Heavy equipment operators make $20.34 per hour on average 1 using their skills to construct buildings and support infrastructure. This trade career offers students the opportunity to earn a good living without needing years of schooling.

This guide explores everything potential students need to know about heavy equipment operator school, as well as the types of careers and positions available to graduates.

What Is a Heavy Equipment Operator School?

A heavy equipment operator school teaches students how to handle the heavy machinery required for construction and infrastructure building. Students gain experience operating backhoes, excavators, dump trucks, articulated motor grinders, cranes, pavers, and other types of massive machinery.

Operators don’t just walk onto a job site. Instead, heavy equipment operator schools provide the training students need to apply for jobs in a variety of fields requiring knowledge of these machines.

Programs vary, but typical heavy equipment operator certification courses cover:

  • Operating different types of machinery safely and in compliance with any company, local, or even federal regulations
  • Loading and unloading equipment, goods, and other cargo from trailers
  • Maintaining equipment for best performance
  • Service equipment to maintain proper settings and operations as well as troubleshoot any issues that arise
  • Adjust machine settings as necessary to suit the particular task at hand
  • Suggesting the best types of equipment to use in a given situation with concern to operational safety and environmental concerns
  • Completing paperwork and documentation required from work sites, construction sites, and other job sites.

Students don’t have to attend school to gain the training they need. In fact, students have two distinct options to earn certification training and hands-on hours.

Union Apprenticeship

The apprenticeship track places students with a work mentor qualified to teach students the basics of operating heavy machinery. Apprenticeships can take three to four years 2 and may require the sponsorship of an employer.

Once students complete their apprenticeship, they become journeyman operators. They’re still considered apprentices but can perform tasks with less supervision 2 . This process works well for students who already have a position or know of a company offering one.

Heavy Equipment Operator School

Training at a heavy equipment operator trade school allows students to become certified in less time. Programs vary from a few weeks to a few months. Once students complete program requirements, they receive official certification and can look for employment 2 .

School gives hands-on training for students. Applying for training programs typically requires only a high school diploma, though some construction equipment operators may need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) 2 .

How Can I Use a Heavy Equipment Operator Certification?

Students can gain employment in several capacities. These common jobs offer good salaries and plenty of openings for graduates to take advantage of.

Construction Equipment Operator Average Annual Salary: $49,100

Construction equipment operators make about $49,000 per year on average 3 handling the heavy machinery that supports construction. This equipment excavates lots, moves rocks and soil, and lifts materials to erect (or break down) buildings. Although construction may experience slower than average growth 3 over the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts around 51,000 open positions per year on average 3 .

Material Moving Machine Operator Average Annual Salary: $37,450

Material moving machine operators enjoy a yearly salary of around $37,000 per year 4 helping companies move materials. The equipment transports objects from place to place, unloading on docks or at terminals, or transporting other goods. BLS expects the field to grow at an average pace for the next decade or so 4 .

Backhoe Operator Average Hourly Pay: $20.48

Backhoe operators make an average of about $20 per hour 5 running this excavation machine. The digger moves heavy materials typically found on a construction site, such as soil, rocks, and other debris.

Natural Gas Distribution Average Annual Salary: $71,890

The natural gas industry pays heavy duty equipment operators well — just under $72,000 per year 6 . The industry uses these positions to move materials, dig new sites, and place heavy equipment components or aid in building new frameworks. It employs around 1,400 people per year 6 .

Highway, Street, and Bridge Construction Average Annual Salary: $62,040

Heavy equipment operators in this field make just over $62,000 on average per year 6 , handling construction tasks and ensuring that infrastructure remains up to date and complies with codes. This field employs over 51,000 people each year 6 .

Utility System Construction Average Annual Salary: $58,670

The utility system pays its workers about $58,000 per year 6 to help with construction in the field. The field employs around 57,000 people each year 6 and allows cities and states to maintain important standards in the utility infrastructure.

Heavy Equipment Operator Program Courses

Heavy equipment operator school offers hands-on training typical of a trade school or trade certification. When students begin, they receive classroom training for documentation, regulations, operational safety, and other knowledge-based topics.

