How to become an excavator operator

How to become an excavator operator

The scenario of the construction industry in America:

Construction is progressing and growing all across America and heavy equipment operators are needed to clear the ground, hoist beams, and transport critical materials. An excavator operator plays an important and key role in such construction projects. Hopefully, this article will provide a satisfactory answer for how to become an excavator operator.

What is an excavator?

An excavator is a piece of heavy equipment that is used to dig holes in the sand, earth, and rock and load materials onto conveyors or trucks for removal. It comprised of a boom dipper, a bucket, and a cab that sits on a rotating platform known as the house. Its undercarriage may be on tracks or wheels. In a nutshell, an excavator is a mechanical shovel that is used for various functions such as:

  • Trenches and digging holes
  • Moving materials
  • Demolition
  • Grading
  • Landscaping
  • Mining (underground and surface)
  • Dredging rivers
  • Removing snow

How to become an excavator operator

What traits or skills do you need to run an excavator?

As an operator of excavators proper training, safety and competency are priorities. If not then you could easily make a mistake that could cause serious injury. In addition to knowing how to operate an excavator safely, you must also match other requirements.

  • The applicant should be at least 18 years old
  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Must be good and healthy both physically and mentally
  • Have good vision
  • Should have a driving license and, in some cases, a CDL (commercial driver’s license)
  • Have a mechanical aptitude
  • Have a good eye, hand, and foot coordination

Physical requirements for excavator operator:

It takes a combination of basic physical and mental skills to become a successful heavy equipment operator. For the skills that do not come as naturally as others, it is possible to sharpen and fine-tune your abilities over time. The physical requirements that are necessary to be a heavy machine operator include:

Good Vision:

Good vision is essential to safely operate a piece of heavy equipment. If you were not born with great vision, you will most likely need to wear corrective lenses to improve depth perception and visual acuity.

How to become an excavator operator


Operating heavy machinery requires you to have good eye, hand, and foot coordination to operate a variety of levers, pedals, and dials. Heavy equipment is complex, and it is important to fine-tune your coordination to safely operate a piece of machinery.

Quick Reflexes:

Your ability to adapt to changing conditions is vital for everyone’s safety on the job. Practice will help, but you also need the initial physical capacity.


You will most likely be working long days, unusual hours, and in stressful conditions. Some heavy equipment careers will expose you to the elements regularly, require you to move heavy equipment, and require you to stand all day, so having the stamina to keep up will be essential.

Mental requirements:

Intermediate Math Skills:

You may be required to perform calculations related to mass or weight, measurement conversions, ratios, and areas or volumes, based on your area of expertise and job role.

Computer Skills:

Computer systems are playing an increasingly important role in heavy equipment operation, so you’ll need to have the capacity to continuously keep up with evolving technology throughout your career.

Ability to Multitask:

Being a heavy equipment operator involves many moving parts – both literally and figuratively. An operator must have the ability to multitask and be able to monitor the progress, of other crew members, and the machine simultaneously.

Attention to Detail:

When it comes to a construction project, every inch matters. Heavy equipment operators must have an eye for detail and precision to avoid costly mistakes.

What sort of tasks do you need to perform as an excavator operator?

An excavator operator is expected to perform a variety of tasks such as:

  • Move levers, dials, and foot pedals to operate machinery
  • Inspect and set up the equipment before operating
  • Maintain load counts
  • Understand digging plans, machine capabilities, and limitations and follow safe digging procedures
  • Perform routine equipment maintenance, repairs, and troubleshooting
  • Use equipment properly to backfill excavations, vibrate or break rock and concrete and make winter roads.

Is it hard to operate an excavator?

If you’re properly trained and pay careful attention to what you’re doing, it isn’t that much hard to operate an excavator. However, like anything else, it takes practice to do a good job.

How to operate an excavator as a beginner?

It’s possible to rent an excavator for DIY projects. If you’ve never used an excavator, there are some basic things you need to know about controls, what exactly they do and how to run an excavator. Operating an excavator can be dangerous so you should read and understand the directions and cautions in the manufacturer’s operation manual before operating any heavy equipment. Here are some basic sets of things need to operate an excavator:

  • Lower the left-hand controls, put on the safety belt, and move the power to the right to operate the dozer blade.
  • Pull back to move the blade up and push forward to move it downward. Remember to set the blade hard into the ground to keep it stable before you begin excavating.
  • Locate the left joystick and tilt it to the left to rotate the bucket and cab to the left. Tilt to the right to go to the right. This joystick also raises and lowers the boom.
  • Find the right joystick. To scoop, tilt the joystick towards you, and the bucket curls in, turn it away, and the bucket curls away.
  • Practice using the controls to dig holes
  • Refill holes with the bucket but remember to contact the power company first in case there are underground wires or cables in your way.
  • Turn off the power before you get out of the cab.

How to become an excavator operator?

The best way to become an excavator operator is by joining a reputable heavy equipment operator school. You can get hands-on excavator operator training at Heavy Equipment Colleges of America (HEC). The certificate of heavy equipment operations-Level I give you a practical understanding of the basic operations of heavy equipment. During this three-week program, you’ll be able to learn about earthmoving, digging trenching, loading and unloading, and safety and preventive maintenance of heavy equipment. It also helps you to gain knowledge in grades and elevations, soil properties, and blueprint reading.

