California Occupational Guides

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Detailed Guide for

Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators in California

May also be called: Backhoe Operators; Excavator Operators; Grader Operators; Heavy Equipment Operators; Loader Operators; Motor Grader Operators; and Track Hoe Operators.

What Would I Do?

Whenever big construction equipment is hard at work, it draws a crowd. Maybe it’s just human nature, but it seems like everyone likes to watch huge machines crush, smash, pulverize, pound, or demolish whatever is in the way. Taming these monster machines is the job of Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators.

Operating Engineers use different types of heavy equipment at construction sites to move earth and large objects around. These machines dig, scrape, cut, and move dirt, rocks, stones, and boulders. They operate equipment that clears and grades land to prepare it for construction of roads, buildings, and bridges. Operators also use these machines to dig trenches to lay or repair sewer and other pipelines. Some equipment is designed to move construction materials from where they were delivered to where the workers need them. Other equipment is designed to smash rocks, boulders, buildings, and other things that need to be demolished. These machines include bulldozers, backhoes, graders, trench diggers, excavators, loaders, rollers, pumps, tractors, and scrapers, among others.

Operating Engineers control equipment by moving levers, pushing foot pedals, operating switches, and moving joysticks. Besides operating the controls of these impressive machines, Operating Engineers also set up and inspect the equipment, make adjustments, perform routine maintenance, and make minor repairs.

Important Tasks and Related Skills

Each task below is matched to a sample skill required to carry out the task.

View the skill definitions
TaskSkill Used in this Task
Take actions to avoid potential hazards and obstructions such as utility lines, other equipment, other workers, and falling objects.Public Safety and Security
Adjust handwheels and depress pedals to control attachments such as blades, buckets, scrapers, and swing booms.Control Precision
Start engines, move throttles, switches, and levers, and depress pedals to operate machines such as bulldozers, trench excavators, road graders, and backhoes.Multilimb Coordination
Align machines, cutterheads, or depth gauge makers with reference stakes and guidelines or ground, or position equipment following hand signals of other workers.Mechanical
Load and move dirt, rocks, equipment, and materials, using trucks, crawler tractors, power cranes, shovels, graders, and related equipment.Equipment Selection
Drive and maneuver equipment equipped with blades in successive passes over working areas to remove topsoil, vegetation, and rocks, and to distribute and level earth or terrain.Manual Dexterity
Coordinate machine actions with other activities, positioning or moving loads in response to hand or audio signals from crew members.Active Listening
Operate tractors and bulldozers to perform such tasks as clearing land, mixing sludge, trimming backfills, and building roadways and parking lots.Operation and Control
Repair and maintain equipment, making emergency adjustments or assisting with major repairs as necessary.Equipment Maintenance
Locate underground services, such as pipes and wires, prior to beginning work.Building and Construction
Source: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Information Network (O*NET)

Working Conditions

The work performed by Operating Engineers is physically demanding and is usually performed outdoors in almost all weather conditions; however, heavy rain, snow, or high winds can suspend construction operations. Dusty working locations are common. Some equipment has an enclosed cab or operating area, which may be heated and air-conditioned. Machinery can be very noisy and may shake or jolt the Operator. They must always be alert for other workers and for dangerous conditions, such as overturning the equipment, touching electrical power lines, or dropping heavy objects. Accidents can usually be avoided by observing industry operating procedures and safety practices.

Operating Engineers generally work a 40-hour week. Due to the seasonal nature of the job, they may work fewer hours in the winter and frequent overtime in the summer. They may also work irregular hours, as some construction projects must be performed at night. Some construction projects are in remote locations; therefore, the Operator may be away from home for extended periods of time.

Union membership requirements depend upon whether the contractor in charge of the project has an agreement with a labor union. When union Operators are required, they may belong to the International Union of Operating Engineers. Those working for the government may join a public employee union.

Will This Job Fit Me?

