heavy machinery operators work in a variety of construction sites and with different teams, they will learn valuable skills about several aspects of the construction industry that they can leverage to their advantage. As you gain experience and build upon your basic skills, you will be able to take on new and more difficult challenges that can lead to better positions and new paths.
Operators can work towards becoming a supervisor, giving them a pay increase and new career possibilities. Operators can also use their experience to join a training program and begin teaching new operators the skills and requirements of the job. Some operators with a more entrepreneurial spirit may even decide to take their industry experience and use it to start their own heavy construction equipment business. Like most career paths, the direction you take is entirely up to you, and there are plenty of ways to use your position as an operator to your benefit.
Heavy Equipment Operator Training Courses
Finding courses to complete your heavy equipment operator training should be easy to find online or at your local brick and mortar. 5th Wheel Training Institute is a reputable company that’s been around since 1985 and offers all of the courses necessary to begin a career as a heavy equipment operator.
Keep reading for a brief overview of all courses related to a heavy equipment operator, the duration and hours involved, and included certificates for each course.
Heavy Equipment Operator: 7-piece and 6-piece
The heavy equipment operator 7-piece and 6-piece courses provide the fundamentals for a career as a heavy equipment operator. The program prepares students with the knowledge, skills, safety procedures, and certificates required by law and which will ensure success on the job.
7-piece: This course includes training on the following equipment: backhoe-loader, bulldozer, dump truck, excavator, grader, skid steer, and forklift. Graduates will receive a certificate in Powerline Safety Awareness, Surface Miner Common Core: Classroom Theory, and Heavy Equipment Operator: 7-piece. The duration of the Heavy Equipment Operator 7-Piece program is seven weeks long and includes 280 hours.
6-piece: This course includes training on the following equipment: backhoe-loader, bulldozer, chainsaw, dump truck, excavator, forklift, and skid steer. Graduates will receive a certificate in Powerline Safety Awareness, Surface Miner Common Core: Classroom Theory, and Heavy Equipment Operator: 6-piece. The duration of the Heavy Equipment Operator 6-Piece program is five weeks long and includes 200 hours.
Heavy Equipment Operator: Backhoe-loader
This program offers students a comprehensive curriculum that combines backhoe-loader operating skills and techniques with proper safety work practices.
Graduates of this course will receive a certificate in Powerline Safety Awareness and Heavy Equipment Operator: Backhoe-Loader. The duration of the program is 2 weeks long and includes 80 hours.
Heavy Equipment Operator: Bulldozer
In this program, students will receive in-depth knowledge on how to safely operate a bulldozer using up-to-date best practices.
Graduates of this course will receive a certificate in Powerline Safety Awareness and Heavy Equipment Operator: Bulldozer. The duration of the program is 2 weeks long and includes 80 hours.
Heavy Equipment Operator: Excavator
Similar to 5th Wheel’s other courses, this program guarantees students a comprehensive overview of safety work practices and excavator operating skills to ensure a successful career as a heavy equipment operator.
Graduates of this course will receive a certificate in Powerline Safety Awareness and Heavy Equipment Operator: Excavator. The duration of the program is 2 weeks long and includes 80 hours.
Heavy Equipment Operator: Grader
In this course, students will learn everything they need to be a successful and safe heavy equipment operator for a grader. The course combines grader operating skills with the latest safety procedures and work practices.
Graduates of this course will receive a certificate in Powerline Safety Awareness and Heavy Equipment Operator: Grader. The duration of the program is 2 weeks long and includes 80 hours.
Heavy Equipment Operator: Forklift
This in-depth, one-day training course covers everything from forklift legislation and safety protocols to operation manoeuvres and replacement procedures. Students will learn the hazards of propane cylinders as well as how to properly remove a cylinder in this 8-hour course.
Graduates of this course will receive a certificate in Forklift & Propane Certification: Class 5. Please note, this program does not require approval according to the Private Career Colleges Act, 2005.
So, Is It Right For You?
While deciding to be an operator can be an exciting and wise move for your career, it is not a job for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of dedication and hard work to make it in the field. Workers need to be able to handle demanding workloads, unpredictable schedules, adverse weather conditions, and strict deadlines. It’s not a glamorous job, and it requires a lot from its workers.
That said, it’s a very rewarding career path with a lot of opportunity for growth and personal development. The field is growing rapidly and has a relatively high work satisfaction rate. And while there are a lot of regulations and guidelines that will need to be followed every time you’re in the chair of construction machinery, it’s also a fun and exciting job.
There aren’t many people that will ever know what it’s like to operate giant dump trucks or to clear land with a bulldozer. You get to spend your time outside, building your city’s infrastructure, and learn a lot along the way. Being an operator does require a lot of hard work, but so long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort to get the most out of your career, it can be the right choice for you.
Despite the demanding nature of operating, it has a very high satisfaction rate among its workers. According to a study done by Payscale.com, 80% of operators are highly satisfied with their job. Even though the hours and labor are demanding, this career has a lot going for it to make up for the negatives.
One of those things is a high average salary. For a job that you can prepare for in just a few months, it has a very high median and maximum hourly pay. The high growth expectations in the field also contribute to the satisfaction of its workers, as it means greater job security and opportunity for advancements. Operators can enjoy a position that their employers value.
Useful Skills To Have
Being a heavy machinery operator requires a lot of mechanical know-how, so any experience and familiarity you have in this area is always a plus. Because you will be working with a wide variety of teams and supervisors, you need to be able to communicate effectively and stay organized. Every site will have its own rules, schedule, and methods of operation. You need to be able to keep up with all of these things while still completing your role successfully.
The ability to give and take instructions is also important. You never know who you’re going to be working with, and they won’t always know you, either. So being able to function in an environment like that, sharing your knowledge and being humble enough to listen to others, is an invaluable skill to have.
5th Wheel Training Institute Can Get You Started
Deciding to take the first step towards becoming a heavy equipment operator might seem daunting, especially if you’ve never worked a construction job before. While the job is challenging, to say the least, those who are willing to step up to the challenge can take their work in a new and meaningful direction in just a short amount of time.
There are multiple ways to break into the field, all relatively affordable, and the payoff is big. If you’re interested in taking the beginning steps towards becoming a heavy equipment operator, 5th Wheel Training Institute’s heavy equipment operator school is a great way to get started.