Heavy equipment operators perform essential duties on construction projects across the country, using large machinery to regrade land, drive piles, lay asphalt and complete other tasks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006, about 494,000 people worked as construction equipment operators in the United States.
Heavy equipment operators handle the many large machines used in construction. They control asphalt spreaders, steamrollers, pile drivers, tamping equipment, bucket trucks, cranes and other equipment. With these machines, they dig holes and trenches, compact soil, lift heavy objects and move earth. They help create and maintain the nation's infrastructure, from office buildings to bridges, tunnels to oil rigs.
Because heavy equipment operators work outdoors, their hours depend somewhat on weather conditions. When the ground is frozen or the weather too inclement, construction projects may cease. In good weather and on projects with tight time frames, operators may work up to 14 hours a day or work overnight hours. They spend much of their time alone, inside the control area of a piece of heavy equipment, concentrating closely on getting the job done efficiently and accurately.
Whether employed by state governments, construction companies, mining firms or utility companies, heavy equipment operators depend on the same essential set of skills. They need to be precise and detail oriented, and able to follow directions closely. They also need to display mechanical aptitude, good hand-eye coordination and the ability to operate the valves, levers, handwheels and other controls on the machines. Construction equipment operators must also have a valid driver's license.
Training and Education
Heavy equipment operators learn most of what they need to know from on-the-job training. They may start by operating smaller, lighter machinery and work their way up to heavier equipment. Employers provide training classes as needed, and apprenticeships are available through unions, but there are also vocational schools that teach construction equipment operation.
Most employers prefer to hire heavy equipment operators who have completed high school, including coursework in math.
Earnings and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2006, median hourly incomes for construction equipment operators were as follows: for operating engineers and other construction equipment operators, $17.74; for operators of surfacing, tamping and paving equipment, $15.05; and for piledriver operators, $22.20. Because the work is so dependent on weather conditions, in many climates, heavy equipment operators may earn less during seasons with more inclement weather, or when the ground is frozen. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of jobs for construction equipment operators is expected to rise by 8 percent.
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