The Heavy Equipment Operator role is a critical job in industries like Oil & Gas, Mining, Infrastructure, Construction, and many others. Men and women who can safely and effectively operate heavy machinery are in high demand around the world, and the career path is full of opportunities.
In this in-depth Heavy Equipment Operator career guide, we’ll take a closer look at everything you need to know if you're interested in operating heavy machinery. We’ll pay special attention to what Heavy Equipment Operators do, the key types of heavy equipment, salary ranges, education requirements, any certifications you may need, and ultimately how you can become a Heavy Equipment Operator.
What does a Heavy Equipment Operator do?
A heavy equipment operator works on a variety of complex heavy machinery to help complete a construction project. Heavy equipment is used throughout the entire construction process for any major structure, so a highly-skilled construction equipment operator will always be in demand. Getting to operate heavy machinery can be an incredibly fun job, but it's not as simple as getting to play with big toys in the dirt. An equipment operator who works in the construction industry is challenged with using very expensive equipment in a safe, and efficient way while moving quickly enough to meet tight project deadlines.
Types of Heavy Equipment
Some of the most common types of heavy equipment that are used in a construction project include:
- Articulated Trucks - A type of heavy-duty dump truck with both a cab and a narrow trailer/dump box.
- Asphalt Pavers - A machine that works in tandem with a dump truck to pave roadways, driveways, etc. Once the dump truck pours the asphalt, the paver will roll it into a flat surface.
- Backhoe Loaders - A piece of equipment that can function as a backhoe, tractor, or loader. Often used in Agriculture, Excavation, Digging and Hauling.
- Bulldozers - A large tractor with a special blade attached for the specific purpose of moving loose materials like rocks, debris, snow, or dirt.
- Compactors - A machine that crushes and flattens material into a smaller, more compact form to help save space on construction sites.
- Excavators - A machine with a long arm and bucket that can be used for demolishing and excavating buildings or removing brush and debris.
- Forklifts - A piece of equipment used to move items like pallets and boxes for short distances around a construction site.
- Scissor Lifts - A type of aerial lift mechanism used to reach high work areas. Similar in function to a boom lift but with a different base.
- Skid Steer Loaders - A small machine that can be used for a variety of small-scale and large-scale projects because it can use a variety of attachments.
- Utility Vehicles - A compact vehicle for transporting people/hauling materials across construction sites when larger vehicles will not suffice.
Heavy Equipment Manager Career Guide
What skills does a Heavy Equipment Operator need?
The specific technical skills needed will vary depending on the specific project where a heavy equipment operator works, but hands-on-experience with the following types of machinery will help you stand out as a candidate for most heavy equipment operator jobs:
- Asphalt Pavers
- Dump Trucks
- Front End Loaders
- End Loaders
In addition to the technical skills to complete the job, the following soft skills are all incredibly valuable for heavy equipment operators:
- Hand-eye coordination - The ability to match what you see with your hand movements in order to properly reach and grab objects.
- Physical strength - Many heavy equipment operator jobs require being able to lift and carry large objects.
- Safety Knowledge - Construction equipment operators need to be aware of OSHA regulations and other safety guidelines in order to complete projects.
- Time Management - Heavy equipment operators are often required to complete tasks on tight deadlines and good time management is key.
What are the education requirements for a Heavy Equipment Operator?
There aren't any hard and fast rules when it comes to education requirements for a heavy equipment manager job, and according to data the majority of heavy equipment operators (54%) have only a High School Diploma or the equivalent. In addition to a high school diploma, attending vocational school or similar dedicated training programs can help you to stand out above the competition for heavy machinery jobs.
Vocational Training or an Apprenticeship Program, while not required to find a heavy equipment operator job, can certainly help increase your desirability as a candidate and raise your salary by giving you the hands-on-experience that employers find so valuable.
What certifications does a Heavy Equipment Operator need?
In addition to your years of experience on the job, certifications are one of the first things an employer will look at when reading your resume. Here are some helpful certifications that will help you stand out:
- Commercial Driver's License (CDL)
- OSHA Safety Certificate
- Operator Certification
- EPA Amusement Operators Safety Certification
- Mobile Crane Operator Certification
- Certified Operator Class IV
- Certified Equipment Manager (CEM)
- Certified Environmental Professional: Environmental Operations
- Rigging Equipment Inspector
- Safety Trained Supervisor (STS)
- Certified Engineering Operations Executive (CEOE)
What is a Heavy Equipment Operator's average salary?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for heavy equipment operators is $48,290 per year or $23.22 per hour. The BLS also reports exciting growth and opportunity in the job outlook for heavy machinery operators. This field is expected to grow by 5% over the next several years. So now is a good time to enter the field of heavy machine operation if you are interested.
The highest paid industries for heavy equipment operators, according to median annual salary, are as follows:
- Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction - $58,440
- Construction of Buildings - $51,180
- Specialty Trade Contractors - $48,370
- Mining, Quarrying, and Oil & Gas Extraction - $47,860
- Local government, excluding Education & Hospitals - $46,730
How to become a Heavy Equipment Operator
Becoming a heavy equipment operator won't be an overnight process. Typically an employer will require at least a High School Diploma/GED and many employers will prefer candidates who've completed accredited vocational training programs or trade school. Hands-on work experience will always be valuable to an employer, so if you have the opportunity to operate heavy machinery through school or through friend/family connections in the industry, that experience will help you in the job search.
Look to get familiar with a wide variety of equipment and machine types so that you will be able to take as many heavy equipment operator roles as possible. Research the most common machine types needed in your area and your desired field and become an expert in as many of them as possible.
Finally, it's important to remember that you may not get your dream job right away. If you don't have previous work experience with heavy machines, you may have to start out working on a machine or a project that you don't like. But stick with it so that you can develop your skill set and get the experience to ultimately land the career you want.
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