If you were that kid that loved to play in the dirt and mud, a career as a heavy equipment operator could be your dream job. Not only is this vocation currently in high demand, but it can also provide good pay. According to many operators, is the best job they have ever had.
There are many routes you can take to become a heavy equipment operator. Choosing the right path can be daunting. To help you down the right dirt road, Gearflow has put together the complete guide on How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator.
What is a Heavy Equipment Operator?
A heavy equipment operator, also called an operating engineer, works with a variety of technical and complex machinery to perform thousands of tasks. Heavy equipment helps throughout the entire construction process.
Earthmoving equipment can demolish old buildings, dig foundations, and move dirt (along with many other materials). Material handling equipment can move materials around the job site, lift materials into place, and assist in stacking materials upon delivery. Depending on the project, contractors and project managers may use many other types of specialized equipment.
Keep in mind, being an operator is not just about playing with big toys in the dirt. With any construction project, it is about safety and competency. The operator will be in charge of very expensive equipment and will need the knowledge on how to complete the task properly and safely. A mistake could cause serious injury or costly damage.
Proper training is therefore vital.
Along with the mental aspects needed, operators will need physical stamina. Days can be long and tiring. Good vision, depth perception, hand, eye (and foot) coordination, along with quick reaction times, are essential.
Types of Equipment
First, think about what type of machine you would enjoy operating. Don’t just immediately go to the stereotypical bulldozer or excavator. It could be anything from a landscaping trencher to a skyscraper tower crane. Specific equipment varies depending on the construction project’s needs.
Below is a list of the most common types of heavy equipment:
- Front End Loaders
- Road Graders
- Skid Steers
- Farm Equipment
- Pile Drivers
So, where do YOU start?
Here are our top 5 Simple Steps to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator.
Step 1: Stay in School!
Graduate high school or get your GED. All equipment companies and training schools require this.
Step 2: Do Your Research
From the onset, you will need to make some decisions. You’ll need to decide or have an idea about what equipment you would like to operate. Consider looking into the most economical places to live and work. Then, think about how you’ll break-in.
Ask yourself, do I want to invest in an operator training school, and if so, what are the best to attend? Should I become a union apprentice? Or should I jump right in, get dirty, and learn on the job.
Each path has its pros and cons. By researching, considering all your options, and making informed decisions, you’ll be able to earn a great paying and satisfying job.
Step 3: Training
There are three options to become a competent heavy equipment operator. As mentioned above, on the job training is usually the easiest option. However, for a more rounded education, vocational college or technical school will bring you up to speed quickly and properly. The third option is to join a labor union or state apprenticeship program.
Let’s discuss all three.
Start at the bottom, literally.
You may have to start as a ditch digger. Without any proper training or certification, you will have to work your way up. This usually means low pay and dirty, back-breaking work. More than likely, you will begin your digging career with a shovel.
Don’t take it lightly. Show up on time, work hard, and, most importantly, ask the boss to train on equipment the company might use. Show genuine interest and dedication. You may start with a mini-excavator or a skid steer. With persistence and practice, you can advance and improve your value for a future operator opportunity.
The downside is that this route will take time, lots of time. Most seat time at construction companies goes to their existing operator who has the experience and seniority. Existing operators are busy making a living and may not want to take the time to train you consistently.
Another con would be a lack of certification. With modern safety and liability concerns, the requirement to operate a majority of heavy machinery is much more structured than in years past. Contractors are looking for employees that can not only operate the machine but have sufficient training with safety and specific construction practices.
Training or Vocational School
Heavy equipment training schools are a fast, comprehensive way to get you into your first professional gig. Again, do your research. Each school will vary in curriculum and cost, so be diligent and find an accredited school that is right for you.
The length of programs could range from a few weeks to a year. Costs range depending on what type of program and where you plan to attend. As a guideline, heavy equipment training typically costs $4,000-$18,000.
In most schools, you’ll get hands-on training for common types of equipment, learn the necessary classroom curriculum along with what’s required to pass certification exams.
One such example of a training school is on the banks of the Columbia River in Woodland, Washington. West Coast Training has been prepping heavy equipment operators since 1959 and is one of the top schools on the West Coast.
“Our program is a comprehensive and rigorous eight-week course that prepares students for the real world. Once completed, they will be ready to go on day one,” said recruiter Tom Newman of West Coast Training.
The school’s campus is located on a 28-acre property and mimics a real-world construction site. Student housing and career services come included with tuition. Classes are small by design, with only 8 or 9 students per course.
Operators are ready to go, on day one
“We do it that way because we are big on hands-on training,” said Newman. “This enables all students to get a lot of good seat time on the equipment. Hands-on is the best way to learn.”
Seat time includes operating machines such as front loaders, backhoes, excavators, bulldozers, graders, and other general construction equipment. By exposing the student to a variety of machines, it increases one’s value when marketing themselves to potential employers.
At West Coast Training, classes are five days a week for 10 hours a day. Half of the time, students learn safety protocol and how to read a blueprint or formula for setting a grade stake. The other half is field time spent on the equipment. By the end of the eight-week course, students will have put in a thorough 400 hours of training.
