Construction equipment operators drive, maneuver, or control the heavy machinery used to construct roads, bridges, buildings, and other structures.

Duties

Construction equipment operators typically do the following:

  • Check to make sure that equipment functions properly
  • Clean, maintain, and make basic repairs to equipment
  • Report malfunctioning equipment to supervisors
  • Move levers, push pedals, or turn valves to activate power equipment
  • Drive and maneuver equipment
  • Coordinate machine actions with crew members in response to hand or audio signals
  • Ensure that safety standards are met

Construction equipment operators use machinery to move construction materials, earth, and other heavy materials at construction sites and mines. They operate equipment that clears and grades land to prepare it for construction of roads, bridges, and buildings, as well as airport runways, power generation facilities, dams, levees, and other structures.

The following are examples of types of construction equipment operators:

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators work with one or several types of power construction equipment. They may operate excavation and loading machines equipped with scoops, shovels, or buckets that dig sand, gravel, earth, or similar materials. In addition to operating bulldozers, they operate trench excavators, road graders, and similar equipment. Sometimes, they may drive and control industrial trucks or tractors equipped with forklifts or booms for lifting materials. They may also operate and maintain air compressors, pumps, and other power equipment at construction sites.

Paving and surfacing equipment operators control the machines that spread and level asphalt or spread and smooth concrete for roadways or other structures. Paving and surfacing equipment operators may specialize further:

  • Asphalt spreader operators turn valves to regulate the temperature of asphalt and the flow of asphalt onto the roadbed. They must ensure a constant flow of asphalt into the hopper and that the machine distributes the paving material evenly.
  • Concrete paving machine operators control levers and turn handwheels to move attachments that spread, vibrate, and level wet concrete. They must watch the surface of the concrete carefully to identify low spots into which workers must add concrete.
  • Tamping equipment operators use machines that compact earth and other fill materials for roadbeds or other construction sites. They also may operate machines with interchangeable hammers to cut or break up old pavement and drive guardrail posts into the ground.

Pile-driver operators use large machines mounted on skids, barges, or cranes to hammer piles into the ground. Piles are long heavy beams of concrete, wood, or steel driven into the ground to support retaining walls, bridges, piers, or building foundations. Some pile-driver operators work on offshore oil rigs.

Some workers, including material moving machine operators, use cranes to move construction materials.

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Work Environment

Construction equipment operators held about 409,700 jobs in 2012. About 3 percent were self-employed. The employment levels of construction equipment operators were as follows:

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators 351,200
Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators 54,700
Pile-driver operators 3,800

Construction equipment operators work in nearly every weather condition. Workers often get dirty, greasy, muddy, or dusty. Some operators work in remote locations on large construction projects, such as highways and dams, or in factories or mines.

Injuries and Illnesses

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Accidents generally can be avoided by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices, but some repetitive stress injuries do occur. In addition, bulldozers, scrapers, and especially pile-drivers, are noisy and shake or jolt the operator.

Work Schedule

Construction equipment operators may have irregular hours because work on some construction projects continues around the clock or must be done late at night. Extremely cold weather or rain can stop some types of construction. Nearly all operators work full time.

Education and Training

Many workers learn equipment operation on the job, while others learn through an apprenticeship or by attending private trade schools.

Education

A high school diploma or equivalent is required for most jobs. High school courses in English, math, and shop are useful. A course in auto mechanics can also be helpful because workers often perform maintenance on their machines. 

Private vocational schools offer programs in certain types of construction equipment operation. Finishing one of these programs may help someone get a job. However, people considering this kind of training should check the school’s reputation among employers in the area and find out if the school offers the opportunity to train on actual machines in realistic situations.

A lot of information can be learned through instruction; to become a skilled construction equipment operator, however, a worker needs to be able to physically perform the various tasks. Many training facilities incorporate sophisticated simulators into their training, allowing beginners to familiarize themselves with the equipment in a controlled environment.

