Heavy equipment operators make an average of $20.35 per hour1 managing all kinds of heavy machinery and vehicles. Operators remain in demand in the construction industry, shipping and logistics, and manufacturing fields.
This guide explores some of the highest-paying heavy equipment operator positions available for job seekers. Plus, it outlines what to expect for new graduates and how to land the best position in the field.
Highest Paying Heavy Equipment Operator Jobs
Students can follow a general heavy equipment operator career path, but that doesn’t end their options. Specializing in a particular type of equipment could earn them more and help them to stand out in the job field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this list demonstrates some of the highest-paying heavy equipment operator positions that job seekers can find.
Tower Crane Operator Average Annual Salary: $64,010
Tower crane operators make an average annual salary of just over $64,000 per year2. They operate mechanical booms to move heavy equipment and materials around, particularly in large-scale construction. The field employs approximately 44,000 positions per year2.
Backhoe Operator Average Hourly Pay: $20.48
Backhoe operators make an average hourly rate of $20.483. The field offers an annual salary range between $28,000 on the low end to $75,000 for the highest-paid workers3. Backhoe operators manipulate the bucket of the backhoe to move materials and drive the machine to its desired location.
Construction Equipment Operator Average Annual Salary: $49,100
General construction equipment operators make just over $49,000 per year4 working on projects at construction sites. The field is expected to grow a bit slower than average4, but job seekers should still see more than 24,900 new open positions between 2020 and 20304.
Riggers Average Annual Salary: $53,020
Riggers make over $53,000 per year on average5, working with cables and chains to move materials through spaces where traditional heavy equipment may not fit. They also set up and repair rigging for outdoor material movement, such as in the logging industry. The field employs around 22,000 positions per year, many located in mining, motion picture studios, and ship building5.
General Heavy Equipment Operator Average Hourly Rate: $20.35
General heavy equipment operators make around $20.35 per hour6 operating a number of different types of machinery. The salary range varies from $31,000 per year for the lowest-paid operators to $71,000 for the top echelon of operators6.
Mobile Crane Operator Average Hourly Rate: $25.26
Mobile crane operators make an average hourly rate of $25.267 working with smaller, mobile versions of tower cranes. Their salaries range from $40,000 per year to $82,000 in the highest ranks of paid positions7.
Excavator Operator Average Hourly Rate: $20.39
Excavator operators make an average of $20.39 per hour8 helping move materials at quarries, construction sites, and blast zones. Those operators on the top end of the scale make a salary of $73,000 per year8.
Front End Loader Average Hourly Rate: $16.43
Front-end loaders make $16.43 per hour9 working on construction sites and other types of projects. These machines make it easier to move materials, load debris, and redistribute loose surfaces. The highest-paid tier of positions pays a salary of around $48,000 per year9.
Pile Driver Operator Average Annual Salary: $71,880
Pile driver operators make just over $71,000 per year10, helping prepare the foundation for new construction and other building activities. The field employs around 3,800 people per year10 with most positions in general heavy construction or civil engineering construction.
Material Moving Machine Operator Average Annual Salary: $37,450
Material moving machine operators make just over $37,000 per year11, working with construction materials, shipping activities, and other heavy objects. The field is expected to grow at an average pace over the course of the next 10 years11 but will still offer more than 84,000 openings each year11 over the next decade.
Popular Career Paths With a Heavy Equipment Operator Certification
Heavy equipment operators work in several industries where moving heavy materials or handling large-scale construction is needed.
Those working in general construction can operate backhoes, material movers, pile drivers, and other heavy equipment to move materials, excavate sites, and build at a large scale. This industry employs around 14,800 people per year12.
The mining industry requires heavy equipment operators to manage specialty equipment involved in extracting, loading, and building specialty rigs. The coal mining field, for example, employs around 5,640 people per year12, while the nonmetallic mineral mining field employs more than 15,00012.
The local, state, and federal governments must employ heavy equipment operators in their bid to manage the country’s infrastructure. They employ thousands per year, including 52,860 per year at the local level12.
Logging and Forestry
The logging industry also employs heavy equipment operators such as riggers to move these heavy materials. They need operators for transport, excavation, and processing.
