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Material Moving Occupations

Significant Points
  • Job openings should be numerous because the occupation is very large and turnover is relatively high.
  • Most jobs require little work experience or training.
  • Pay is low, and the seasonal nature of the work may reduce earnings.
Nature of the Work

Material moving workers are categorized into two groups—operators and laborers. Operators use machinery to move construction materials, earth, petroleum products, and other heavy materials. Generally, they move materials over short distances—around construction sites, factories, or warehouses. Some move materials onto or off of trucks and ships. Operators control equipment by moving levers, wheels, and/or foot pedals; operating switches; or turning dials. They also may set up and inspect equipment, make adjustments, and perform minor maintenance or repairs. Laborers and hand material movers manually handle freight, stock, or other materials; clean vehicles, machinery, and other equipment; feed materials into or remove materials from machines or equipment; and pack or package products and materials.

Material moving occupations are classified by the type of equipment they operate or the goods they handle. Each piece of equipment requires different skills, as do different types of loads. (For information on operating engineers; paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators; and pile-driver operators, see the statement on construction equipment operators elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Industrial truck and tractor operators drive and control industrial trucks or tractors equipped to move materials around warehouses, storage yards, factories, or construction sites. A typical industrial truck, often called a forklift or lift truck, has a hydraulic lifting mechanism and forks for moving heavy and large objects. Industrial truck and tractor operators also may operate tractors that pull trailers loaded with materials, goods, or equipment within factories and warehouses or around outdoor storage areas.

Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators tend or operate machinery equipped with scoops, shovels, or buckets to dig and load sand, gravel, earth, or similar materials into trucks or onto conveyors. Construction and mining industries employ the majority of excavation and loading machine and dragline operators. Dredge operators excavate waterways, removing sand, gravel, rock, or other materials from harbors, lakes, rivers, and streams. Dredges are used primarily to maintain navigable channels but also are used to restore wetlands and other aquatic habitats; reclaim land; and create and maintain beaches. Underground mining loading machine operators use underground loading machines to load coal, ore, or rock into shuttles and mine cars or onto conveyors. Loading equipment may include power shovels, hoisting engines equipped with cable-drawn scraper or scoop, and machines equipped with gathering arms and conveyors.

Crane and tower operators work mechanical boom and cable or tower and cable equipment to lift and move materials, machinery, and other heavy objects. Operators extend and retract horizontally mounted booms and lower and raise hooks attached to load lines. Most operators are guided by other workers using hand signals or a radio. Operators position loads from an onboard console or from a remote console at the site. While crane and tower operators are noticeable at office building and other construction sites, the biggest group works in primary metal, metal fabrication, and transportation equipment manufacturing industries that use heavy, bulky materials. Hoist and winch operators control movement of cables, cages, and platforms to move workers and materials for manufacturing, logging, and other industrial operations. They work in positions such as derrick operators and hydraulic boom operators. Many hoist and winch operators are found in manufacturing or construction industries.

Pump operators tend, control, and operate power-driven pumps and manifold systems that transfer gases, oil, or other materials to vessels or equipment. They maintain the equipment to regulate the flow of materials according to a schedule set up by petroleum engineers and production supervisors. Gas compressor and gas pumping station operators operate steam, gas, electric motor, or internal combustion engine-driven compressors. They transmit, compress, or recover gases, such as butane, nitrogen, hydrogen, and natural gas. Wellhead pumpers operate power pumps and auxiliary equipment to produce flows of oil or gas from extraction sites.

Tank car, truck, and ship loaders operate ship-loading and -unloading equipment, conveyors, hoists, and other specialized material-handling equipment such as railroad tank car-unloading equipment. They may gauge or sample shipping tanks and test them for leaks. Conveyor operators and tenders control and tend conveyor systems that move materials to or from stockpiles, processing stations, departments, or vehicles. Shuttle car operators run diesel or electric-powered shuttle cars in underground mines, transporting materials from the working face to mine cars or conveyors.

Laborers and hand freight, stock, and material movers manually move materials and perform other unskilled general labor. These workers move freight, stock, and other materials to and from storage and production areas, loading docks, delivery vehicles, ships, and containers. Their specific duties vary by industry and work setting. In factories, they may move raw materials or finished goods between loading docks, storage areas, and work areas, as well as sort materials and supplies and prepare them according to their work orders. Specialized workers within this group include baggage and cargo handlers, who work in transportation industries, and truck loaders and unloaders.