The job of Operating Engineer will appeal to those who enjoy being outdoors and doing activities that include practical, hands-on problems and solutions. This occupation satisfies those with realistic interests. Realistic occupations often deal with real-world materials, such as wood, tools, and machinery and do not involve a lot of paperwork or working closely with others.

What Wages and Benefits Can I Expect?

Wages

The median wage in 2016 for Operating Engineers in California is $64,775 annually, or $31.14 hourly. The median is the point at which half of the workers earn more and half earn less.

Change to Hourly Wages
Annual Wages for 2016Low
(25th percentile)
Median
(50th percentile)
High
(75th percentile)
California$50,677$64,775$84,757
Source: EDD/LMID Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2016 Wages do not reflect self-employment.
View Wages for All Areas

Benefits

Operating Engineers covered by union contracts and those working for government agencies generally receive medical, dental, and vision insurance, as well as vacation, holiday, and retirement benefits. Self-employed Operators must provide their own benefits.

What is the Job Outlook?

Employment prospects in the field tend to follow construction activity. When there is high demand for residential, commercial, or infrastructure building (roads, bridges, and levees), there will be an increased demand for Operating Engineers. When construction slows, they may work fewer hours or have interrupted work schedules. Workers who can operate a variety of equipment will have the best job opportunities.

The need for Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators will come from the necessity to build and repair infrastructure.

Projections of Employment

In California, the number of Operating Engineers is expected to grow at an average rate compared with the total for all occupations. Jobs for Operating Engineers are expected to increase by 15.5 percent, or 4,000 jobs between 2014 and 2024.

Estimated Employment and Projected Growth
Operating Engineers
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-Projected Year)
Estimated
Employment
Projected
Employment
Numeric
Change
Percent
Change
Additional Openings
Due to Net
Replacements
California
(2014-2024)
25,80029,8004,00015.54,300
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Projected Growth for All Areas

Annual Job Openings

In California, an average of 400 new job openings per year is expected for Operating Engineers, plus an additional 430 job openings due to net replacement needs, resulting in a total of 830 job openings.

Estimated Average Annual Job Openings
Operating Engineers
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-
Projected Year)
Jobs From GrowthJobs Due to
Net Replacements
Total Annual
Job Openings
California
(2014-2024)
400430830
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Data for All Areas

How Do I Qualify?

Education, Training, and Other Requirements

Employers prefer to hire workers with a high school diploma or equivalent. Operating Engineers usually learn their skills on the job, but formal apprenticeship or vocational programs provide more comprehensive training. Private vocational schools offer instruction in the operation of various types of construction equipment. Much can be learned in the classroom; however, to become a skilled Operator, one must actually perform various tasks on the machinery. The best training facilities have equipment on-site so students can practice tasks they are learning in the classroom.

Operators must be at least 18 years old and possess a valid California driver license. They need to be in good physical condition, have a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distance, and good eye-hand-foot coordination. Some employers require a pre-employment background check, physical exam, and drug screening.

Certification is not required to work as an Operating Engineer, but certificates are available from vocational schools and apprenticeship programs. These certificates demonstrate that an Operator is able to handle specific types of equipment, which may provide a wider range of job opportunities.


Experience

Experience operating related equipment, such as farm tractors or heavy equipment in the armed forces or elsewhere, can be an asset.

Early Career Planning

High school preparation courses in auto, diesel, or farm machinery mechanics, science, mechanical drawing, metal shop, and mathematics are helpful for students interested in this occupation.

Apprenticeship

Apprenticeship programs are administered by the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Associated General Contractors of America, and community colleges. Programs require three to four years of on-the-job training plus related classroom instruction. Apprenticeship program applicants must be 18 years of age and possess a valid California driver license. Most programs require a high school diploma or equivalent. For more information on apprenticeships currently available, visit the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Apprenticeship Standards Web site at www.dir.ca.gov/das.

