Construction can’t happen without these workers.
Without heavy equipment operators, most roads, bridges, buildings, airports, pipelines and power plants would not exist. Nor would most mines. And yet, with older operators retiring and younger people choosing other careers, there’s a shortage of these skilled workers.
Build Your Future (BYF), an organization established by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), aims to recruit the next generation of craft professionals. BYF lists heavy equipment operator as one of the five crafts in highest demand, with a need for more than 600,000 heavy equipment operators across the United States through December 2022. The BYF website shows the demand for these workers by state, with Texas, Florida and California topping the chart.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for equipment operators is good, with employment projected to grow 10 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS notes, “Spending on infrastructure is expected to increase, resulting in new positions over the next 10 years. Workers who can operate multiple types of equipment should have the best job opportunities.” BLS lists the median pay as $46,990 per year or $22.59 per hour. A 2018 survey published by NCCER found the average annual salary as reported by survey respondents to be $60,828.
Skilled heavy equipment operators are valuable resources, not just because machines like backhoes, loaders and dozers can’t operate themselves but also because operators who are good at their jobs tend to be more productive; they even use less fuel compared with less-skilled counterparts.
Operators can learn via on-the-job training, but more often, companies today prefer to hire an operator who has had some training, whether through an apprenticeship program or a trade school or industry training program. Operating some pieces of equipment requires a license or certification. In addition to operator training, companies often require operators to have a commercial driver’s license so they can haul the equipment from jobsite to jobsite.
“Spending on infrastructure is expected to increase, resulting in new positions over the next 10 years. Workers who can operate multiple types of equipment should have the best job opportunities.”
Solving the shortage
Exposing more young people to trade education options is one way the industry is working to solve the skilled labor shortage. New heavy equipment technology, including automated control and guidance systems, as well as joystick controls and comfortable, air-conditioned cabs, may appeal to people who get as far as considering a career as a heavy equipment operator. Virtual reality (VR) training may serve as a carrot to get some to that point.
VR simulators, which are increasingly being used to train new operators, offer several advantages over traditional training. First, they don’t tie up a company’s heavy equipment or put it through unnecessary wear and tear that can lead to downtime. Second, they give students a taste of how the machine behaves and what it’s like to operate one without the risks inherent in doing it for real.
This past summer, a simulator from Volvo allowed high school students from Cumberland Valley High School in Pennsylvania to try “operating” different lifts and loaders as part of a program aimed at helping students land apprenticeships after graduation.
United Rentals helped Serious Labs develop the motion-based boom lift and scissor lift simulators used in United Academy’s equipment operator training. Thanks to the life-like motion, these simulators help students feel what it’s like to be at the controls. After taking an online, classroom, or blended operator training class through United Academy, students can schedule an evaluation at many branches to become certified.
Technology such as VR is one way to attract and retain Generation Z employees. A competitive salary is another. As the skilled labor shortage continues, companies may find they have to pay more for the workers they need. In a 2018 workforce survey from Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk, 62 percent of companies surveyed said they had increased their base pay rates for hourly craft workers. In addition, 46 percent said they initiated or increased in-house training in the past year to address the shortage.
Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.