Training

Many workers learn their jobs by operating light equipment under the guidance of an experienced operator. Later, they may operate heavier equipment, such as bulldozers. Technologically advanced construction equipment with computerized controls and improved hydraulics and electronics requires greater skill to operate. Operators of such equipment may need more training and some understanding of electronics.

Other workers learn their trade through a 3- or 4-year apprenticeship. For each year of the program, apprentices must have at least 144 hours of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training. On the job, apprentices learn to maintain equipment, operate machinery, and use special technology, such as a global positioning system (GPS). In the classroom, apprentices are taught map reading, operating procedures for special equipment, safety practices, and first aid. Because apprentices learn to operate a wider variety of machines than do other beginners, they usually have better job opportunities.

After completing an apprenticeship program, apprentices are considered journey workers, doing tasks with less guidance.

A few groups, including unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 18
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Physically able to do the work
  • Valid driver’s license

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Construction equipment operators often need a commercial driver’s license to haul their equipment to various jobsites. State laws about commercial driver’s licenses vary.

A few states have special operator’s licenses for operators of backhoes, loaders, and bulldozers.

Currently, 18 states require pile-driver operators to have a crane license because these states classify pile-drivers as cranes. In addition, the cities of Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC require special crane licensure.

Some construction equipment operators choose to teach in training facilities. Other operators start their own contracting business, although doing so may be difficult because of high equipment startup costs.

Personality and Interests

Construction equipment operators typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a construction equipment operator, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Construction equipment operators should also possess the following specific qualities:

Hand-eye-foot coordination. Workers should have steady hands and feet to guide and control heavy machinery precisely, sometimes in tight spaces.

Mechanical skills. Construction equipment operators must perform basic maintenance on the equipment they operate. As a result, they should be familiar with hand and power tools and standard equipment care.

Unafraid of heights. A few equipment operators must work at great heights. For example, pile-driver operators may need to service the pulleys that are located on the roof of a building.

Pay

The median annual wage for construction equipment operators was $40,980 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,470, and the top 10 percent earned more than $72,440.

The median wages for construction equipment operators in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $48,480 for pile-driver operators
  • $41,870 for operating engineers and other construction equipment operators
  • $35,840 for paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators

Operators may have irregular hours because work on some construction projects continues around the clock or must be done late at night. Extremely cold weather and rain may stop construction work. Nearly all construction equipment operators work full time.

The starting pay for apprentices is usually between 60 percent and 70 percent of what fully trained operators make. They receive pay increases as they become more skilled.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, construction equipment operators had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012. Although no single union covers all operators, the largest organizer of these workers is the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Job Outlook

Employment of construction equipment operators is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.

The likelihood of increased spending on infrastructure to improve roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, and the electric power grid, many of which are in great need of repair across the country, is expected to result in numerous jobs. In addition, population growth increases the need for construction projects such as new roads and sewer lines, which are also expected to generate some jobs. However, without the extra spending on infrastructure by the federal government, employment growth may be tempered as states and localities struggle with budget shortfalls to pay for road and other improvements.

Job Prospects

Workers with the ability to operate multiple types of equipment should have the best job opportunities.

As with many other types of construction worker jobs, employment of construction equipment operators is sensitive to fluctuations of the economy. On the one hand, workers may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.

Employment opportunities should be best in metropolitan areas, where most large commercial and residential buildings are constructed, and in states that undertake large transportation-related projects.

In addition, the need to replace workers who leave the occupation should result in some job opportunities.

For More Information

For information about apprenticeships or job opportunities as a construction equipment operator, contact local cement or highway construction contractors, a local joint union-management apprenticeship committee, or the nearest office of your state employment service or apprenticeship agency. Information on apprenticeships is available from the U.S. Department of Labor's toll-free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627, or the Employment and Training Administration.

For more information on construction equipment operators, visit

Associated General Contractors of America

Pile Driving Contractors Association

For information on training of construction equipment operators, visit

International Union of Operating Engineers

NCCER

For information about crane certification and licensure, visit

National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators

FAQ

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The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).