Ship and Boat Building
For large-scale ships, heavy equipment operators like riggers can make around $50,370 per year5. They help move materials, handle construction, and decommission older ships for recycling or reuse.
Average Salary for Heavy Equipment Operator Graduates
Salary ranges can vary, but general heavy equipment operators can look forward to around $20.35 per hour1. However, graduates can increase their salary expectations as they gain more experience or specialize in a certain type of equipment. Pile drivers, for example, make an average salary of over $71,000 per year10.
Certain states may also provide a higher salary. For example, riggers make an average national salary of just over $52,000 per year5. However, in New York, riggers make an annual salary of over $81,000 per year5. In Hawaii, they make an average salary of over $67,000 per year5. Graduates who can relocate may find more lucrative employment options.
How to Find a Job After You Graduate
Students complete fieldwork during their training, giving them chances to network and gain hands-on experience for their resumes. Students may also take advantage of job training. Employers who need heavy equipment operators may agree to pay for training for candidates with the agreement that they will work for a certain period of time for that company.
Some students may take apprenticeships, which also provide chances to network and work in the field. Certifications for heavy equipment operating include those for crane operators or OSHA safety certifications. As students add more relevant work certifications, their chances of employment may increase.
As infrastructure rebuilding increases, students can also look at states with the highest needs for heavy equipment operators. For example, construction equipment operators may have more luck in their job search in Texas, which employs more than 45,000 positions per year12, or California, which employs more than 27,000 per year12.
Discover More About a Career With a Heavy Equipment Operator Certification
Q. Do I need a degree to become a heavy equipment operator?
Students who possess a high school diploma can apply to most training programs and certifications. The field also offers an apprenticeship path for those with little education. The salary remains above the national average even without years of schooling.
Q. How long does it take to get certified to be a heavy equipment operator?
Certification programs can take just a few weeks of training with an exam at the end. Some programs require a certified driver’s license, but students do not always need a driving license to complete the program.
Q. Is being a heavy equipment operator worth it?
The field continues to grow at an average pace in most cases. Employers will always need operators, andthis trade school job doesn’t require much schooling beyond a high school diploma to get started. In fact, with just a diploma and a few weeks of training, students can land jobs with salaries over the national average.
Q. Is heavy equipment operation hard on your body?
Heavy equipment operators work in a variety of conditions — outside, in risky situations, and sometimes at odd hours. The position can carry some risk, although workplaces follow federal safety regulations.
Q. What is the application process for heavy equipment operators?
Students typically only need a high school diploma and a training program to earn jobs in heavy equipment operation. Entry-level programs cover a range of equipment, but students can also train further on specific types of equipment like cranes, pile drivers, or mobile cranes.
Q. What skills are needed for heavy equipment operation?
In addition to machine-specific skills, students also need other workplace skills. These include being able to follow relevant safety regulations, reading blueprints and plans, and basic maintenance and repair skills for heavy machinery. They should also be familiar with the general wear and tear on the machine to recognize issues before they become a risk.
Q. Is online training for heavy equipment operation an option?
Some programs may offer online courses for safety regulations and other types of knowledge-based classwork. However, students still need hands-on training at an approved site, so programs will always be hybrid. Employers will want to know that applicants have hands-on training.
 PayScale. (2021). Average Heavy Equipment Operator Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Heavy_Equipment_Operator/Hourly_Rate
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages: Crane and Tower Operators. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes537021.htm
 PayScale. (2021). Average Backhoe Operator Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Backhoe_Operator/Hourly_Rate
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Construction Equipment Operator. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/construction-equipment-operators.htm
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages: Riggers. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes499096.htm
 PayScale. (2021). Average Heavy Equipment Operator Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Heavy_Equipment_Operator/Hourly_Rate
 PayScale. (2021). Average Mobile Crane Operator Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Mobile_Crane_Operator/Hourly_Rate
 PayScale. (2021). Average Excavator Operator Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Excavator_Operator/Hourly_Rate
 PayScale. (2021). Average Front End Loader Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Front_End_Loader_Operator/Hourly_Rate
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages: Pile Driver Operators. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes472072.htm
 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
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages, Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes472073.htm
 Riggers. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages: Riggers. https://www.bls.gov/oes/2019/may/oes499096.htm