Material Moving Occupations

Even with the use of machinery and continuing improvements in automation and technology, moving goods and materials around worksites still requires significant human effort. There are two classifications of material moving workers: operators who work the machines and laborers who move materials by hand.

Forklift and tractor operators run vehicles that move materials around work sites, such as factories and warehouses. They may also drive tractors that pull loaded trailers around those work sites. Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators—primarily in mining and construction—control machines that use shovels or buckets to load earth, sand, gravel, etc., into trucks or onto conveyers. Dredge operators excavate waterways, primarily to keep them navigable, but they also help restore wetlands and reclaim land. Underground mining loading machine operators load ore, rock, or coal into mine cars and shuttles or onto conveyers. Crane and tower operators use boom and cable or tower and cable to move heavy objects and machinery. The largest group of crane and tower operators works in manufacturing industries using heavy, bulky materials, but some work at major ports. Hoist and winch operators control cables, cages, and platforms, moving workers and materials in logging and other industries.

Pump operators work pump and manifold systems that transfer oil, gases, or other materials to vessels or equipment. Gas compressor and gas pumping station operators control steam, gas, electric motor, or internal combustion engine-driven compressors that transmit, compress, or recover gases such as hydrogen and natural gas. Wellhead pumpers pump oil or gas from extraction sites.

Tank car, truck, and ship loaders operate specialized equipment for handling materials. Conveyer operators and tenders run conveyer systems that move materials to different departments around a work site. Shuttle car operators work in mines to transport materials using diesel or electric shuttle cars.

Laborers and hand freight, stock, and material movers must manually move goods and materials and do other unskilled labor. Their duties vary by industry. Hand packers and packagers manually package a variety of materials. They include order fillers, gift wrappers, and those who bag groceries and retrieve carts at markets.

Machine feeders and off-bearers feed materials into or remove materials from machines that are controlled by others. Cleaners clean machinery, vehicles, and storage tanks using water and cleaning agents. Refuse and recyclable material collectors gather refuse and recyclable materials from homes and businesses and take them to a dump, landfill, or recycling center.

Material moving work is usually repetitive and physically demanding. Some may work outdoors regardless of weather and climate. Some workers are exposed to fumes and other hazardous substances and must wear safety clothing, although these jobs are less dangerous now due to safety equipment. Material movers generally work eight-hour shifts, and even overnight shifts in certain industries. Refuse and recyclables collectors often begin work at 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. Some of this work, such as construction, is seasonal and dependent on weather conditions.


Most material movers learn on the job and require little or no formal training. A physical exam may be required for employment. Some employers prefer an applicant with a high school diploma or GED. However, the majority only requires workers to be eighteen years of age and physically fit for the job. Workers who handle toxic chemicals or use dangerous equipment must have training in safety awareness. There are some training and apprenticeship programs for crane operators and others. Seventeen states and six cities require crane operators to be licensed, and other equipment operators may be certified by professional associations.

Material moving equipment operators need a good sense of balance, ability to judge distances, and eye-hand-foot coordination, as well as basic arithmetic skills and the ability to read manuals and to understand written orders.
As in most professions, experience is the key to advancement in the materials moving industry. After gaining experience in a material moving job, an employee may be promoted to a higher paying, more skilled position.

In the near future, there will be a slight decline in the need for material movers due to increasing automation. Employment should grow in warehousing and storage but decline in manufacturing. However, there will still be many employment opportunities for operating and maintaining the new automation equipment. There will nevertheless continue to be a relatively large number of job openings in materials moving due to high turnover from transfers, retirements, or leaving the job, which is typical of occupations requiring little or no training. In some businesses, job openings also fluctuate with the economy.

Median hourly wages for material moving workers are relatively low, with the more skilled operators earning around $20 per hour while cleaners and packagers earn about $9 per hour. Wages will vary with experience and job duties and are higher in large cities. Seasonal peaks and lulls will affect hours worked and money earned. Those material movers who are union members tend to earn higher pay.