Continuing Education

There are currently no requirements for continuing education for journey-level Operators; however, improved technology creates a need for continuous training to learn new techniques and methods and to improve existing skills. Employers or equipment manufacturers may provide training. Union local training centers also offer continuing education to journey-level Operators.

Licensing

Employees work under the license of the employer/contractor. Self-employed Operators must be licensed by the State of California Contractors State License Board. Contact the agency that issues the license for additional information.Click on the license title below for details.

Where Can I Find Training?

There are two ways to search for training information:

  • Search by Field of Study to find what programs are available and what schools offer those programs. You may use keywords such as: Construction, Earthmoving, Ground Transportation, and Heavy Equipment.
  • Search by Training Provider to find schools by name, type of school, or location.

Contact the schools you are interested in to learn about the classes available, tuition and fees, and any prerequisite course work.

Where Would I Work?

The largest industries employing Operating Engineers are as follows:

Industry TitlePercent of Total Employment for Occupation in California
Other Specialty Trade Contractors 28.0%
Utility System Construction 12.5%
Highway, Street, and Bridge Construction 11.5%
State Government 10.5%
Local Government 9.1%
Source: EDD/LMID Staffing Patterns

Finding a Job

Direct application to employers remains one of the most effective job search methods. Newspaper classified ads and Internet job listings may also provide helpful local job leads. Operating Engineers who belong to a union can also find work through their local union hall. Online job opening systems include JobCentral at www.jobcentral.com and CalJOBSSM at www.caljobs.ca.gov.

To find your nearest One-Stop Career Center, go to Service Locator. View the helpful job search tips for more resources. (requires Adobe Reader).

Yellow Page Headings

You can focus your local job search by checking employers listed online or in your local telephone directory. Below are some suggested headings where you might find employers of Operating Engineers.

  • Building Contractors
  • Construction
  • Demolition Contractors
  • Excavating Contractors
  • Government Offices
  • Grading Contractors
  • Home Builders
  • Road Building Contractors

Find Possible Employers

To locate a list of employers in your area, go to "Find Employers" on the Labor Market Information Web site:

  • Select one of the top industries that employ the occupation. This will give you a list of employers in that industry in your area.
  • Click on "View Filter Selections" to limit your list to specific cities or employer size.
  • Click on an employer for the street address, telephone number, size of business, Web site, etc.
  • Contact the employer for possible employment.

Where Could This Job Lead?

Most advancement comes in the form of pay raises as Operators become more skilled in the operation of equipment. Those with proven ability or additional education or training may become forepersons, supervisors, or project managers. It is also possible to obtain a specialty contractor’s license from the California Contractors State Licensing Board, become self-employed, and bid on construction projects.

Related Occupations

Below is a list of occupations related to Operating Engineers with links to more information.

OccupationOccupational
Guide
Industry
Report
Occupational
Profile
Crane and Tower OperatorsProfile
Excavating and Loading Machine and Dragline OperatorsProfile
Industrial Truck and Tractor OperatorsGuide
Mobile Heavy Equipment Mechanics, Except EnginesProfile
Paving, Surfacing, and Tamping Equipment OperatorsProfile
Pile-Driver OperatorsProfile
Rail-Track Laying and Maintenance Equipment OperatorsProfile

Other Sources

  • California Department of Consumer Affairs - Contractors State License Board
         www.cslb.ca.gov
  • California Department of Industrial Relations - Division of Apprenticeship Standards
         www.dir.ca.gov/das
  • Associated General Contractors of America
         www.acg.org
  • International Union of Operating Engineers
         www.iuoe.org

These links are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement by EDD.

For the Career Professional

The following codes are provided to assist counselors, job placement workers, or other career professionals.

SystemCode
SOC - Standard Occupational Classification47-2073
O*NET - Occupational Information Network
   Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators47-2073.00
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)RCI
CIP - Classification of Instructional Programs
   Construction/Heavy Equipment/Earthmoving Equipment Operation490202
TOP - Taxonomy of Programs (California Community Colleges)
   Heavy Equipment Operation094730