Heavy Equipment Operator: Educational Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a heavy equipment operator. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about training and job duties to find out if this is the career for you.

Heavy equipment operators drive and control a variety of heavy equipment for construction and transportation projects. A high school diploma and a commercial driver's license are often required. Many operators complete apprenticeships or programs through a vocational school.

Essential Information

Heavy equipment operators, also known as operating engineers, use machines when working on construction and transportation projects. Operators typically need to complete a formal training program to learn how to properly use equipment. Operators may also need to have a commercial driver's license.

Required Education Apprenticeship or postsecondary program
Other Requirements Commercial driver's license
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 10% (operating engineers and other construction equipment operators)
Average Salary (2015)* $49,110 (operating engineers and other construction equipment operators)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Education Requirements for Heavy Equipment Operators

Heavy equipment operators may complete an apprenticeship program or a college program in heavy equipment operation. These programs combine in-class instruction with hands-on training. While vocational school and junior college programs generally last 1-2 years, apprenticeships take 3-4 years to complete because they include instruction on multiple types of equipment and include paid on-the-job training. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that those completing apprenticeships may have better employment opportunities because they learn about a wider variety of equipment than students in a college program (

Classroom Training

Both apprenticeships and college programs generally begin with classes on safety procedures and policies. Safety training courses cover guidelines set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Topics include protective safety equipment and pre-operational procedures. Some courses may provide instruction on how to remove hazardous waste.

Other courses may include equipment maintenance and light repair. Topics such as lubricating parts and joining parts together using a soldering iron or welding torch may be discussed. Courses may also cover gasoline and diesel engines.

Hands-on Training

Hands-on training focuses on having students use equipment, so they gain operating experience. Operators may be taught how to grade, landscape and excavate earth using tractors, bulldozers and backhoes. Techniques may include scraping, compacting and using the controls on the equipment.

Additional Requirements

Because heavy equipment operators may need to transport machinery to and from the job site, programs may require students to earn their commercial driver's license (CDL). CDL requirements are set by each state. Obtaining a CDL usually involves paying a fee, obtaining a temporary permit and passing vision, written and driving tests. In some states, a person may also have to pass a medical examination.

Career Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded an annual average salary of $49,110 for operating engineers in 2015. At that time, the highest-paying industries for these workers were support activities for road transportation, scientific research services, medical and surgical hospitals, and electric power generation.

The BLS projected that employment opportunities for construction equipment operators would increase by 10% between 2014 and 2024. Candidates available to work in metropolitan areas and who have experience operating more than one type of equipment were expected to have the most favorable prospects.

Heavy equipment operators use heavy equipment in a variety of settings, but primarily in the construction of roads, buildings, and many other structures. Heavy equipment operators are usually required to possess a commercial driver's license and may also be required to have a high school diploma and complete equipment training.

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