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Construction Equipment Operators

Significant Points
  • Many construction equipment operators acquire their skills on the job, but formal apprenticeship programs provide more comprehensive training.
  • Job opportunities are expected to be good, with employment growing about as fast as the average for all occupations.
  • Hourly pay is relatively high, but some construction equipment operators cannot work in inclement weather, so total annual earnings may be reduced.

Nature of the Work

Construction equipment operators use machinery to move construction materials, earth, and other heavy materials at construction sites, mines, and sometimes your back yard. They operate equipment that clears and grades land to prepare it for construction of roads, buildings, and neighborhoods. They dig trenches to lay or repair sewer and other pipelines, and they hoist heavy construction materials. They may even work offshore constructing oil rigs. Construction equipment operators also operate machinery that applies asphalt and concrete to roads and other structures.

Operators control equipment by moving levers or foot pedals, operating switches, or turning dials. The operation of much of this equipment is becoming more complex as a result of computerized controls. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology also is being used to help with grading and leveling activities. In addition to controlling the equipment, construction equipment operators also set up and inspect the equipment, make adjustments, and perform some maintenance and minor repairs.

Construction equipment operators include: paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators; piledriver operators; and operating engineers and other construction equipment operators. Operating engineersand other construction equipment operators operate 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 and load it into trucks or onto conveyors. In addition to the familiar 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 or with hitches for pulling trailers. They also may operate and maintain air compressors, pumps, and other power equipment at construction sites. Construction equipment operators who are classified as operating engineers are capable of operating several different types of construction equipment.

Paving and surfacing equipment operators use levers and other controls to operate machines that spread and level asphalt or spread and smooth concrete for roadways or other structures. Asphalt paving machine operators turn valves to regulate the temperature and flow of asphalt onto the roadbed. They must take care that the machine distributes the paving material evenly and without voids, and make sure that there is a constant flow of asphalt going into the hopper. Concrete paving machine operators control levers and turn handwheels to move attachments that spread, vibrate, and level wet concrete within forms. They must observe the surface of concrete to identify low spots into which workers must add concrete. They use other attachments to smooth the surface of the concrete, spray on a curing compound, and cut expansion joints. Tamping equipment operators operate tamping machines that compact earth and other fill materials for roadbeds. They also may operate machines with interchangeable hammers to cut or break up old pavement and drive guardrail posts into the earth.

Piledriver operators operate piledrivers—large machines, mounted on skids, barges, or cranes, that hammer piles into the ground. Piles are long heavy beams of wood or steel driven into the ground to support retaining walls, bulkheads, bridges, piers, or building foundations. Some piledriver operators work on offshore oil rigs. Piledriver operators move hand and foot levers and turn valves to activate, position, and control the pile-driving equipment.

Working Conditions

Many construction equipment operators work outdoors, in nearly every type of climate and weather condition, although in many areas of the country, some types of construction operations must be suspended in winter. Also, during periods of extremely wet weather grading and leveling activities can be difficult to perform and may be suspended. Bulldozers, scrapers, and especially tampers and piledrivers are noisy and shake or jolt the operator. Operating heavy construction equipment can be dangerous. As with most machinery, accidents generally can be avoided by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices. Construction equipment operators are cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and often get dirty, greasy, muddy, or dusty.

Operators may have irregular hours because work on some construction projects continues around the clock or must be performed late at night or early in the morning. Some operators work in remote locations on large construction projects, such as highways and dams, or in factory or mining operations.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Construction equipment operators usually learn their skills on the job. They may start by operating light equipment under the guidance of an experienced operator. Later, they may operate heavier equipment, such as bulldozers and cranes. However, it is generally accepted that formal training provides more comprehensive skills. Some construction equipment operators train in formal operating engineer apprenticeship programs administered by union-management committees of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Associated General Contractors of America. Because apprentices learn to operate a wider variety of machines than do other beginners, they usually have better job opportunities. Apprenticeship programs consist of at least 3 years, or 6,000 hours, of on-the-job training and 144 hours a year of related classroom instruction.

