Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects. Some operators move construction materials around building sites or the land around a mine. Others move goods around a warehouse or onto container ships.

Duties

Material moving machine operators typically do the following:

  • Control equipment with levers, wheels, or foot pedals
  • Move material according to a plan or schedule they receive from their superiors
  • Set up and inspect material moving equipment
  • Make minor repairs to their equipment
  • Record the material they have moved and where they moved it from and to

In warehouse environments, most material moving machine operators use forklifts and conveyor belts. Automated sensors and tags are increasingly used to keep track of merchandise, allowing operators to work faster. Some operators also check items for damage.

In warehouses, operators usually work closely with hand material movers. For more information, see the profile on hand laborers and material movers.

Many operators work for underground and surface mining companies. They help to dig or expose the mine, remove the earth and rock, and extract the ore and other mined materials.

In construction, material movers remove earth to clear space for buildings. Some work on a building site for the entire length of the construction project. For example, material moving machine operators often help to construct high-rise buildings by transporting materials to workers far above ground level.

All material moving machine operators are responsible for the safe operation of their equipment or vehicle.

Industrial truck and tractor operators drive trucks and tractors that move materials around warehouses, storage yards, or worksites. These trucks, often called forklifts, have a lifting mechanism and forks, which makes them useful for moving heavy and large objects. Some industrial truck and tractor operators drive tractors that pull trailers loaded with material around factories or storage areas.

Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators use machines equipped with scoops or shovels. They dig sand, earth, or other materials and load them onto conveyors or into trucks for transport elsewhere. They also may move material within a confined area, such as a construction site. Operators typically receive instructions from workers on the ground through hand signals or radios. Most of these operators work in construction or mining industries.

Dredge operators excavate waterways. They operate equipment on the water to remove sand, gravel, or rock from harbors or lakes to help prevent erosion and improve trade. Removing these materials helps maintain navigable waterways and allows larger ships to use more ports. Operators also measure the water depth, as well as how much they will be excavating. Dredging is also used to help restore wetlands and maintain beaches.

Underground mining loading machine operators load coal, ore, and other rocks onto shuttles, mine cars, or conveyors for transport from a mine to the surface. These workers generally work underground in mines. They may use power shovels, hoisting engines equipped with scrapers or scoops, and automatic gathering arms that move materials onto a conveyor. Operators also drive their machines further into the mine in order to gather more material.

Crane and tower operators use tower and cable equipment to lift and move materials, machinery, or other heavy objects. Operators extend and retract horizontal arms and lower and raise hooks attached to cables at the end of their crane or tower. Operators are usually guided by other workers on the ground using hand signals or a radio. Most crane and tower operators work at construction sites or major ports, where they load and unload cargo. Some also work in iron and steel mills. 

Hoist and winch operators, also called derrick operators or hydraulic boom operators, control the movement of platforms, cables, and cages that transport workers or materials for industrial operations, such as constructing a high-rise building. Many of these operators raise platforms far above the ground. Operators regulate the speed of the equipment based on the needs of the workers. Most work in manufacturing or construction industries.

Conveyor operators and tenders control conveyor systems that move materials on an automatic belt. They move materials to and from places such as building sites, storage areas, and vehicles. They monitor sensors on the conveyor to regulate the speed with which the conveyor belt moves. Operators may determine the route materials take along a conveyor based on shipping orders.

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Work Environment

Material moving machine operators held about 650,600 jobs in 2012. They worked in a variety of industries. The tables that follow show the distribution of the different kinds of material moving machine operators.

Industrial truck and tractor operators held about 508,600 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most industrial truck and tractor operators in 2012 were as follows:

Warehousing and storage 15%
Employment services 8
Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods 8

Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators held about 50,700 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most excavating and loading machine and dragline operators in 2012 were as follows:

Mining (except oil and gas) 24%
Specialty trade contractors 22
Heavy and civil engineering construction 13

Crane and tower operators held about 43,800 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most crane and tower operators in 2012 were as follows:

Specialty trade contractors 23%
Primary metal manufacturing 15
Support activities for mining 10
Heavy and civil engineering construction 8
Support activities for transportation 8

Conveyor operators and tenders held about 39,100 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most conveyor operators and tenders in 2012 were as follows:

Couriers and messengers 22%
Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods 21
Food manufacturing 13
Warehousing and storage 8
Merchant wholesalers, durable goods 8

Underground mining loading machine operators held about 3,300 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most underground mining loading machine operators in 2012 were as follows:

Coal mining 62%
Metal ore mining 13
Nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying 7

Hoist and winch operators held about 3,100 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most hoist and winch operators in 2012 were as follows:

Support activities for water transportation 17%
State and local government, excluding education and hospitals 9
Support activities for mining 7

Dredge operators held about 2,000 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most dredge operators in 2012 were as follows:

Nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying 48%
Heavy and civil engineering construction 29
State and local government, excluding education and hospitals 5

Injuries and Illnesses

Some material moving machine operator jobs can be dangerous. For example, crane operators and hoist and winch operators work outdoors at great heights in all types of weather.

