Operating Engineer Career

Operating engineers operate various types of power-driven construction machines such as shovels, cranes, tractors, bulldozers, pile drivers, concrete mixers, and pumps. There are approximately 353,000 operating engi­neers employed in the United States.

Operating Engineer Career History

Although it is not understood precisely how it was accomplished, the ancient Egyptians used some type of hoisting system to move the giant stone blocks of the pyramids into place. The Romans constructed roads, viaducts, and bridges of high quality, many of which are still in use today. The Great Wall of China, begun in the third century b.c., remains an amazing architectural feat and is one of the few man-made structures visible from space.

These ancient marvels are even more amazing when one considers that they were all built using only human muscle and simple machines such as levers and pulleys. It was not until the industrial revolution and the inven­tion of the steam engine that complex machines were extensively used in construction. After the harnessing of steam power, Western Europe and America made rapid progress in constructing build­ings, roads, and water and sew­age systems.

Operating Engineer CareerConstruction has always played an important role in his­tory. Today, many people mea­sure progress by the increase in new construction in a town or city. All sizes and shapes of con­struction machinery have been introduced in recent years, and operating engineers work hard to stay current in their training and abilities.

Operating Engineer Job Description

Operating engineers work for a variety of construction com­panies as well as manufacturers and state agencies. Whatever the employer, operating engineers run power shovels, cranes, der­ricks, hoists, pile drivers, concrete mixers, paving machines, trench excavators, bulldozers, trac­tors, and pumps. They use these machines to move construction materials, earth, logs, coal, grain, and other material. Generally, operating engineers move the materials over short distances: around a construction site, fac­tory, or warehouse or on and off trucks and ships. They also do minor repairs on the equipment, as well as keep them fueled and lubricated. They often are identified by the machines they operate.

Bulldozer operators operate the familiar bulldozer, a tractor-like vehicle with a large blade across the front for moving rocks, trees, earth, and other obstacles from construction sites. They also operate trench excavators, road graders, and similar equipment.

Crane and tower operators lift and move materials, machinery, or other heavy objects with mechanical booms and tower and cable equipment. Although some cranes are used on construction sites, most are used in manufacturing and other industries.

Excavation and loading machine operators handle machinery equipped with scoops, shovels, or buckets to excavate earth at construction sites and to load and move loose materials, mainly in the construction and mining industries.

Hoist and winch operators lift and pull heavy loads using power-operated equipment. Most work in load­ing operations in construction, manufacturing, logging, transportation, public utilities, and mining.

Operating engineers use various pedals, levers, and switches to run their machinery. For example, crane operators may rotate a crane on its chassis, lift and lower its boom, or lift and lower the load. They also use various attachments to the boom such as buckets, pile drivers, or heavy wrecking balls. When a tall building is being con­structed, the crane and its operator may be positioned several hundred feet off the ground.

Operating engineers must have very precise knowl­edge about the capabilities and limitations of the machines they operate. To avoid tipping over their cranes or damaging their loads, crane operators must be able to judge distance and height and estimate their load size. They must be able to raise and lower the loads with great accuracy. Sometimes operators can­not see the point where the load is to be picked up or delivered. At these times, they follow the directions of other workers using hand or flag signals or radio transmissions.

The range of skills of the operating engineer is broader than in most building trades as the machines themselves differ in the ways they operate and the jobs they do. Some operators know how to work several types of machines, while others specialize with one machine.

Operating Engineer Career Requirements

High School

A high school education or its equivalent is valuable for the operating engineer and is a requirement for appren­ticeship training. Mathematics, physics, and shop classes can provide useful preparation for operating construc­tion equipment.

Postsecondary Training

There are two ways to become an operating engineer: through a union apprentice program or on-the-job training. The apprenticeship, which lasts three years, has at least two advantages: the instruction is more complete, which results in greater employment opportunities, and both labor and management know that the apprentice is training to be a machine operator. Applicants to an apprenticeship program generally must be between the ages of 18 and 30.

Besides learning on the job, the apprentice also receives some classroom instruction in grade-plans reading, ele­ments of electricity, physics, welding, and lubrication services. Despite the advantages of apprenticeships, most apprenticeship programs are difficult to enter because the number of apprentices is limited to the number of skilled workers already in the field.

Other Requirements

Operating engineers must have excellent mechanical aptitude and skillful coordination of eye, hand, and foot movements. In addition, because reckless use of the machinery may be dangerous to other workers, it is nec­essary to have a good sense of responsibility and serious­ness on the job.

Operating engineers should be healthy and strong. They need the temperament to withstand dirt and noise and endure all kinds of weather conditions. Many oper­ating engineers belong to the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Exploring Operating Engineer Career

You may be able to gain practical experience with operat­ing machines by observing them in action by working as a laborer or machine operator’s helper in a construction job during the summer. Such jobs may be available on local, state, and federal highway and building construc­tion programs.


Construction equipment operators hold approximately 353,000 jobs in the United States. They work for contrac­tors who build highways, dams, airports, skyscrapers, buildings, and other large-scale projects. They also work for utility companies, manufacturers, factories, mines, steel mills, and other firms that do their own construc­tion work. Many work for state and local public works and highway departments.

Starting Out

Once apprentices complete their training, their names are put on a list; as positions open up, they are filled in order from the list of available workers. People who do not complete an apprenticeship program may apply directly to manufacturers, utilities, or contractors who employ operating engineers for entry-level jobs as machine operator’s helpers.


Some operating engineers (generally those with above-average ability and interest, as well as good working habits) advance to job supervisor and occasionally con­struction supervisor. Some are able to qualify for higher pay by training themselves to operate more complicated machines.


The median annual salary for all operating engineers and other construction equipment operators was approxi­mately $35,235 in 2002, according to the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor. Salaries ranged from less than $22,069 to more than $60,174 a year.

Often, workers are paid by the hour. Rates vary accord -ing to the area of the country and the employer. In high­way and street construction, the median hourly salary was $19.81 in 2002. Those working in heavy construction (except highway work) earned $16.89 an hour. In local government, operating engineers made approximately $14.88 an hour.

Work Environment

Operating engineers consider dirt and noise a part of their jobs. Some of the machines on which they work constantly shake and jolt them. This constant move­ment, along with the strenuous, outdoor nature of the work, makes this a physically tiring job. Since the work is done almost entirely outdoors in almost any kind of weather, operating engineers must be willing to work under conditions that are often unpleasant.

Operating Engineer Career Outlook

Employment of all operating engineers is projected to grow about as fast as the average through 2014. Although job growth will be somewhat limited by increased effi­ciency brought about by automation, there will be many opportunities for operating engineers. Operating engi­neers will be needed to assist with the repair of highways, bridges, dams, harbors, airports, subways, water and sewage systems, power plants, and transmission lines. Construction of schools, office and other commercial buildings, and residential property will also stimulate demand for these workers. However, the construction industry is very sensitive to changes in the overall econ­omy, so the number of openings may fluctuate from year to year.

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