what is a heavy equipment operator?

As a heavy equipment operator, you control and operate heavy equipment to assist in various tasks. For instance, you use bulldozers, forklifts and backhoes to assist in the construction of roads, buildings and bridges. You operate equipment for digging and lifting gravel or earth to prepare the foundations for a construction project. Heavy equipment operators can also drive dump trucks or cargo lorries. In the warehouse sector, you use forklifts to load and offload heavy items onto lorries to speed up the process.

You are expected to handle heavy equipment easily and manoeuvre in tight spaces. You also handle regular maintenance tasks such as cleaning, greasing, emergency repairs and minor adjustments. As a heavy equipment operator, you perform routine machinery inspections, like pre-operational checks on airbrakes. The routine inspection is important to keep track of the equipment's status and report defects for repairs.

A heavy equipment operator ensures the work site and processes adhere to safety procedures to avoid accidents. For instance, you should understand how each machine works to avoid any situation that presents risks to people or property. 

Would working as a heavy equipment operator suit your mechanical skills and ability to focus? Then read on to find out what competencies and qualifications you need to thrive in a heavy equipment operator role.

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average salary of a heavy equipment operator

According to ONS, the mean heavy equipment operator compensation package in the UK is £23,400 per year. The salary usually fluctuates depending on factors like experience, education and the type of equipment you operate. Minimal experience and qualifications usually attract an entry-level salary of £21,216 per year. Experienced heavy equipment operators take home a salary of £32,175 annually.

Heavy equipment operators can boost their salary prospects by improving their skills and experience. When you are licenced to operate various equipment, you command a higher salary. Your qualifications also determine your earnings. That's why your compensation package increases if you have additional maintenance or repair qualifications.

The industry you work in and the company size also influence your salary. For instance, working in construction improves your salary prospects due to the complexity of the equipment you operate. Industries like warehousing don't involve using complex heavy equipment like excavators. Large companies also pay higher compensation since heavy equipment operators handle more equipment than small and medium-scale businesses.

male in forklift working in a warehouse
male in forklift working in a warehouse

types of heavy equipment operators

Heavy equipment operators are usually identified based on the type of equipment they operate. They include:

  • material moving machine operators: these operators are responsible for moving other equipment, dirt and construction materials using forklifts, dumps and cranes. You also perform repairs and maintenance tasks on the equipment.
  • excavator operators: as an excavator operator, you are responsible for digging and loading dirt into dumpers. Excavator operators operate digging equipment, like excavators, backhoes and trenchers.
  • paving, surfacing, and tamping equipment operators: also known as screed operators, these professionals are responsible for laying tarmac, bitumen, concrete roads and car parks. Examples include stone spreader machine operators and tarmac surfacing machine operators.
  • bulldozer operators: bulldozer operators are responsible for moving, laying and levelling ground soil.
  • pile driver operators: pile driver operators drive piles into hard earth to support large construction projects. They usually assist in constructing foundations for tall buildings, bridges and oil rigs.
  • 360 driver operators: your primary role as a 360 driver is to control the excavator and use it to clear work sites for new development projects.

working as a heavy equipment operator

If you are interested in operating heavy machines and equipment, explore the responsibilities and work environments of heavy equipment operators before joining the role.


education and skills

You require relevant training to operate heavy-duty equipment, including:

  • college course: to become a heavy equipment operator, consider completing a college course in plant operations. For instance, a Level 2 Certificate in construction plant operations or a Level 3 Diploma in construction and built environment equips you with knowledge of operating various construction equipment. Some heavy equipment operators with a driving licence and experience in plant operations enrol in a specialist training course to learn how to operate specific equipment.
  • apprenticeship: start your career as a heavy-duty operator with an apprenticeship programme in plant operations. When you complete the intermediate apprenticeship, which takes two years, you receive an NVQ qualification in Level 2 plant operations.

heavy equipment operator skills and competencies

You require the following skills to succeed as a heavy equipment operator:

  • ability to operate heavy equipment: you should be familiar with how to handle heavy machines. You should also be a good driver and know how different equipment works.
  • mechanical skills and professionalism: you conduct regular inspections and make simple repairs, so you should be well-versed in protocols that guide heavy machine operators. These include operational and safety procedures as well as work ethics.
  • problem-solving skills: as a heavy equipment operator, you should develop a sharpness for analysing problems and discovering solutions for them. Problem-solving skills help you avoid delays caused by equipment malfunctions.
man operator
man operator


FAQs about working as a heavy equipment operator

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