Operators in some industries might be exposed to harmful chemicals or dangerous machinery. However, these jobs have become far less dangerous as safety equipment and regulations have improved. Many workers wear gloves, hardhats, or respirators. 

Work Schedules

Most material moving machine operators work full time and have 8-hour shifts, although longer shifts and overtime are common. Because materials are shipped around the clock, some operators—especially those in warehousing—work overnight shifts.

Education and Training

Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. Crane operators and excavating machine operators usually have several years of experience in related occupations.

Education

Although it is usually not required, some companies prefer material moving machine operators to have a high school diploma.

Crane operators and excavating machine operators are normally required to have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Training

Most material moving machine operators are trained on the job in less than a month. Some machines are more complex than others, so the amount of time spent in training will vary with the type of machine the operator is using. Training time also can vary by industry. Most workers are trained by a supervisor or another experienced employee, who decides when the workers are ready to work on their own.

The International Union of Operating Engineers offers apprenticeship programs for heavy equipment operators, such as excavating machine operators or crane operators. Apprenticeships combine paid on-the-job training with technical instruction.

During their training, machine operators learn a number of safety rules, many of which are standardized through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Employers must certify that each operator has received the proper training. Operators who work with hazardous materials receive further specialized training.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

A number of states and several cities require crane operators to be licensed. To get a license, operators typically must complete a skills test in which they show that they can control a crane. They also usually must pass a written exam that tests their knowledge of safety rules and procedures.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Crane operators and excavating machine operators usually have several years of experience in related occupations. They may start as construction laborers and helpers and work as construction equipment operators or hoist and winch operators. 

Advancement

Some material moving machine operators become construction equipment operators. Others find work as a production or mining worker. In warehousing or retail environments, experienced workers can move to other parts of the company, such as the sales department, or become a material recording clerk.

Personality and Interests

Material moving machine operators typically have an interest in the Building interest area, 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.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building interest which might fit with a career as a material moving machine operator, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Material moving machine operators should also possess the following specific qualities:

Alertness. Machine operators must stay aware of their surroundings while operating machinery.

Dexterity. Operators sometimes have to maneuver their machines through tight spaces, around large objects, and on uneven surfaces.

Mechanical skills. Operators make minor adjustments to their machines when necessary.

Visual ability. When operating their machines, operators must be able to see clearly where they are driving or what they are moving. They must also watch for nearby workers, who may unknowingly be in their path.

Pay

The median annual wage for material moving machine operators was $31,530 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 $20,800, and the top 10 percent earned more than $51,110.

The median wages for material moving machine operator occupations in May 2012 were the following:

  • $48,420 for underground mining loading machine operators
  • $47,290 for crane and tower operators
  • $39,960 for hoist and winch operators
  • $38,290 for excavating and loading machine and dragline operators
  • $37,170 for dredge operators
  • $30,220 for industrial truck and tractor operators
  • $29,610 for conveyor operators and tenders

Most material moving machine operators work full time and have 8-hour shifts, although longer shifts and overtime are common. Because materials are shipped around the clock, some operators—especially those in warehousing—work overnight shifts.                                

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, material moving machine operators had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of material moving machine operators is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022.

Employment of conveyor operators and tenders is projected to grow 3 percent and employment of industrial truck and tractor operators is projected to decline 3 percent. Both of these occupations are heavily concentrated in warehouse environments. The need for warehouses will grow as consumer spending increases.

However, employment growth will be limited as automation becomes more commonplace. Most warehouses are installing equipment such as high-speed conveyors, high-speed sorting systems, and robotic pickers. This equipment increases the efficiency of material movers, allowing warehouses to trim the number of workers they employ.

Employment of crane and tower operators is projected to grow 17 percent from 2012 to 2022. As global shipping increases, more of these operators will be needed at ports to load and unload large cargo ships. However, increasing automation at ports may moderate growth. Employment growth also will be driven by the recovery of the construction industry, in which many of these workers are employed. Employment of crane operators is projected to grow 40 percent in construction.

Employment of hoist and winch operators is projected to grow 3 percent from 2012 to 2022. Like crane and tower operators, they will be needed at ports to help load and unload cargo, but may see growth reduced by port automation. Employment of hoist and winch operators is projected to decline 15 percent in support activities for water transportation. They are also heavily concentrated in declining manufacturing industries, which will contribute to slower growth.

Employment of excavating and loading machine and dragline operators is projected to grow 16 percent from 2012 to 2022. Many of these operators work in the construction industry, whose projected fast growth will drive job growth in this occupation.

Employment of dredge operators is projected to grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022 as the need for more dredging in the Great Lakes and in other large ports increases. However, environmental concerns are expected to hold up some dredging projects, limiting the growth of this occupation.

Employment of underground mining loading machine operators is projected to experience little or no change from 2012 to 2022, largely due to an expected decline in coal mining, where many of these workers are employed. This will be caused by technology gains that boost worker productivity. Employment of these operators is projected to decline 4 percent in coal mining.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be favorable. A high number of job openings should be created by the need to replace workers who leave these occupations. 

As automation increases, the technology used by these occupations will become more complex. Employers will prefer workers who are comfortable using technology such as tablet computers and hand-held scanners.

For More Information

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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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).