Hand packers and packagers manually pack, package, or wrap a variety of materials. They may inspect items for defects, label cartons, stamp information on products, keep records of items packed, and stack packages on loading docks. This group also includes order fillers, who pack materials for shipment, as well as grocery store courtesy clerks. In grocery stores, they may bag groceries, carry packages to customers’ cars, and return shopping carts to designated areas.

Machine feeders and offbearers feed materials into or remove materials from automatic equipment or machines tended by other workers.

Cleaners of vehicles and equipment clean machinery, vehicles, storage tanks, pipelines, and similar equipment using water and other cleaning agents, vacuums, hoses, brushes, cloths, and other cleaning equipment.

Refuse and recyclable material collectors gather refuse and recyclables from homes and businesses into their truck for transport to a dump, landfill, or recycling center. They lift and empty garbage cans or recycling bins by hand or operate a hydraulic lift truck that picks up and empties dumpsters. They work along scheduled routes.

Working Conditions

Material moving work tends to be repetitive and physically demanding. Workers may lift and carry heavy objects and stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl in awkward positions. Some work at great heights and some work outdoors, regardless of weather and climate. Some jobs expose workers to fumes, odors, loud noises, harmful materials and chemicals, or dangerous machinery. To protect their eyes, respiratory systems, and hearing, these workers wear safety clothing, such as gloves, hardhats, and other safety devices. These jobs have become much less dangerous as safety equipment—such as overhead guards on lift trucks—has become common. Accidents usually can be avoided by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices.

Material movers generally work 8-hour shifts, though longer shifts also are not uncommon. In industries that work around the clock, material movers may work overnight shifts. Some do this because the establishment does not want to disturb customers during normal business hours. Refuse and recyclable material collectors often work shifts starting at 5 or 6 a.m. Some material movers work only during certain seasons, such as when the weather permits construction activity.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Little work experience or training is required for most material moving occupations. Some employers prefer applicants with a high school diploma, but most simply require workers to be at least 18 years old and physically able to perform the work. For those jobs requiring physical exertion, employers may require that applicants pass a physical exam. Some employers also require drug testing or background checks before employment. Material movers often are younger than workers in other occupations, reflecting the limited training but significant physical requirements of many of these jobs.

Material movers generally learn skills informally, on the job, from more experienced workers or their supervisors. Workers who handle toxic chemicals or use industrial trucks or other dangerous equipment must receive specialized training in safety awareness and procedures. Many of the training requirements are standardized through the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This training is usually provided by the employer. Employers also must certify that each operator has received the training and evaluate each operator at least once every 3 years. For other operators, such as crane operators and those working with specialized loads, there are some training and apprenticeship programs, such as that offered by the International Union of Industrial Engineers, as well as certifying institutions, such as the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators. Some employers may require crane operators to be certified. Twelve States have laws requiring crane operators to be licensed. Licensing requirements typically include a written as well as a skills test to demonstrate that the licensee can operate a crane safely.

Material moving equipment operators need a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distances, and eye-hand-foot coordination. For jobs that involve dealing with the public, such as grocery store courtesy clerks, workers should be pleasant and courteous. Most jobs require basic arithmetic skills and the ability to read procedural manuals, to understand orders, and other billing documents. Mechanical aptitude and training in automobile or diesel mechanics can be helpful because some operators may perform basic maintenance on their equipment. Experience operating mobile equipment—such as tractors on farms or heavy equipment in the Armed Forces—is an asset. As material moving equipment becomes more advanced, workers will need to be increasingly comfortable with technology.

In many of these occupations, experience may allow workers to qualify or become trainees for jobs such as construction trades workers; assemblers or other production workers; motor vehicle operators; or vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers. In many workplaces, new employees gain experience in a material moving position before being promoted to a better paying and more highly skilled job. Some may eventually advance to become supervisors.


