Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators - What They Do

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 construction of roads, buildings, and bridges, as well as airport runways, power generation facilities, dams, levees, and other structures. They use machines to dig trenches to lay or repair sewer and other utilities, and hoist heavy construction materials. They even may work offshore constructing oil rigs. Construction equipment operators also operate machinery that spreads asphalt and concrete on roads and other structures.

These workers also help set up and inspect the equipment, make adjustments, and perform some maintenance and minor repairs. Construction equipment is more technologically advanced than it was in the past. For example, global positioning system (GPS) technology is now being used to help with grading and leveling activities.

Included in the construction equipment operator occupation are operating engineers and other construction equipment operators; paving and surfacing equipment operators; and piledriver 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 and load it into trucks or onto conveyors. In addition operating 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.

Paving and surfacing equipment operators operate 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 onto the roadbed. They must take care that the machine distributes the paving material evenly and without voids, and they must 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 in forms. They must observe the surface of the 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 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 earth.

Piledriver operators use large machines mounted on skids, barges, or cranes to 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.

Work Environment

Construction equipment operators held about 457,200 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up construction equipment operators was distributed as follows:

  • Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators - 408,500
  • Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators - 44,800
  • Pile driver operators - 3,900

The largest employers of construction equipment operators were as follows:

  • Heavy and civil engineering construction - 30%
  • Specialty trade contractors - 29%
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals - 13%
  • Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction - 6%
  • Construction of buildings - 5%

Construction equipment operators work even in unpleasant weather, although rain or extreme cold 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

Construction equipment operators risk injury from hazards such as falls, slips, and trips and transportation incidents. Workers can avoid injury by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices, such as wearing personal protective equipment. Bulldozers, scrapers, and pile drivers are noisy and shake or jolt the operator, which may lead to repetitive stress injuries.

Work Schedules

Construction equipment operators may have irregular schedules, such as continuing around the clock or late into the night. Most construction equipment operators work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. The work may be seasonal in areas of the country that experience extreme cold.

Education & Training Required

Employers of construction equipment operators generally prefer to hire high school graduates, although some employers may train nongraduates to operate some types of equipment. High school courses in automobile mechanics are helpful because workers may perform maintenance on their machines. Also useful are courses in science and mechanical drawing. With the development of GPS, construction equipment operators need more experience with computers than in the past.

On the job, workers may start by operating light equipment under the guidance of an experienced operator. Later, they may operate heavier equipment, such as bulldozers. Technologically advanced construction equipment with computerized controls and improved hydraulics and electronics requires more skill to operate. Operators of such equipment may need more training and some understanding of electronics.

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 (IUOE). 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 paid on-the-job training together with 144 hours of related classroom instruction each year.

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. However, people considering this kind of training should check the school's reputation among employers in the area and find out if the school offers the opportunity to work on actual machines in realistic situations. A large amount of information can be learned in classrooms, but to become a skilled construction equipment operator, a worker needs to actually perform the various tasks. Many training facilities, including IUOE apprenticeship programs, incorporate sophisticated simulators into their training, allowing beginners to familiarize themselves with the equipment in a controlled environment.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Mechanical aptitude and experience operating related mobile equipment, such as farm tractors or heavy equipment, in the Armed Forces or elsewhere is an asset. Construction equipment operators often need a commercial driver's license to haul their equipment to the various jobsites. Commercial driver's licenses are issued by States according to each State's rules and regulations. Operators also 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.

Certification or training from the right school can improve opportunities for jobseekers; some employers may require operators to be certified. While attending some vocational schools, or by fulfilling the requirements of related professional associations, operators can qualify for various certifications. These certifications prove to potential employers that an operator is able to handle specific types of equipment.

Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Construction Formwork Technician
A Construction Formwork Technician Program will teach a student how to build footing, column and wall forms, suspended slab forms and slab-on-grade forms and concrete stair forms, and uses specialized forming methods for all types of civil, commercial, industrial, institutional, and residential construction and renovation. The Construction Formwork Technician Program will usually take 18 months to complete.

A graduate of the Construction Formwork Technician Program... more
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... more