Sitting at the controls of a bulldozer, crane, road grader, or trench excavator is a dream come true for many. Operators of construction equipment use large heavy duty machinery to move construction materials, dig soil, clear and grade land, pave and surface roads, hoist heavy construction materials, and perform many other tasks. They may work in all types of climates and weather conditions during all hours of the day and night. Besides operating the equipment, they are also responsible for performing routine maintenance, minor repairs, and safety inspections. There are several different kinds of operators, including general construction equipment operators, paving and surfacing equipment operators, tamping equipment operators, and pile driver operators.
Operating engineers or construction equipment operators use a variety of large heavy duty machines to dig, scrape, cut, and move dirt, rocks, stones, and boulders from one area to another. Some of the machines may be equipped with forklifts or booms to lift things or hitches to pull trailers and move building materials to storage locations. Other equipment is used to crush or demolish items such as rocks or buildings.
Tamping equipment operators compact earth and fill materials used as a base for roads and other projects, while paving and surface equipment operators operate machinery used to spread and level asphalt or concrete.
Sitting in the machine’s cab mounted on skids, barges, crawler treads, or locomotives, pile driver operators handle large machines called pile drivers to hammer long beams of wood or metal into the ground. These pilings are used to build retaining walls and bulkheads and to provide support for building foundations, bridges, or piers.
The large machines these workers use can be very dangerous when they are operated by inexperienced individuals. Therefore, training is essential. It is usually obtained through on-the-job training, vocational or technical school training, or formal apprenticeship programs offered by unions, the Associated General Contractors of America, or the International Union of Operating Engineers. While most employers prefer to hire those with a high school degree or GED, they may train those who show interest and aptitude. Apprenticeships involve at least three years, or 6,000 hours, of paid hands-on experience working alongside experienced construction equipment operators. Apprentices must also obtain 144 hours of classroom instruction each year. Completion of an apprenticeship program is more desirable to employers because of the greater range of skills learned. Those interested in a career as a construction equipment operator can start taking relevant classes in high school, such as science and mechanical drawing.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook expects average employment growth for operators of about 12 percent over the next 10 years. While all jobs in the construction industry are sensitive to economic fluctuations, increased spending by the federal government on local infrastructure projects such as improvements to roads, bridges, railroads, electric transmission systems, and water and sewer systems will generate numerous jobs. Additionally, population growth will drive new construction, as will increased energy production work on oil rigs, smart grids, windmill farms, pipelines, and other types of power-generating equipment.
Hourly salaries vary depending upon experience and specialty, but tend to be highest in large metropolitan areas. The median salary for construction equipment operators is $18.88 per hour. The middle 50 percent earn between $14.78 and $25.49 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $12.47 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $33.34 per hour. The median hourly wage for paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators is $16.00 per hour. The middle 50 percent earn between $12.94 and $20.75 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $10.77 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $26.70 per hour. The median hourly wage for pile driver operators is $23.01 per hour. The middle 50 percent earn between $17.52 and $32.94 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $14.25 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $38.01 per hour.