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Construction Equipment Operators






Significant Points
  • Most acquire their skills on the job, but some construction equipment operators complete formal apprenticeship programs.
  • Employment is expected to grow slowly due to slow overall growth in the construction industries.
  • Workers in these occupations often have high pay rates, but many cannot work in inclement weather, thus reducing earnings.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Construction equipment operators use machinery to move construction materials, earth, and other heavy materials and to apply asphalt and concrete to roads and other substructures. 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. Construction equipment operators may also set up and inspect equipment, make adjustments, and perform minor repairs.

Construction equipment operators include grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators, operating engineers, and paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators. Grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators gouge out, distribute, level, and grade earth with vehicles equipped with a concave blade attached across the front. In addition to the familiar bulldozers, they operate trench excavators, road graders, and similar equipment. Operators maneuver the equipment in successive passes to raise or lower terrain to a specific grade. They may uproot trees and move large rocks while preparing the surface.

Operating engineers are unique in that they operate several different types of power construction equipment such as cranes, derricks, shovels, tractors, scrapers, pumps and hoists. They may operate cranes and derricks that lift materials, machinery, or other heavy objects from the ground. They extend or retract a horizontally mounted boom to lower, or raise a hook attached to the loadline, often in response to hand signals and radioed instructions from other workers. They also 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. Sometimes they may drive and control industrial trucks or tractors equipped with a forklift or boom for lifting materials or hitches for pulling trailers. They also may operate and maintain air compressors, pumps, and other power equipment at construction work sites.

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 substructures. Asphalt paving machine operators turn valves to regulate the temperature and flow of asphalt onto the roadbed. They must watch that the machine distributes the paving material evenly and without voids and make sure there is a constant flow of asphalt going into the hopper. Concrete paving machine operators move levers and turn handwheels to lower an attachment that spreads, vibrates, and levels wet concrete within forms. They must observe the surface of concrete to point out low spots for workers to add concrete. They use other attachments to the machine to float 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 earth.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Many construction equipment operators work outdoors, in nearly every type of climate and weather condition. Some machines, including bulldozers, scrapers, and particularly tampers, are noisy and shake or jolt the operator. As with most machinery, accidents generally can be avoided by observing proper operating procedures and safety practices.

Some operators work in remote locations on large construction projects, such as highways and dams, or in factory or mining operations.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Construction equipment operators held about 321,000 jobs in 1998. Jobs were distributed as follows:

Operating engineers 126,000
Grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators 122,000
Paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators 74,000

About 3 out of every 5 construction equipment operators worked in the construction industry. Many equipment operators worked in heavy construction building structures such as bridges or railroads, and substructures such as highways and streets. About one-fourth 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. A few construction equipment operators were self-employed.

Construction equipment operators work in every section of the country.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Construction equipment operators usually learn their skills on the job. Operators need a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distance, and good eye-hand-foot coordination. Employers of construction equipment operators generally prefer to hire high school graduates, although some employers may train persons having less education to operate some types of equipment.

The more technologically advanced construction equipment has computerized controls, which require different operating skills than in the past. 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. Experience operating related mobile equipment, such as farm tractors or heavy equipment in the Armed Forces, is an asset.

Beginning construction equipment operators handle light equipment under the guidance of an experienced operator. Later, they may operate heavier equipment such as bulldozers and cranes. Some construction equipment operators, however, train in formal 3-year 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 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.

Private vocational schools offer instruction in the operation of certain types of construction equipment. Completion of such a program may help a person get a job as a trainee or apprentice. However, persons considering such training should check the reputation of the school among employers in the area.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Overall employment of construction equipment operators is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2008. About 60 percent of these workers are concentrated in the construction industry, which is projected to grow slowly over the next ten years. Although demand for most construction equipment operators should keep pace with growth of the construction industry, increased spending on improving the Nation’s infrastructure of highways, bridges, and dams should result in slightly stronger demand for paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators. In addition to employment growth in this occupation, many jobs openings will arise because of the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Equipment improvements are also expected to continue to raise workers’ productivity and moderate demand for skilled operators. Technological advances in hydraulics and electronics have led to better equipment that requires more skill to operate than was previously necessary. Precision computerized controls and robotics are automating many crane and tower operator and hoist and winch operator positions, slowing employment growth for operating engineers.

Employment of construction equipment operators is sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. Workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the level of nonresidential construction activity falls.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Earnings for construction equipment operators vary. In 1998, median hourly earnings of operating engineers were $16.95. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.72 and $22.34. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.32 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $31.09. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of operating engineers in 1997 were:

Highway and street construction  $20.60
Heavy construction, except highway 19.90
Miscellaneous special trade contractors 19.20
Local government, except education and hospitals 13.50
State government, except education and hospitals 11.70

Median hourly earnings of grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators in 1998 were $12.94. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.64 and $17.07. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.94 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $21.83. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of grader, bulldozer, and scraper operators in 1997 were:

Bituminous coal and lignite mining $17.00
Highway and street construction 12.70
Miscellaneous special trade contractors 12.50
Heavy construction, except highway 12.00

Median hourly earnings of paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators in 1998 were $11.78. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.55 and $15.81. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.59 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $19.91. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators in 1997 were:

Highway and street construction $12.00
Local government, except education and hospitals 11.30
Concrete work 11.10

Pay scales generally are higher in metropolitan areas. Annual earnings of some workers may be lower than hourly rates would indicate, because the amount of time they work may be limited by bad weather.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other workers who operate heavy mechanical equipment include truck and busdrivers, manufacturing equipment operators, logging equipment operators, and farmers and farm workers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

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. In addition, the local office of the State employment service may provide information about apprenticeship and other training programs.

For general information about the work of construction equipment operators, contact:

  • National Center for Construction Education and Research, University of Florida, P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville, FL 32614-1104.
  • Associated General Contractors of America, Inc., 1957 E St. NW., Washington, DC 20006.
  • International Union of Operating Engineers, 1125 17th St. NW., Washington, DC 20036.

An industry employing construction equipment operators that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Construction
O*NET Codes: 87708, 97938, & 97956 About the O*NET codes

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