“Another benefit of a training school is that the criteria is set to National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCRE) standards,” said Newman. “We teach to these standards to ensure a competent, well-rounded operator.”
In addition to private training schools, many states and local labor unions offer apprenticeship programs to put you on a career track in heavy equipment. For select programs, these can be free, and for others, they can cost a few thousand dollars. Joint labor and employer training trusts typically fund apprenticeships.
The largest union in North America is the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). Consisting of 400,000 members in 123 local unions throughout the United States and Canada, the IUOE has been training and representing operating engineers since 1896.
IUOE apprentices receive free training, funded by training trusts jointly sponsored by local unions and employers, at heavy equipment operator training schools. These training programs are to ensure that all IUOE members are highly trained and skilled as they go out into the workforce.
One such union is the IUOE Local 12, which covers Las Vegas and Southern California. We spoke with Louie Lapitas, who is in charge of the Nevada apprenticeship program.
“A great advantage of starting in a union is that anybody off the street can apply. There is no experience necessary,” said Lupitas.
Once the applicant is interviewed and passes the entrance exam, the apprentice begins working and training simultaneously. “A great advantage of starting in a union is that anybody off the street can apply. There is no experience necessary
Earn While You Learn
“We like to refer to it as earn while you learn,” said Lupitas. “During the IOUE program’s three-year time frame, apprentices will accrue 6000 total hours of machine time and classroom training.”
With all the hours required, the apprentices have an opportunity to master a variety of equipment. This versatility keeps union members valuable as construction needs vary from project to project.
For every 1000 hours earned, the students’ pay will increase. Union wages are very competitive and include benefits like health insurance and a pension plan. Upon completion of the 6000 hours on a variety of equipment, the apprentice will then receive a journeyman certification.
Although labor unions are one way to go, be sure to check out government programs as well. The Employment and Training Administration and the Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer, and Labor Services through the U.S. Department of Labor can assist in finding apprenticeship opportunities.
Step 4: Certification
Now that you have completed your training, you may need a few other items to complete your portfolio. One very important item is a Commercial Drivers License (CDL). Although not legally required, the majority of construction companies prefer employees to obtain one to operate any equipment or truck. Not having a CDL could diminish your job opportunities.
Depending on the state, the completion of an operator exam may be required. Testing on heavy equipment varies by state and generally costs between $75 to $200.
Step 5: Get a Job!
Now it is time to get out in the real world. Luckily, today’s job market for heavy equipment operators is thriving. Government spending on infrastructure is expected to increase, along with private construction projects. This influx of projects will result in new positions over the next ten years.
According to the Bureau of Labor, there were 453,200 total operator jobs in 2018. Predictions estimate that number to rise by 10% each year through 2028.
Newman adds, “There will always be a need for heavy equipment operators. Construction is booming everywhere, but if the housing industry goes down, it will be the operators that will survive. We will always need infrastructure. Roads, bridges, and airport projects will continue if the economy takes a bad turn.”
At West Coast Training, the program is very rigorous and thorough but still does not guarantee a job. “The demand is high, and career trajectories are very good,” stated Newman. “We can get them that headstart to work anywhere, but they still don’t have experience. However, the lack of a labor force is allowing these students to get jobs right away. Companies are approaching us for workers.”
That lack of labor is due to many young adults going to college instead of getting into the trades. The perception is that construction jobs do not pay well and that it is demeaning work. However, that mindset is beginning to take a turn for the better. The blue-collar, vocational job is the new 100k career with less student debt.
Workers who are versatile and can operate multiple types of equipment have the best job opportunities. There are a variety of industries where you can apply your newfound and growing skills. Primary places include construction, transportation, trucking, trade, and government contracting.
Location, location location.
So, where are all the jobs? Well, everywhere, but it comes down to your choice of lifestyle. Are you willing to locate somewhere remote such as Alaska or North Dakota? Are you willing to pay more to live in the city? You will need to find that salary and cost of living balance that is best for you.
“If a student wants to live and work in Dialtone, North Carolina, their options may be limited,” said Newman.
No matter where you end up, the jobs will be there. While doing your initial research, consider the location’s cost of living versus what you will earn. Salaries will vary from state to state and city to city. To give you an idea, we have listed a few of the top and bottom states for average salary.
Top 5 Average Salaries by State:
New York – $76,958
Massachusetts – $72,347
New Jersey – $72,633
Alaska – $71,578
California – $71,932
Bottom 5 Average Salaries by State:
Tennessee – $58,939
Iowa – $59,734
New Mexico – $59,404
Mississippi – $56,599
South Dakota – $55,740
Overall, according to Salary.com, the national median salary for a heavy equipment operator is $63,601 per year. The lowest 10 percent make about $29,710, while the top 10 percent of heavy equipment operators can make $81,640 or more.
If you go through the union apprentice program, expect to earn up to 35% higher than comparable non-union wages.
We hope that this complete guide has helped with your decision to operate heavy equipment. “While it is not for everyone, it can be a fun, fulfilling career choice,” says Newman. “I look down the road, and we need young people that know how to do these things, and that need is not going away. What an honorable way to make a living. It is the backbone of America.”