Operating Engineer Training Programs and Requirements

Operating engineers work in a variety of settings as equipment operators, mechanics and stationary engineers. They work at construction sites, power plants, industrial complexes and chemical plants repairing, renovating and maintaining heavy equipment and stationary machinery such as graders, boilers and industrial heating and air conditioning units. Typical training begins with apprenticeships, either through formal education or through unions.

Essential Information

At a minimum, potential operating engineers need a high school diploma or its equivalent for employment. Some applicants are hired immediately after they graduate high school and receive on-the-job training from experienced engineers. Operating engineers may also receive a bulk of their training through formal apprenticeship programs, which are sponsored by community colleges, vocational schools or the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). These programs generally take four years to complete and consist of up to 6,000 hours of on-the-job training.

If operating engineers work on construction projects, they may work irregular hours, including early mornings or late evenings. They also need to be in good physical condition and have strong hand-eye coordination. Most employers require operating engineers who maneuver construction equipment to possess a valid commercial driver's license (CDL). It is also beneficial if operating engineers are familiar with construction terms.

Although formal education isn't mandatory, operators of large stationary equipment can obtain a certificate in HAC (heating and air conditioning) or an associate's degree in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). Both programs offer internships where students can conduct installations and solve diagnostic problems on HVAC and HAC equipment. Heavy equipment operating engineers can enroll in apprenticeship programs offered through a community college or vocational school.

  • Program Levels in Operating Engineering: Bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees
  • Prerequisites: High school diploma or its equivalent
  • Program Length: Varies according to program level

Certificate in Heating and Air Conditioning (HAC)

An HAC certificate can be completed in one year. Students learn about the fundamentals of electricity, heating and air conditioning as well as how to install and maintain the equipment. Classes in a HAC certificate program include heating and air conditioning systems, job safety and planned maintenance. A large portion of the curriculum involves hands-on labs.

Associate Degree in HVAC-R

A 2-year associate's degree program in HVAC-R teaches students how to install, maintain and repair heating, refrigeration and air conditioning equipment. Typical coursework includes thermal controls, electrical wiring, welding and HVAC installation. Many of the classes are hands-on and take place in simulated work environments.

Operating Engineer Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are available through technical or vocational schools and community colleges. These operating engineer apprenticeships generally take 3-4 years to complete and require classroom instruction in addition to hands-on experience. Depending on the apprenticeship program, topics covered include equipment repair and maintenance, excavation, crane, backhoe and paver operation, safety and hydraulic systems. Apprentices work under the supervision of experienced engineers at schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, industrial and power plants, government facilities and office buildings. Some programs may be offered in conjunction with local chapters of the IUOE.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

Many companies expect aspiring stationary equipment operators to possess 1-3 years of experience, with most employers requiring candidates to partake in supervised apprenticeships. Heavy equipment operators can find employment after graduating high school. New hires often make the transition to heavy equipment after operating lighter equipment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a knowledge of engine mechanics and computers is also a plus for entry into this field. The BLS predicts an employment growth of 21% for HVAC mechanics and installers for the years 2012-2022. These workers also earned a median annual income of $44,630 in May 2014.

Continuing Education

Many states and local governments have specific licensing requirements. Most stipulate that stationary equipment operating engineers must be at least 18 years of age, live within a certain area where they wish to work, fulfill experience prerequisites and pass a written exam. Heavy equipment operating engineers may need a CDL for employment. Applicants need to check their state's eligibility and certification requirements.

The American Society of Power Engineers (ASOPE) issues voluntary licensing for power plant and facility operating engineers. There are four classifications of operating engineers, ranging from first to fourth class. First class is for supervisory or managerial positions while fourth class is for entry-level positions, with mid-level certification in between.

Professional organizations and unions offer single-day development seminars for operating engineers. Topics covered at these seminars include federal and state compliance, apprenticeship utilization and safety. Multi-day seminars are another option. Speakers discuss union leadership roles, finances, safety overviews and the operation of successful apprenticeships.

Many operating engineers join a union and attend continuing education seminars and classes to remain current on operating techniques. The IUOE is a labor union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The IUOE represents equipment operators, including operating engineers.

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