Career Development

How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

February 22, 2021

Heavy equipment operators build roads, erect buildings and contribute to transportation infrastructure. Operators may work for the government or private employers. Most of the work is performed outdoors, and the job is often seasonal. Trained operators stringently follow safety procedures and are highly skilled in the operation and service of machinery.

In this article, we will discuss what a heavy equipment operator does and steps to become one, as well as average salary and frequently asked questions about this career path.

What does a heavy equipment operator do?

A heavy equipment operator works in the construction industry to transport earth or other materials or to erect and install construction materials. Heavy equipment operators may lay down roadbeds and work with paving materials or they may prepare sites for construction. Operators know how to calculate appropriate loads and can read and follow blueprints and designs. They typically learn to maintain and ensure the proper use of machinery.

Heavy equipment operators may use various types of heavy machinery, including:

  • Bulldozers
  • Cranes
  • Excavators
  • Forklifts
  • Loaders
  • Backhoe
  • Tractors

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How to become a heavy equipment operator

Heavy equipment operators may get their start working on a construction crew to gain experience or enroll in an apprenticeship to learn while working. Traditional colleges or technical schools can provide education and prepare you for exams and licensing. Here are the steps to become a heavy equipment operator:

  1. Earn a high school diploma or GED
  2. Enter and complete heavy equipment training
  3. Earn licenses or certifications
  4. Obtain a commercial driver's license
  5. Update your resume
  6. Keep learning

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1. Earn a high school diploma or GED

Heavy equipment operators need a high school diploma or GED to enter an apprenticeship or technical school. High school courses that may be useful for future heavy equipment operators are:

  • Shop
  • Mathematics
  • Auto technology

2. Enter and complete heavy equipment training

Traditionally, there are three ways to earn an education to operate heavy machinery. The first two involve entering either a union or state apprenticeship to gain plenty of on-the-job training and the potential for employment at the end of the apprenticeship. The third alternative is college or a technical school that provides training and licensing preparation.

  • Unions and state apprenticeship
  • College or technical school
  • Classroom training
  • On-the-job training

Unions and state apprenticeship

Union or state apprenticeships are generally open to students with little to no experience. Operators may be required to register with the state, although these stipulations may vary from state to state.

Apprenticeships include both classroom and on-the-job training and students may earn a wage at the journey level. Classes are usually small, which means students can spend sufficient time learning with instructors. Apprenticeships can take three to four years to complete. For some, credits might be earned to apply toward a degree in construction. Apprenticeships offer more comprehensive training than schools and students learn to operate a wider variety of equipment.

College or technical school

These schools may not have the capacity to offer as much hands-on experience as an apprenticeship. Students learn equipment regulation and safety equipment maintenance and repair, soil science, site grading and blueprint reading. Technical schools take one to two years to complete. Some schools may provide training on simulators before moving on to the actual machine. Schools may offer specialized training for specific equipment such as cranes or drilling equipment.

Classroom training

Classroom training includes learning safety procedures and policies according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines. Classroom work teaches how to use and execute protective safety equipment and pre-operational procedures. Courses might include instruction on the removal of hazardous waste. Students learn equipment maintenance and repair along with the use of tools such as a soldering iron or welding torch. Courses may also cover gasoline and diesel engines.

Classroom learning includes education in:

  • Machinery operation
  • Site safety
  • Tires and wheels
  • Fuel systems and fuels
  • Inspection repair and maintenance
  • Land clearing planning, methods and machinery
  • Fires and firefighting
  • Power trains
  • Soils and soil testing
  • Career success

On-the-job training

On-the-job training includes the use of heavy equipment to gain operating experience. Students are taught how to grade, landscape and excavate. Techniques learned may include scraping, compacting and the use of controls.

On-the-job experience means learning:

  • Motor engine operation
  • Refueling and battery recharging
  • Heavy equipment maintenance and inspection
  • Worksite Inspection
  • Maintain equipment records and logbook
  • Site Preparation, operation and surveying
  • Flagging
  • Land Clearing
  • Grade Checking
  • Basic hydraulics
  • Construction drawing
  • Soil testing
  • Soil compaction
  • Working in a muddy environment
  • Truck Loading
  • Safe trenching

3. Earn licenses or certifications

Depending on the job or employer, equipment operators may need a certificate or license to operate machinery. For example, crane operators need a state license or certification from a national organization such as The National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators to operate mobile or tower cranes. Certifications last five years and operators may complete continuing education and go through a renewal process (which may include retesting) to keep certifications current. Maintaining certifications and licenses ensure steady work and promotion opportunities.

Certification and licensing exams include written and practical exams.

Written exams test:

  • Mechanical aptitude or comprehension
  • Math and basic calculation
  • Problem-solving scenarios
  • Inspection and measurement skills

Practical exams include performing a set of tasks given by the instructor in a series of circuits. Exams test machinery knowledge, skill and eye to hand coordination.

4. Obtain a commercial driver's license

Heavy equipment operators may be required to drive trucks and trailers that transport heavy equipment from one job site to another. For that, operators need a commercial driver's license or CDL. Requirements vary from state to state and some apprenticeships or technical schools may provide programs that include earning a CDL.

5. Update your resume

When updating your resume with your education and experience, be sure to update your career objective or summary of qualifications as well. Let employers know why you operate heavy equipment and what you hope to accomplish.

Here are some examples of heavy equipment operator resume objectives:

  • Skilled operator interested in improving safety during surface mining operations as a heavy equipment operator at Newmont Corp.

  • Seeking a heavy equipment operator position at Hammerhead Construction in which knowledge of backhoe operations and maintenance can be used to minimize injury and property damage.

  • Pursuing a heavy equipment operator position at Hunt Transport Services to use my experience to improve roads and transportation infrastructure.

6. Keep learning

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth is expected in the construction industry and chances for advancement are certain. Heavy equipment operators might become foremen or supervisors or aspire to be a project or senior manager. Some operators eventually open their own construction or contracting business.

Average heavy equipment operator salary

The average salary for a heavy equipment operator can depend on a variety of factors, including level of education, years of experience, duties and location.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $20.38 per hour
  • Some salaries range from $15.00 to $25.00 per hour

Frequently asked questions about becoming a heavy equipment operator

Here are a few common questions about becoming a heavy equipment operator:

Can I learn to operate heavy equipment in the military?

Yes, joining the military may offer opportunities for learning how to operate and maintain heavy equipment. These are skills you can use in civilian life as a heavy equipment operator after your military service is complete.

How long will it take to finish heavy equipment training?

A lot will depend on the type of equipment you want to learn and how far you want to take your career. While there are no shortcuts to learning to operate equipment safely and effectively, you can expect to spend anywhere from four months to four years. Apprenticeships are ideal opportunities to learn, work and earn all at once.

What skills do I need to become a heavy equipment operator?

  • Math ability: Heavy equipment operators perform calculations in their job throughout the day and math skills are vital. Math comes into use for reading construction plans, record keeping, entering reports, inventory of materials and documenting repairs.

  • Communication: Operators may spend a lot of time isolated in the cab of their equipment which makes their ability to communicate that much more important. Considering the amount of activity and people on a job site, operators must be able to communicate effectively and efficiently.

  • Attention to detail: Operating heavy machinery requires attention to detail to monitor many conditions at once. Operators observe their machinery, the progress of the job and movement of workers while adhering to safety procedures.

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