Construction Equipment Operators

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Construction Equipment Operators Do[About this section] [To Top]

Construction equipment operators drive, maneuver, or control the heavy machinery used to construct roads, bridges, buildings, and other structures.

Duties of Construction Equipment Operators

Construction equipment operators typically do the following:

  • Clean and maintain equipment, making basic repairs as necessary
  • Report malfunctioning equipment to supervisors
  • Move levers, push pedals, or turn valves to control equipment
  • Drive and maneuver equipment
  • Coordinate machine actions with crew members using hand or audio signals
  • Follow safety standards

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 the construction of roads, bridges, and buildings, as well as runways, power generation facilities, dams, levees, and other structures.

The following are examples of types of construction equipment 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. In addition to operating 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. They may also operate and maintain air compressors, pumps, and other power equipment at construction sites.

Paving and surfacing equipment operators control the 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 being applied to the roadbed. They must ensure a constant flow of asphalt into the hopper and that the machine distributes the paving material evenly.
  • Concrete paving machine operators control levers and turn handwheels to move attachments that spread, vibrate, and level wet concrete. They must watch the surface of the concrete carefully to identify low spots that need additional concrete.
  • Tamping equipment operators use machines that compact earth and other fill materials for roadbeds, railroads, 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 ground.

Pile-driver operators use large machines mounted on skids, barges, or cranes to hammer piles into the ground. Piles are long, heavy beams of concrete, wood, or steel driven into the ground to support retaining walls, bridges, piers, or building foundations. Some pile-driver operators work on offshore oil rigs.

Work Environment for Construction Equipment Operators[About this section] [To Top]

Construction equipment operators hold about 426,600 jobs. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up construction equipment operators is distributed as follows:

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators 371,100
Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators 51,900
Pile-driver operators 3,700

The largest employers of construction equipment operators are as follows:

Heavy and civil engineering construction 29%
Specialty trade contractors 28
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 14
Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction 6
Construction of buildings 5

Construction equipment operators work in nearly every weather condition, although rain or extremely cold weather can stop some types of construction. Workers often get dirty, greasy, muddy, or dusty. Some operators work in remote locations on large construction projects, such as highways and dams, or in factories or mines.

Injuries and Illnesses for Construction Equipment Operators

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Slips, falls, and transportation incidents can generally be avoided by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices. Bulldozers, scrapers, and especially pile-drivers, are noisy and shake or jolt the operator, which may lead to repetitive stress injuries.

Construction Equipment Operator Work Schedules

Construction equipment operators may have irregular schedules because work on construction projects must sometimes continue around the clock or be done late at night. The majority of construction equipment operators work full time.

How to Become a Construction Equipment Operator[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Construction Equipment Operators near you!

Many workers learn equipment operation on the job after earning a high school diploma or equivalent, while others learn through an apprenticeship or by attending vocational schools.

Education for Construction Equipment Operators

A high school diploma or equivalent is required for most jobs. Vocational training and math courses are useful, and a course in auto mechanics can be helpful because workers often perform maintenance on their equipment.

Learning at vocational schools may be beneficial in finding a job. Schools may specialize in a particular brand or type of construction equipment.

Some schools incorporate sophisticated simulator training into their courses, allowing beginners to familiarize themselves with the equipment in a virtual environment before operating real machines.

Construction Equipment Operator Training

Many workers learn their jobs by operating light equipment under the guidance of an experienced operator. Later, they may operate heavier equipment, such as bulldozers. Some construction equipment with computerized controls requires greater skill to operate. Operators of such equipment may need more training and some understanding of electronics.

Other workers learn their trade through a 3- or 4-year apprenticeship. For each year of the program, apprentices must have at least 144 hours of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training. On the job, apprentices learn to maintain equipment, operate machinery, and use technology, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. In the classroom, apprentices learn operating procedures for equipment, safety practices, and first aid, as well as how to read grading plans.

A few groups, including unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 18
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Physically able to do the work
  • Valid driver's license

After completing an apprenticeship program, apprentices are considered journey workers and perform tasks with less guidance.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Construction Equipment Operators

Construction equipment operators often need a commercial driver's license (CDL) to haul their equipment to various jobsites. State laws governing CDLs vary.

A few states have special licenses for operators of backhoes, loaders, and bulldozers.

Currently, 17 states require pile-driver operators to have a crane license because similar operational concerns apply to both pile-drivers and cranes. In addition, the cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC require special crane licensure.

Important Qualities for Construction Equipment Operators

Hand-eye-foot coordination. Construction equipment operators should have steady hands and feet to guide and control heavy machinery precisely, sometimes in tight spaces.

Mechanical skills. Construction equipment operators often perform basic maintenance on the equipment they operate. As a result, they should be familiar with hand and power tools and standard equipment care.

Physical strength. Construction equipment operators may be required to lift more than 50 pounds as part of their duties.

Unafraid of heights. Construction equipment operators may work at great heights. For example, pile-driver operators may need to service the pulleys located at the top of the pile-driver's tower, which may be several stories tall.

Construction Equipment Operator Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for construction equipment operators is $45,040. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,030, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,700.

Median annual wages for construction equipment operators are as follows:

Pile-driver operators $55,070
Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators 45,890
Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators 38,970

The median annual wages for construction equipment operators in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Construction of buildings $49,510
Heavy and civil engineering construction 48,450
Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction 45,340
Specialty trade contractors 44,560
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 40,720

The starting pay for apprentices is usually between 60 percent and 70 percent of what fully trained operators make. They receive pay increases as they learn to operate more complex equipment.

Construction equipment operators may have irregular schedules because work on construction projects must sometimes continue around the clock or be done late at night. The majority of construction equipment operators work full time.

Union Membership for Construction Equipment Operators

Compared with workers in all occupations, construction equipment operators have a higher percentage of workers who belong to a union. Although no single union covers all operators, the largest organizer of these workers is the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Job Outlook for Construction Equipment Operators[About this section] [To Top]

Overall employment of construction equipment operators is projected to grow 12 percent over the next ten years, faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth is expected to vary across the construction equipment operator occupations. (See table below.)

Spending on infrastructure is expected to increase, resulting in many new positions over the next 10 years. Across the country, many roads, bridges, and water and sewer systems are in need of repair. In addition, population growth will require new infrastructure projects, such as roads and sewer lines, which are also expected to generate jobs.

Pile-driver operators, the smallest of the three occupations in this profile, is projected to grow 15 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, this growth will result in only about 500 new jobs over the 10-year period.

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Job Prospects for Construction Equipment Operators

Workers with the ability to operate multiple types of equipment should have the best job opportunities. In addition, employment opportunities should be best in metropolitan areas, where most large commercial and residential buildings are constructed, and in states that undertake large transportation-related projects. Because apprentices learn to operate a wider variety of machines than do other beginners, they usually have better job opportunities.

As with many other types of construction worker jobs, employment of construction equipment operators is sensitive to fluctuations of the economy. On the one hand, workers may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, some areas may need additional workers during peak periods of building activity.

Employment projections data for Construction Equipment Operators, 2016-26
Occupational Title Employment, 2016 Projected Employment, 2026 Change, 2016-26
Percent Numeric
Construction equipment operators 426,600 479,400 12 52,800
  Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators 51,900 58,200 12 6,300
  Pile-driver operators 3,700 4,200 15 500
  Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators 371,100 417,100 12 45,900


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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