Students also receive training in the field with real equipment. Students may learn to operate:

  • Backhoes
  • Dozers
  • Graders
  • Loaders
  • Trenchers

Part of site visits and hands-on requirements also include training for ensuring site safety, including:

  • Site preparation
  • Flagging
  • Grade checking
  • Preventative maintenance

These visits also include basic survey work to ensure that students can follow through with projects from start to finish.

Some heavy equipment positions require specific certifications or licenses. Potential job seekers in this field should always check state and local regulations for operation requirements in their area. Certification requirements vary from state to state. Also, certain types of machinery operation may require a CDL, and crane operators need a license, such as the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) 7 .

Heavy Equipment Operator Degree Concentrations

Students can specialize in a few different types of equipment or branch into certain fields. These positions begin with heavy equipment general certifications but branch into these specialized knowledge areas.

Forklift Operator

Forklift operators work in warehouses and construction sites moving materials. People in this position also perform quality checks, safety checks, and ensure that goods and materials match the movement order.

Crane Operators

Certified crane operators handle crane work on construction sites of a variety of types. They make as much as $83,880 per year 8 in certain industries and fill one of the thousands of job openings 8 . They require special certification to gain employment 7 .

Specific Construction Trades

Heavy-duty equipment operators in fields like oil and gas need specialized knowledge of massive machinery. These trades require specialized knowledge in fields such as mining, natural gas, and oil rigging.

Truck Drivers

Those operating heavy vehicles like dump trucks will need a CDL to get started. They can make about $18.68 per hour 9 , but this increases with more experience or a different location. The highest-paid operators make about $25 per hour on average 9 .

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Heavy Equipment Operator Certification

Students who take the apprenticeship route need three to four years working under the watchful eye of a mentor. They’ll need journeyman experience for a while longer before earning full certification to operate their chosen piece of equipment.

Those who choose the school option can gain entry-level certification in as few as three weeks. Extended programs that include more types of equipment certifications can take a few months to complete. These full-time programs take 8-10 hours per day over the course of several weeks to several months to complete.

Discover More About Heavy Equipment Operator Programs

Q. What is the application process for a heavy equipment operator school?

Students need a high school diploma to apply for most programs. Applicants should check with the specific school to determine requirements, such as requirements for a driver’s license or CDL license. They must also follow the specific application process for their chosen school.

Q. Are there scholarships available for heavy equipment operator schools?

In some cases, employers who have openings that need filling may sponsor students. Students complete the certification process and agree to work for the sponsoring company for a certain period of time afterward. Students can also check with their chosen school for any scholarships or grant options.

Q. Is heavy equipment operator school worth it?

BLS predicts that construction equipment operator positions will grow a bit slower than average but will still employ about 51,000 positions every year. It’s also a trade that requires only a small amount of schooling before potential employment opportunities. For students who need a reliable career in a trade, this offers a good option.

Q. Does location matter for heavy equipment operator school?

Heavy equipment operators can make more in states such as New York, New Jersey, or Illinois. For school, students can begin courses online but will need to earn hands-on experience to begin the certification process.

Q. Is online an option for heavy equipment operator school?

Students can participate in hybrid programs. Classroom work happens online at the student’s convenience but transitions to in-person instruction for fieldwork. Students can check the residency requirements for their desired programs to understand the in-person commitments.

Q. What certifications do heavy equipment operators need?

Certain job sites may require certain certifications or licenses for equipment operators. Others, such as dump truck drivers, may need a CDL. Crane operators also need special licensure.


[1] PayScale. (2021). Average Heavy Equipment Operator Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Heavy_Equipment_Operator/Hourly_Rate

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020) How to Become a Construction Equipment Operator . https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/construction-equipment-operators.htm#tab-4

[3] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020) Occupational Outlook Handbook: Construction Equipment Operator . https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/construction-equipment-operators.htm

[4] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Material Moving Machine Operators . https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/material-moving-machine-operators.htm

[5] PayScale. (2021). Average Backhoe Operator Hourly Rate . https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Backhoe_Operator/Hourly_Rate

[6] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020) Occupational Employment and Wages: Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators . https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes472073.htm


[8] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages: Crane and Tower Operators . https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes537021.htm

[9] PayScale. (2021). Average Dump Truck Driver Hourly Wage . https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Dump_Truck_Driver/Hourly_Rate

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