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Heavy Equipment Operator


With their feet working the pedals and their hands using the gears, they maneuver a scoop filled with earth into a pile. There are workers and machines all around them and they have an eye on it all. Individuals who find this scenario appealing may want to check out the occupation of heavy equipment operator. From warehouses to building houses heavy equipment operators work in many different environments. They use mobile machines to excavate, grade and landscape the earth or move workers, materials and other equipment.

Heavy equipment operators may work on many different types of equipment. In this job they use bulldozers, backhoes, front-end loaders, graders, pavers, power shovels and scrapers. Although, each piece of equipment will have a specific operator such as a backhoe operator or a grader operator some operators are trained to use several pieces of equipment.

The working environment can be noisy, dusty and dirty and, occasionally, equipment operators may be required to work in dangerous locations. They work outdoors in almost any kind of weather, although they may work in air-conditioned and dust-controlled cabs. Heavy equipment operators must also be aware of their surroundings to avoid accidental injury. Operators must be very safety-conscious and follow the signals of ground crew members.
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  Interests and Skills  
Heavy equipment operators enjoy operating machinery. They are mechanically inclined and have good vision and fast reflexes. Operators generally like troubleshooting and are able to communicate effectively with ground crew and other workers. They need the ability to read grade plans and use grade stakes to measure the amount of earth or other material to be moved, and they must be able to follow spoken directions and/or hand signals.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Bulldozer operators, also called cat operators or cat skinners, operate crawler-tractors equipped with large blades across the front for moving obstacles, rippers for tearing up terrain, or work platforms for other workers to work from. They clear and level land on construction, mining and forestry sites, and push other equipment to provide traction and assistance when needed.
  • Back-hoe operators use various attachments to dig trenches, load heavy materials, vibrate and break rock or concrete, back-fill excavations, and scoop and dump materials.
  • Front-end loader operators operate mobile machines with buckets on the front for picking up heavy loads of earth, rock, sand, gravel or snow, and dumping it into piles, excavations or trucks.
  • Grader operators spread and level earth, sand, gravel and rock, and plow snow in the winter by controlling the height and angle of grader blades. To level surfaces to a specified grade, they make successive passes over the working area, watching reference stakes, level gauges and/or the hand signals of other workers.
  • Paver operators operate asphalt paving machines that lay down asphalt for roads, driveways and parking lots.
  • Power shovel operators manipulate a boom or crane that supports a dipper handle with a large dipper. The dipper is used to scoop up dirt, rock and coal, and drop it into trucks or piles.
  • Scraper operators scrape, load and haul earth on mining or construction sites. They level work sites, haul soil for roads and right-of-ways, and haul coal and ore at mining sites.
  • Each work day will vary depending on the where the operator is working and what machinery they are using. Operating and fixing equipment as needed are daily chores of the heavy equipment operator. They may be at the controls in slippery rainy conditions or in normal weather. Generally, they will work an eight-hour day although frequently due to project deadlines and the occasional weather delay, heavy equipment operators can work weekends and longer hours.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Heavy equipment operators are employed in the petroleum, mining, forestry and construction industries. They may work for general contractors building highways, dams and airports, or installing sewer and other utilities, asphalt paving companies, pipeline companies, or logging companies.

  Long Term Career Potential  
There is limited room for advancement in this field. With training, heavy equipment operators may advance to operate other machinery or operators may move into related positions such as safety officer or trainer, or advance to supervisory positions.

  Educational Paths  
Heavy equipment operators receive their training either through informal, on-the-job training or through an apprenticeship program. Trade certification can be obtained either through an apprenticeship program or after several years of work experience. While trade certification is not mandatory in all areas to become a heavy equipment operator, it can be a requirement for many employers and can also help secure employment.

Apprenticeship programs involve a combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction. A pre-apprenticeship course may also be available which takes about five to six months to complete at a community college and is designed to help you get connected with a good company to apprentice with. It is important to apprentice with a reputable company as that is your education. While some apprenticeship programs may not require a high school diploma, it is important to note that employers generally prefer to hire high school graduates.

Apprenticeships can vary, however a typical apprenticeship lasts four to five years. The apprenticeship is a paid position, however wages are about 50 percent of what an employer pays the journeyperson, with yearly increases. After successfully completing the apprenticeship requirements, their industry training and apprenticeship office awards the heavy equipment operator a certificate of completion.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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