What do Material Moving Occupations Do

Material Moving Occupations

Think about a common bicycle; over the course of its creation many workers have to transport a variety of materials to get it to your local store. First, the raw metal must be produced, either from a mine where an excavator operator digs into the earth to gather rocks with the proper minerals and places them on a conveyor operated by a conveyor tender; or by a recyclable material collector that picks up unwanted metal household goods. Next, the metal is refined in a foundry, at which point a crane operator or hoist and winch operator may place it on a trailer for shipping. After arriving at a factory, an industrial truck operator unloads the metal and a machine feeder loads it into a machine for production. After being assembled, the bicycle is placed into a box by a hand packager and then moved into a tractor trailer by a truck loader. Many products, like this bicycle, are handled by a variety of workers because, even with the use of machinery, moving goods and materials around worksites still requires significant human effort. Material moving workers are generally categorized into two groups—operators, who control the machines that move materials, and laborers, who move materials by hand.

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, 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 move freight, stock, or other materials by hand; clean vehicles, machinery, and other equipment; feed materials into or remove materials from machines or equipment; and pack or package products and materials.

Industrial truck and tractor operators drive and control industrial trucks or tractors that move materials around warehouses, storage yards, factories, construction sites, or other worksites. 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. These machines are primarily used in the construction and mining industries. 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 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 scrapers or scoops, and machines equipped with gathering arms and conveyors.

Crane and tower operators use 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. Although crane and tower operators are noticeable at office building and other construction sites, the biggest group works in manufacturing industries that use heavy, bulky materials. Operators also work at major ports, loading and unloading large containers on and off ships. 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 pump and manifold systems that transfer gases, oil, or other materials to vessels or equipment. They maintain the equipment and regulate the flow of materials according to a schedule set up by petroleum engineers or 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 pumps and auxiliary equipment to produce flows of oil or gas from extraction sites.

Tank car, truck, and ship loaders operate ship-loading and ship-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 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 label cartons, inspect items for defects, 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 gift wrappers. 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 equipment or machines tended by other workers.

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

Refuse and recyclable material collectors gather refuse and recyclables from homes and businesses into their trucks for transport to a dump, landfill, or recycling center. They lift and empty garbage cans or recycling bins by hand or, using hydraulic lifts on their vehicles, pick up and empty dumpsters. Some in this group drive the large garbage or recycling truck along the scheduled routes.

Work Environment

Material moving machine operators held about 710,800 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up material moving machine operators was distributed as follows:

  • Industrial truck and tractor operators - 631,600
  • Crane and tower operators - 44,800
  • Conveyor operators and tenders - 27,300
  • Hoist and winch operators - 5,000
  • Dredge operators - 2,000

The largest employers of material moving machine operators were as follows:

  • Warehousing and storage - 29%
  • Wholesale trade - 12%
  • Temporary help services - 8%
  • Food manufacturing - 6%
  • Construction - 4%

Material moving machine operators work indoors and outdoors in a variety of industries.

Injuries and Illnesses

Hoist and winch operators have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.

Many workers wear personal protective equipment—including gloves, hardhats, and harnesses—to guard against injury.

Work Schedules

Most material moving machine operators work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Because materials are shipped around the clock, some work overnight shifts.

Education & Training Required

Material movers generally learn skills informally, on the job, from more experienced workers or their supervisors. Many employers prefer applicants with a high school diploma or GED, but most simply require workers to be at least 18 years old and physically able to perform the work.

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 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but training for workers in mining is regulated by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). 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 available, such as that offered by the International Union of Operating Engineers. Apprenticeships combine paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction.

Certifications Needed

Seventeen States and 6 cities have laws requiring crane operators to be licensed. Licensing requirements typically include a written test as well as a skills test to demonstrate that the licensee can operate a crane safely.

Other Skills Required

Some types of equipment operators can become certified by professional associations, such as the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, and some employers may require operators to be certified.

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 baggers or grocery store courtesy clerks, workers should be pleasant and courteous. Most jobs require basic arithmetic skills, the ability to read procedural manuals, and the capacity to understand orders and other billing documents. 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.

How to Advance

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; or motor vehicle operators. 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.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of material moving machine operators is projected to grow 7 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 84,300 openings for material moving machine operators are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.


Employment growth will vary by occupation.

Some warehouses are using automated machinery to improve their operations and increase efficiency. However, industrial truck and tractor operators will be needed in warehouses as more consumers choose to purchase products online. Conveyor operators and tenders will be needed to control or maintain systems that move materials or products to and from stockpiles, processing stations, departments, or vehicles.


The median annual wage for material moving machine operators was $38,380 in May 2021. 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 $29,810, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,220.

Median annual wages for material moving machine operators in May 2021 were as follows:

  • Crane and tower operators - $62,240
  • Hoist and winch operators - $52,300
  • Dredge operators - $46,210
  • Industrial truck and tractor operators - $38,380
  • Conveyor operators and tenders - $36,420

In May 2021, the median annual wages for material moving machine operators in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Construction - $62,600
  • Warehousing and storage - $38,810
  • Food manufacturing - $38,080
  • Wholesale trade - $38,010
  • Temporary help services - $31,250

Most material moving machine operators work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Because materials are shipped around the clock, some work overnight shifts.

Academic Programs of Interest

Heavy Equipment Operator
The Heavy Equipment Operator Program teaches students how to operate heavy machinery such as heavy articulating rock trucks, loaders, excavators, backhoes, dozers and graders. These machines are used universally for all manner of heavy construction, earth moving, road building, mining, forestry, mega projects all included.The Heavy Equipment Operator Program usually consists of a 4 week in school theory course combined with anywhere between 200-600 hours... more
Hydraulic Crane Operator
The Hydraulic Crane Operator Program will teach a student how to operate any hoisting device or structure incorporating a power-driven drum and wire rope that is designed for raising, lowering or moving material. It must also be equipped with a hydraulically supported boom capable that is capable of moving in the vertical and horizontal plane and mounted on a base or chassis. The chassis is... more
Mobile Crane Operator
The Mobile Crane Operator Program teaches a student how to operate any hoisting device or structure incorporating a power driven drum and wire rope that is designed for raising, lowering or moving material. A student can expect to graduate the Mobile Crane Operator Program within a 3 year time frame. Approx. 16 weeks of the program is conducted through in-class instruction. After graduation, the Mobile... more