Construction equipment operators use machinery on construction sites to help build structures. They are often trained on the job or through apprentice programs and are high paid positions commiserate with experience.
In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful as a construction equipment operator.
Construction Equipment Operator
- Construction equipment operators are trained either through a formal apprenticeship program, through on-the-job training, through a paid training program, or a combination of these programs.
- Job opportunities are expected to be good.
- Hourly pay is relatively high, but operators of some types of equipment cannot work in inclement weather, so total annual earnings may be reduced.
Working as a Construction Equipment Operator
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, buildings, and bridges, as well as airport runways, power generation facilities, dams, levees, and other structures. They use machines to dig trenches to lay or repair sewer and other utilities, and hoist heavy construction materials. They even may work offshore constructing oil rigs. Construction equipment operators also operate machinery that spreads asphalt and concrete on roads and other structures.
These workers also help set up and inspect the equipment, make adjustments, and perform some maintenance and minor repairs. Construction equipment is more technologically advanced than it was in the past. For example, global positioning system (GPS) technology is now being used to help with grading and leveling activities.
Included in the construction equipment operator occupation are operating engineers and other construction equipment operators; paving and surfacing equipment operators; and piledriver 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 and load it into trucks or onto conveyors. In addition operating to the familiar 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 or with hitches for pulling trailers. They also may operate and maintain air compressors, pumps, and other power equipment at construction sites.
Paving and surfacing equipment operators operate machines that spread and level asphalt or spread and smooth concrete for roadways or other structures. Asphalt spreader operators turn valves to regulate the temperature and flow of asphalt onto the roadbed. They must take care that the machine distributes the paving material evenly and without voids, and they must make sure that there is a constant flow of asphalt going into the hopper. Concrete paving machine operators control levers and turn handwheels to move attachments that spread, vibrate, and level wet concrete in forms. They must observe the surface of the concrete to identify low spots into which workers must add concrete. They use other attachments to smooth the surface of the concrete, spray on a curing compound, and cut expansion joints. Tamping equipment operators operate tamping 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 earth.
Piledriver operators use large machines mounted on skids, barges, or cranes to hammer piles into the ground. Piles are long, heavy beams of wood or steel driven into the ground to support retaining walls, bulkheads, bridges, piers, or building foundations. Some piledriver operators work on offshore oil rigs. Piledriver operators move hand and foot levers and turn valves to activate, position, and control the pile-driving equipment.
Work environment. Construction equipment operators work outdoors in nearly every type of climate and weather condition, although in many areas of the country some types of construction operations must be suspended in winter. Bulldozers, scrapers, and especially piledrivers are noisy and shake or jolt the operator. Operating heavy construction equipment can be dangerous, and this occupation incurs injuries and illnesses at a higher-than-average rate. As with most machinery, accidents generally can be avoided by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices. Construction equipment operators often get dirty, greasy, muddy, or dusty. Some operators work in remote locations on large construction projects, such as highways and dams, or in factory or mining operations.
Operators may have irregular hours because work on some construction projects continues around the clock or must be performed late at night or early in the morning.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Construction equipment operators are trained either through a formal apprenticeship program, through on-the-job training, through a paid training program, or a combination of these programs.
Education and training. Employers of construction equipment operators generally prefer to hire high school graduates, although some employers may train nongraduates to operate some types of equipment. High school courses in automobile mechanics are helpful because workers may perform maintenance on their machines. Also useful are courses in science and mechanical drawing. With the development of GPS, construction equipment operators need more experience with computers than in the past.
On the job, workers may start 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 more skill to operate. Operators of such equipment may need more training and some understanding of electronics.
It is generally accepted that formal training provides more comprehensive skills. Some construction equipment operators train in formal operating engineer apprenticeship programs administered by union-management committees of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). Because apprentices learn to operate a wider variety of machines than do other beginners, they usually have better job opportunities. Apprenticeship programs consist of at least 3 years, or 6,000 hours, of paid on-the-job training together with 144 hours of related classroom instruction each year.
Private vocational schools offer instruction in the operation of certain types of construction equipment. Completion of such programs may help a person 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 work on actual machines in realistic situations. A large amount of information can be learned in classrooms, but to become a skilled construction equipment operator, a worker needs to actually perform the various tasks. Many training facilities, including IUOE apprenticeship programs, incorporate sophisticated simulators into their training, allowing beginners to familiarize themselves with the equipment in a controlled environment.