Employers of construction equipment operators generally prefer to hire high school graduates, although some employers may train nongraduates to operate some types of equipment. Technologically advanced construction equipment has computerized controls and improved hydraulics and electronics, requiring more skill to operate. Operators of such equipment may need more training and some understanding of electronics. Mechanical aptitude and high school training in automobile mechanics are helpful because workers may perform some maintenance on their machines. Also, high school courses in science and mechanical drawing are useful. Experience operating related mobile equipment, such as farm tractors or heavy equipment, in the Armed Forces or elsewhere is an asset.

Private vocational schools offer instruction in the operation of certain types of construction equipment. Completion of such programs may help a person get a job as a trainee or apprentice. However, persons considering such training should check the school’s reputation among employers in the area and find out if it offers the opportunity to work on actual machines in realistic situations.

Operators need to be in good physical condition and have a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distance, and eye-hand-foot coordination. Some operator positions require the ability to work at heights.


Construction equipment operators held about 449,000 jobs in 2004. Jobs were found in every section of the country and were distributed among various types of operators as follows:

Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators 382,000
Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators 63,000
Pile-driver operators 4,400

About three out of five construction equipment operators worked in the construction industry. Many equipment operators worked in heavy construction, building highways, bridges, or railroads. About one out of five of all construction equipment operators worked in State and local government. Others—mostly grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators—worked in mining. Some also worked in manufacturing and for utility companies. Less than one in twenty construction equipment operators were self-employed.

Job Outlook [About this section] Back to Top Back to Top

Job opportunities for construction equipment operators are expected to be good through 2014. Some potential workers may choose not to enter training programs because they prefer work that has more comfortable working conditions.

Employment of construction equipment operators is expected to increase as fast as average for all occupations through the year 2014 even with improvements in equipment expected to continue to raise worker productivity and to moderate demand for these workers. Employment is expected to increase as population and business growth create a need for new houses, industrial facilities, schools, hospitals, offices, and other structures. More construction equipment operators also will be needed as a result of expected growth in highway, bridge, and street construction. Bridge construction is expected to grow the fastest, due to the need to repair or replace structures before they become unsafe. Highway conditions also will spur demand for highway maintenance and repair. In addition to job growth, many job openings will arise because of the need to replace experienced construction equipment operators who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the job for other reasons.

Like that of other construction workers, employment of construction equipment operators is sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. Workers may experience periods of unemployment when the level of construction activity falls.


Earnings for construction equipment operators vary. In May 2004, median hourly earnings of operating engineers and other construction equipment operators were $17.00. The middle 50 percent earned between $13.19 and $23.00. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.98, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $29.34. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of operating engineers in May 2004 were:

Highway, street, and bridge construction $19.20
Utility system construction 18.13
Other specialty trade contractors 17.73
Local government 15.20
State government 13.52

Median hourly earnings of paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators were $14.42 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.35 and $19.30. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.47, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $26.51. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators in May 2004 were as follows:

Other specialty trade contractors $15.03
Highway, street, and bridge construction 14.56
Local government 13.70

In May 2004, median hourly earnings of piledriver operators were $21.29. The middle 50 percent earned between $15.50 and $30.23. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $11.78, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34.04.

Pay scales generally are higher in large metropolitan areas. Annual earnings of some workers may be lower than hourly rates would indicate because worktime may be limited by bad weather.

Related Occupations

Other workers who operate mechanical equipment include: agricultural equipment operators; truck drivers, heavy and tractor trailer; logging equipment operators; and a variety of material moving occupations.

Sources of Additional Information

For further information about apprenticeships or work opportunities for construction equipment operators, contact a local of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a local apprenticeship committee, or the nearest office of the State apprenticeship agency or employment service. For general information about the work of construction equipment operators, contact:

  • National Center for Construction Education and Research, , P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville, FL 32614-1104. Internet: http://www.nccer.org/
  • Associated General Contractors of America, 2300 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 400, Arlington, VA 22201. Internet: http://www.agc.org/

  • International Union of Operating Engineers, 1125 17th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036. Internet: http://www.iuoe.org/
  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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