What Does a Heavy Equipment Operator Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Heavy Equipment Operator Job Description

Image by Alison Czinkota © The Balance 2019 

A heavy equipment operator drives or controls construction equipment, including bulldozers, forklifts, backhoes, dump trucks, cargo trucks, and hydraulic truck cranes. They operate this equipment to assist in the construction of structures, including bridges, roads, and buildings. 

Heavy equipment operators usually specialize in one of three areas. Construction equipment operators, also called operating engineers, handle loading and excavation machines. They use these machines to dig and lift sand, gravel, or earth. Paving and surface equipment operators use machines to spread concrete and asphalt during the construction of roadways. Pile-driver operators control equipment to hammer heavy beams of wood, concrete, and steel, called piles, into the ground.

Approximately 426,600 workers were employed in this occupation in 2016.

Heavy Equipment Operator Duties & Responsibilities

Exact duties can depend on a heavy equipment operator's specialization. Some common responsibilities include:

  • Operate heavy equipment in compliance with the company's operating safety policies and procedures.
  • Provide recommendations for maintaining and improving environmental performance.
  • Load and unload equipment from vehicles and trailers.
  • Ensure company equipment, material, and the work site are maintained, kept clean, and stored in a safe manner. Collect and dispose of scrap, excess materials, and refuse.
  • Observe distribution of paving material to adjust machine settings or material flow, and indicate low spots for workers to add material.
  • Complete required paperwork, reporting, and other documentation.

Heavy Equipment Operator Salary

Pile-driver operators are the most highly paid heavy equipment operators with a median annual salary of $58,680 as of 2018. This is factored into the salary figures of all heavy equipment operators as a whole.

  • Median Annual Salary: $46,990 ($22.59/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $83,190 ($39.99/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $30,660 ($14.74/hour)

Source: U.S. Source of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training & Certification

You can prepare to work in this occupation by first learning to operate light equipment under an experienced operator's guidance. There are few, if any, education requirements.

  • Apprenticeships: This option includes three to four years of a combination of technical instruction and on-the-job or field training. You'll learn how to operate and maintain equipment during on-the-job training. Instructors will teach you about safety practices and first aid in the classroom, as well as operating procedures.
  • Licensure: The municipality in which you work might require that you have a license to operate equipment or transport it to job sites. Some states require a commercial driver's license (CDL) to haul machinery. Pile-driver operators need a crane license in some cities and states.

Many locations and employers also require that you be able to pass a drug test.

Heavy Equipment Operator Skills & Competencies

In addition to formal training and a license, having certain other skills can help you succeed in this occupation.

  • Hand and foot coordination: You must coordinate movements of your hands and feet in order to guide very large machinery in tight places.
  • Operation Monitoring: You'll have to read gauges, dials, and other indicators, and adjust them as necessary.
  • Interpersonal skills and teamwork: You must be able to coordinate your actions with those of other workers on busy construction sites.
  • Troubleshooting: Anyone operating heavy equipment should be able to detect and fix operating problems.
  • Critical thinking: Your job will require that you identify the strengths and weaknesses of solutions to problems in order to choose the one that is most likely to be successful and cost-effective.

Job Outlook

Heavy equipment operators have an excellent job outlook. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment in this area will grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026, at about 12%.

Pile-driver operators should fare even better. They should see job growth of about 15% over the same decade.

Work Environment

Heavy and civil engineering construction firms, specialty trade contractors, and local governments are the primary employers of heavy equipment operators. 

Those in this profession work in all types of weather. They must have the ability and be willing to work in adverse conditions, not just including extreme weather but enclosed spaces and heights up to 80 feet as well.

Heavy equipment operators are at a high risk of Injuries due to slips and falls.

Work Schedule

These jobs are usually full-time. Construction projects take place at all hours of the day or night, so these workers have schedules that might include late nights and overnight hours. You should be willing to accommodate a schedule that can require weekend work as well.

How to Get the Job


Learn how to operate multiple types of machinery to increase your chances of getting a job.


Labor unions, such as the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), offer a variety of apprenticeships.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Several other jobs exist in the construction and other sectors, offering varying degrees of median annual compensation.

  • Material moving machine operator: $35,850
  • Truck driver: $43,680
  • Farmer: $67,950

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018