Certification and other qualifications. Mechanical aptitude and experience operating related mobile equipment, such as farm tractors or heavy equipment, in the Armed Forces or elsewhere is an asset. Construction equipment operators often need a commercial driver’s license to haul their equipment to the various jobsites. Commercial driver’s licenses are issued by States according to each State’s rules and regulations. Operators also need to be in good physical condition and have a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distance, and eye-hand-foot coordination. Some operator positions require the ability to work at heights.
Certification or training from the right school can improve opportunities for jobseekers; some employers may require operators to be certified. While attending some vocational schools, or by fulfilling the requirements of related professional associations, operators can qualify for various certifications. These certifications prove to potential employers that an operator is able to handle specific types of equipment.
Advancement. Construction equipment operators can advance to become supervisors. Some operators choose to pass on their knowledge and teach in training facilities. Other operators start their own contracting businesses, although doing so may be difficult because of high startup costs.
Employment as a Construction Equipment Operator
Construction equipment operators held about 469,300 jobs in 2008. Jobs were found in every section of the country and were distributed among various types of operators as follows:
|Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators||404,500|
|Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators||60,200|
About 63 percent of construction equipment operators worked in the construction industry. Many equipment operators worked in heavy and civil engineering construction, building highways, bridges, or railroads. About 16 percent of construction equipment operators worked in local government. Others—mostly grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators—worked in mining. Some also worked for manufacturing or utility companies. About 3 percent of construction equipment operators were self-employed.
Average job growth is projected. The need to fill jobs and replace workers who leave the occupation should result in good job opportunities for construction equipment operators.
Employment change. Employment of construction equipment operators is expected to increase 12 percent between 2008 and 2018, about as fast as the average for all occupations. The likelihood of increased spending by the Federal Government on infrastructure to improve roads and bridges, railroads, the electric transmission system, and water and sewer systems, which are in great need of repair across the country, will generate numerous jobs for construction equipment operators who work primarily in these areas. In addition, population increases and the need for construction projects, such as new roads and sewer lines to service the increased population, will generate more jobs. However, without the extra spending on infrastructure by the Federal Government, employment may be flat as States and localities struggle with reduced taxes and budget shortfalls to pay for road and other improvements.
An expected rise in energy production is expected to increase work on oil rigs, smart grids, windmill farms, pipeline construction, and other types of power-generating facilities. Also, increased output of mines and rock and gravel quarries will generate jobs in the mining industry.
Job prospects. Job opportunities for construction equipment operators are expected to be good because the occupation often does not attract enough qualified candidates to fill jobs. Some workers’ reluctance to work in construction makes it easier for willing workers to get operator jobs.
In addition, many job openings will arise from job growth and from the need to replace experienced construction equipment operators who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the job for other reasons. Construction equipment operators who can use a wide variety of equipment will have the best prospects. Operators with pipeline experience will have especially good opportunities if, as expected, natural-gas companies expand work on their infrastructure.
Employment of construction equipment operators, like that of many other construction workers, is sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. Workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. However, shortages of these workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.
|Occupational Title||SOC Code||Employment, 2008||Projected
|Construction equipment operators||47-2070||469,300||525,500||56,200||12|
|Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators||47-2071||60,200||67,200||6,900||12|
|Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators||47-2073||404,500||453,200||48,700||12|
|NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.|
Earnings for Construction Equipment Operators
Wages for construction equipment operators vary. In May 2008, median hourly wages of wage and salary operating engineers and other construction equipment operators were $18.88. The middle 50 percent earned between $14.78 and $25.49. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12.47, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $33.34. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of operating engineers were as follows:
|Nonresidential building construction||$21.45|
|Highway, street, and bridge construction||21.20|
|Utility system construction||19.79|
|Other specialty trade contractors||18.61|
Median hourly wages of wage and salary paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators were $16.00 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.94 and $20.75. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.77, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $26.70. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators were as follows:
|Other specialty trade contractors||$16.16|
|Highway, street, and bridge construction||16.13|
In May 2008, median hourly wages of wage and salary piledriver operators were $23.01. The middle 50 percent earned between $17.52 and $32.94. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14.25, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $38.01. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of piledriver operators were as follows:
|Other specialty trade contractors||$26.07|
|Other heavy and civil engineering construction||23.24|
|Nonresidential building construction||20.46|
|Utility system construction||19.54|
Hourly pay is relatively high, particularly in large metropolitan areas. However, annual earnings of some workers may be lower than hourly rates would indicate because worktime may be limited by bad weather. About 27 percent of construction equipment operators belong to a union.