How long it takes to learn to operate an excavator?

From an excavator school like HEC, you can learn how to operate an excavator in three weeks. You’ll get to practice on excavators and other related equipment like backhoes, skid steers, and wheel loaders. Through the certificate of heavy equipment operations –Level II course which also has a duration of three weeks, you can build on the skills you learned in Level I. You’ll learn to operate a bulldozer as well as a hydraulic excavator.

Is it necessary to get a license to operate an excavator?

Attending a school can give you hands-on training and experience and the heavy machinery license employers across the country value. You need a driver’s license or a CDL (commercial driver’s license) to operate an excavator. Although you don’t need a special excavator license most employers prefer that you are trained and certified. After completing Level I of your training program at HEC you’ll be qualified to take the ADEPT (Adaptable Equipment Proficiency Testing) exam, a nationally recognized heavy equipment operations certification valued highly by employers. You’ll have earned a certificate of Heavy equipment operation and will get your operator’s card or license.

Where can one find excavator training most?

  • HEC offers programs in various locations throughout the United States:
  • CA- San Bernardino: 1955 W. 9th street| San Bernardino, CA 92411
  • Georgia: 3120 Stonecrest Blvd, Suite 220 | Stonecrest, GA 30038
  • Oklahoma: 6101 W. Reno Avenue, Suite 1000 | Oklahoma City, OK 73127
  • Washington: 4701 McChord Drive SW | Lakewood, WA 98499
  • (*Location is Veteran Only – DoD SkillBridge and VA Education Benefits)

How much an excavator operator can make a year?

In 2019 median wage for excavating and loading machine and dragline operators was $21.54 an hour or $44,800 per year.

Physical Training for Heavy Equipment Operators:

While formal education is helpful when beginning a career as a heavy equipment operator, most of the knowledge will come from on-site training and experience. Many entry-level operators will work directly with a more experienced crew member to learn more about the equipment, its capabilities, and the expectations of the job. Most operators will be required to learn how to maintain and fix their machines, as well as all of the relevant safety practices that the company requires. In some cases, you may be required to earn a commercial driver’s license (CDL) before operating a piece of heavy machinery. Boom & Bucket offers a scholarship for those pursuing a formal education in the space.


Choosing to take an apprenticeship is a great way to get technical and on-the-job training in the field. During your apprenticeship, you will learn how to properly maintain and operate the machinery, as well as the company’s safety policies and procedures and first aid protocols in the event of an emergency.

Steps to become a mini excavator operator:

Now that we’ve gone through some of the basic requirements of being a mini excavator operator so let’s take a closer look at each step of the process to get well on way to building a successful career as a mini excavator operator. Here are some simple steps to do this.

Step 1: Maximize your high school experience

As most employers require operators to graduate high school or at least have a high school diploma or GED so it is important to maximize your high school experience. If you can attend a vocational high school or if your school offers technical education then go for courses like applied math, engineering, shop class, industrial technology, or auto mechanics. These courses will definitely help you to build a strong educational foundation on which you will build your career as an excavator operator.

Step Two: Learn How to Operate Heavy Equipment

Like many trades, learning how to operate heavy equipment can be done in a variety of ways. Some individuals prefer a formal classroom education at community colleges or heavy equipment colleges, while others prefer to jump right into it and learn as they go on the job. Let’s take a closer look at the different training methods, as well as some of the pros and cons of each option.

Step Three: Get Your License

The license you will need will depend on the type of work you plan to do, and which type of machinery you plan to operate. The first step is to look into your local regulations, as well as the requirements that are listed on the job postings you are considering. Getting your license or certification is usually a two-step process. First is the written test, which will assess your knowledge of topics such as math, measurements, problem-solving, mechanics, and inspection. From there, you will take a practical exam with an instructor to prove your knowledge of the machine’s functionality, as well as your coordination and capacity to operate a machine. Some states will require an aspiring heavy equipment operator to earn a DOL card, which is proof of basic safety training before you can be hired by an employer. The best way to get a DOL card is to take an online course that is OSHA-authorized.

How to become an excavator operator

Step Four: Get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)

While having a CDL is not required for all machine operations or industries, it will make you more appealing to potential employers even if it is not required by law. Since heavy machinery is transported between job sites using large trailers, an operator with a CDL license will be able to transport and operate the machine. This will make you stand out from the competition when looking for a job. Either way, it is important to check your state’s guidelines to find out if a CDL is a requirement or a preference in your area.

Step Five: Ongoing Education

Just because you’ve landed a job, doesn’t mean you should give up on your education. Equipment and technology are constantly evolving, which means it is important to make sure your training is always up-to-date with the latest equipment and information about the industry. Doing so will give you the leverage you need to consistently increase your salary over time as you master your craft.  No matter how you gain your skills, you will be required to take a safety compliance course periodically. Most employers will require their heavy equipment operator to take refresher courses for liability purposes, while others will just request them as needed. These courses can be taken online through OSHA, making them a quick and convenient way to stay up-to-date on safety compliance procedures.


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