Chief Operating Engineer: Career Info & Requirements

Chief operating engineers work on construction sites, where they are responsible for the maintenance and safe use of heavy construction equipment, such as bulldozers, cranes, derricks or tractors. Read on for more details about training requirements, employment outlook and salary, as well as alternative career options for chief operating engineers.

Career Definition for a Chief Operating Engineer

Chief operating engineers work at large construction sites, where they operate and maintain the heavy equipment used to excavate, grade or transport earth. Additional duties can include overseeing crews of fellow construction workers. Most workdays take place outdoors during all kinds of weather, and usually under physically demanding and sometimes dangerous conditions. In addition to a familiarity with the different types of heavy equipment, chief operating engineers must know how to coordinate the use of several machines on one construction site as well as how to perform basic mechanical repairs.

Education High school diploma and on the job training is common, apprenticeships also available
Job Skills Good attention span, mechanical skills, physical coordination, comfort with heights
Median Salary (2017) $47,040 for operating engineers
Job Growth (2016-2026) 12% for operating engineers

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Required

Entry-level operating engineers are usually hired right out of high school and receive on-the-job training from experienced chief operating engineers. Three-year or four-year apprenticeships, available through contractor associations, trade schools and unions, include instruction in first aid, global positioning systems (GPS), map reading and safety. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some vocational schools offer equipment operation programs; however, prospective students should make sure in advance that training will include the use of industry machines in real-life situations and that the school has a good reputation with local employers. Additional requirements can include a state-issued, commercial driver or crane license.

Skills Required

Due to the difficult working conditions, chief operating engineers must have the ability to stay on task, no matter how great the distractions. Mechanical skills and physical coordination are important; operating engineers should also be comfortable with heights.

Employment and Salary Outlook

The BLS has projected a faster than average increase of 12% in job openings for operating engineers nationwide between 2016 and 2026. Candidates who have completed apprenticeships may enjoy an edge in the job market. As of May 2017, operating engineers earned median annual salaries of $47,040, also according to the BLS.

Alternate Career Options

Check out these other choices for careers in operating heavy equipment:

Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are typically employed as long-haul drivers who transport freight by way of intercity or interstate routes. Hiring requirements include a high school diploma, commercial driver's license and completion of a professional truck-driving program. As of May 2017, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers earned median annual salaries of $42,480, as reported by the BLS. Opportunities for employment are expected to grow by an average rate of 6% for 2016 through 2026.

Material Moving Machine Operators

Moving machine operators are responsible for transporting construction materials or freight at building or mine sites, on ships or in warehouses. Areas of specialization may include the use of crane, dredging, hoisting or tractor equipment, among other types of machinery. Short-term, on-the-job training is standard; some positions may require a high school diploma and an operator's license. Apprenticeship programs for heavy equipment operators can be found through the International Union of Operating Engineers. Nationwide, the BLS has projected a 6% job growth through 2026 for material moving machine operators, who earned median annual salaries of $34,830 in May 2017.


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