How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

Millions of kids play with dump trucks and bulldozers, but few adults have the skills and fortitude to operate the real-life versions of heavy, dangerous, and expensive machinery.

Those that do can make an excellent living at it. But how do you make that leap? How do you turn playing in the dirt into the serious business and become a heavy equipment operator?

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What Is a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Heavy equipment operators, sometimes called heavy machinery operators or operating engineers, operate a variety of complex machinery to perform tasks.

Heavy machinery operators work in a number of industries. There are many different categories – some operators get certified in multiple types, while others choose to specialize.

The type of equipment you operate and the industry in which you work determines your working conditions and salary, as well as your job outlook. Operator jobs have a poor outlook in the mining and warehousing industries, but in construction, the outlook is promising – especially as infrastructure spending and repair increase.

The most common types of heavy equipment include:

Equipment Annual Salary
Excavators and earth moving equipment used in construction $49,770
Crane and tower operators $59,710
Hoist and winch operators $62,610
Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment $41,540
Conveyor equipment $41,540
Pile driver equipment $63,370
Loading and moving machines used in underground mining $56,640
Excavating and dragline equipment used in surface mining $45,150
Dredging equipment $49,210

These are median salaries from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, May 2020 (Construction, Materials Moving)

Heavy Machinery Operator Requirements

There are a number of avenues for becoming a heavy equipment operator, but no matter which you choose, the overall requirements are the same. Here's what you need.

Necessary Skills

Working as a machine operator requires a number of physical and mental skills. You're more likely to be successful in the role if a few things come naturally to you, but it's also possible to develop and improve your abilities.

Physical requirements include:

  • Stamina. You're likely to work long days, odd hours, and under taxing conditions. Certain types of heavy equipment careers require regular exposure to the elements, moving heavy equipment, or standing on your feet all day.
  • Good Vision. An operator's work requires visual acuity and depth perception, whether you're born with eagle eyes or use corrective lenses.
  • Coordination. Operators use hand/eye/foot coordination to operate complicated and expensive machinery. Excellent coordination is a fundamental skill for the job.
  • Quick Reaction Times. For everyone's safety, you need to be able to respond to changing conditions quickly. Some of this will come with practice, but you also need the physical capacity.

Mental requirements include:

  • Attention to Detail & Multitasking. Heavy equipment operators need to monitor and respond appropriately to many things at once (their machinery, the job progress, the movement of other workers, etc). Precision also matters – in many specialties, you'll need to follow specifications exactly to a fraction of an inch.
  • Math Skills. Depending on your specialty, you may need to perform calculations related to weight or mass, load balancing, measurement conversion, ratios, area or volume, and more.
  • Evolving Computer Skills. Computer systems are playing an increasing role in heavy equipment operation, and it's likely you'll need to keep up with advances in this technology throughout your career.

High School Diploma

Most employers require heavy equipment operators to hold a high school diploma or the equivalent, like a GED.

Operator Certification or License

Operating certain equipment may require a specific certification or license by law, and employers or advanced positions may require certification or licensure as well. It varies by location and equipment type. For example, crane operators almost always need a license.

Obviously, becoming certified or licensed requires training and practical experience, which we'll explore below.

How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

Here are the basic steps and considerations for building a career in machine operation.

Step 1: Make the Most of High School

Since you're going to need a high school education to work as a heavy equipment operator, you might as well take classes that build the skills you need.

Try to take (and do well in) geometry, algebra, and any technical education your school offers, like shop class, auto mechanics, industrial technology, applied math, engineering, or something similar.

If your school or community has any clubs or extracurricular activities that help you practice these skills, consider joining. You can also play sports that improve your coordination and reaction time.

Step 2: Learn To Operate Heavy Equipment

There are three main avenues for heavy equipment training: technical school, apprenticeship programs, and on-the-job training in a related industry.

The training program you choose should prepare you to earn any required heavy equipment certification or licensure you need to hold a job.

1. The On-the-Job Method of Training

This is the most indirect and uncertain path. It'll take the longest, but you'll earn a living and build other skills as you go. If you're not sure heavy equipment operation is for you, this lets you explore related career paths.

Plenty of heavy machinery operators started as entry-level workers in industries like construction, warehousing, or mining. After proving themselves reliable and earning the trust of their employer, they received on-the-job training in lighter machinery, then worked their way up to heavier equipment.

This has gotten more difficult to pull off, however. Liability concerns, safety regulations, and increasing equipment complexity have made employers wary of letting anyone touch a machine before they're certified. Still, it's an option to consider.

2. The Apprenticeship Method of Training

There are apprenticeship programs for heavy equipment operators, often sponsored by unions like the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). Apprenticeships typically take 3-4 years to complete,

The advantage of an apprenticeship is that you "earn while you learn" with field training and classroom time. You might make less money than normal on-the-job training, but it's a structured program that focuses entirely on practicing something that you won't get with the previous method.

Your education tends to be more comprehensive with an apprenticeship than other training options, and you'll probably learn to operate a wide variety of equipment, which makes you more employable.

The downside: classes are small, which makes an apprenticeship difficult to get.

3. The Vocational School Method of Heavy Equipment Operator Training

There are technical or vocational schools where you can get training.

Like an apprenticeship, you'll get classroom learning and hands-on training, but apprenticeships lean more heavily towards field time, while vocational schools involve more studying. You'll explore topics like safety concepts, maintenance and repair, blueprint reading, soil science, site grading, and more. Your hands-on experience may be with simulators instead of or before you start with real equipment.

Some programs take a few months, while others take 1-2 years to complete. You'll pay tuition, but given the earnings potential of jobs in equipment operation, choosing a well-respected program could be the ticket.

Step 3: Get Your Heavy Equipment Operator License

You'll need to do some research on the certification or licensing that's required for the type of equipment and where you want to work. Check state and local regulations, as well as the requirements of local job listings.

Licensing or certification exams typically have two parts: written and practical. A written test may assess things like mechanical comprehension, math calculations, measurement skills, problem-solving abilities, and inspection knowledge. Practical exams will involve performing tasks for an instructor to test your operating knowledge and coordination.

In some states or cities, you may also need to earn a "DOL card" (basic safety training) before employers will hire you. The most cost-effective way to meet this requirement is to take an OSHA 10 course with an OSHA-authorized online provider.

Step 4: Consider Earning a Commercial Driver's License

A commercial driver's license (CDL) isn't strictly required for heavy machinery operation, and in certain industries, it might not help you at all.

But in some cases, it can make you more employable. It might be required by law or by individual employers. In construction, heavy equipment is often towed on trailers between jobs – an equipment operator with a CDL can transport and operate their machinery, which gives you hiring preference.

The requirements to earn a CDL vary by state, so you'll need to look up the process where you live.

Step 5: Keep Current on Your Training

Once you've become a heavy equipment operator, your education isn't complete. You'll need to keep training, practicing, and expanding your knowledge – to stay relevant in the industry and to increase your earnings.

Whether you undergo formal continuing education or expand your skills the old-fashioned way, you'll need to refresh your safety training periodically.

As an equipment operator, you'll be required to take a number of safety compliance courses, including courses that specifically focus on heavy equipment safety training. Some OSHA courses have a required refresher frequency, while in other cases, it's on an as-needed basis. For liability reasons, many employers set regular refreshers just to cover their bases.

OSHA Outreach is regulatory compliance, so you don't need a hands-on or classroom experience. Online OSHA training costs less and takes less time because you skip the commute and unproductive chit-chat. You can fit it around your schedule and even take it on your phone when you have time!

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