Material movers held 5.1 million jobs in 2004. They were distributed among the detailed occupations as follows:

Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 2,430,000
Packers and packagers, hand 877,000
Industrial truck and tractor operators 635,000
Cleaners of vehicles and equipment 347,000
First-line supervisors/managers of helpers, laborers, and material movers, hand 173,000
Refuse and recyclable material collectors 149,000
Machine feeders and offbearers 148,000
Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators 86,000
Conveyor operators and tenders 53,000
Crane and tower operators 44,000
Tank car, truck, and ship loaders 17,000
Wellhead pumpers 11,000
Pump operators, except wellhead pumpers 11,000
Hoist and winch operators 5,600
Gas compressor and gas pumping station operators 5,100
Loading machine operators, underground mining 4,300
Shuttle car operators 3,100
Dredge operators 2,500
All other material moving workers 58,000

About 29 percent of all material movers worked in the wholesale trade or retail trade industries. Another 22 percent worked in manufacturing; 14 percent in transportation and warehousing; 4 percent in construction and mining; and 15 percent in the employment services industry, on a temporary or contract basis. For example, companies that need workers for only a few days, to move materials or to clean up a site, may contract with temporary help agencies specializing in providing suitable workers on a short-term basis. A small proportion of material movers were self-employed.

Material movers work in every part of the country. Some work in remote locations on large construction projects such as highways and dams, while others work in factories, warehouses, or mining operations.

Job Outlook

Job openings should be numerous because the occupation is very large and turnover is relatively high—characteristic of occupations requiring little prior or formal training. Many openings will arise from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or those who retire or leave the labor force for other reasons.

Employment in material moving occupations is projected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Improvements in equipment, such as automated storage and retrieval systems and conveyors, will continue to raise productivity and moderate the demand for material movers.

Employment growth will stem from an expanding economy, especially in industries involved with the production, distribution, and sales of goods. Employment also will grow in the warehousing and storage industry as more firms contract out their warehousing functions to this industry. For example, a frozen food manufacturer may reduce its costs by outsourcing these functions to a refrigerated warehousing firm, which can more efficiently deal with the specialized storage needs of frozen food. Job growth for material movers depends on the growth or decline of employing industries and the type of equipment the workers operate or the materials they handle. For example, jobs in mining are expected to decline due to continued productivity increases within that industry. Job growth generally will be slower in large establishments, as they increasingly turn to automation for their material moving needs.

Both construction and manufacturing are very sensitive to changes in economic conditions, so the number of job openings in these industries will fluctuate. Although increasing automation will eliminate some routine tasks, new jobs will be created by the need to operate and maintain new equipment.


Median hourly earnings of material moving workers in May 2004 were relatively low, as indicated by the following tabulation:

First-line supervisors/managers of helpers, laborers, and material movers, hand $18.40
Crane and tower operators 17.99
Pump operators, except wellhead pumpers 17.04
Wellhead pumpers 16.31
Hoist and winch operators 16.19
Tank car, truck, and ship loaders 15.59
Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators 15.37
Material moving workers, all other 13.87
Industrial truck and tractor operators 12.78
Refuse and recyclable material collectors 12.38
Conveyor operators and tenders 12.23
Machine feeders and offbearers 10.68
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 9.67
Cleaners of vehicles and equipment 8.41
Packers and packagers, hand 8.25

Wages vary according to experience and job responsibilities. Wages usually are higher in metropolitan areas. Seasonal peaks and lulls in workload can affect the number of hours scheduled and, therefore, earnings. Certified crane operators tend to have a slightly higher hourly rate than those who are not certified.

Related Occupations

Other workers who operate mechanical equipment include construction equipment operators; machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic; rail transportation workers; and truck drivers and driver/sales workers. Other entry-level workers who perform mostly physical work are agricultural workers; building cleaning workers; construction laborers; forest, conservation, and logging workers; and grounds maintenance workers.

Sources of Additional Information

For information about job opportunities and training programs, contact local State employment service offices, building or construction contractors, manufacturers, and wholesale and retail establishments.

Information on safety and training requirements is available from:

  • U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 200 Constitution Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20210. Internet: http://www.osha.gov/

Information on industrial truck and tractor operators is available from:

  • Industrial Truck Association, 1750 K St., NW., Suite 460, Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.indtrk.org/

Information on training and apprenticeships for industrial truck operators is available from:

  • International Union of Industrial Engineers, 1125 17th St., NW., Washington, D.C. 20036. Internet: http://www.iuoe.org/

Information on crane and derrick certification and licensure is available from:

  • National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, 2750 Prosperity Ave., Suite 505, Fairfax, VA 22031. Internet: http://www.nccco.org/
  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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