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A Complete Guide to Becoming an Excavator Operator

Construction is booming all across America, and heavy equipment operators are needed to clear ground, hoist beams and transport critical materials. An excavator operator plays an essential role in many construction projects.

What is an excavator?

An excavator is a piece of heavy equipment that is used to dig holes in sand, earth and rock and load materials onto conveyors or into trucks for removal. It is comprised of a boom dipper, a bucket and a cab that 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:

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


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

Proper training is essential, and safety and competency are priorities. Otherwise, you could make a mistake that could cause serious injury, damage and OSHA fines. In addition to knowing how to operate an excavator safely, you must meet other requirements:

• Be at least 18 years old
• Have a high school diploma or GED
• Be in good physical condition
• Have good vision
• Have a driver’s license and, in some cases, a CDL (commercial driver’s license)
• Have mechanical aptitude
• Have good eye, hand and foot coordination


What tasks do you perform when you are an excavator operator?

Excavator operators are expected to perform a variety of duties. They need to:

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


Is it hard to operate an excavator?

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

How do you operate an excavator (for beginners)?

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 its controls, what they do and how to run an excavator: (note: Operating an excavator can be dangerous. You should read and understand the directions and cautions in the manufacturer’s operation manual before operating any piece of heavy equipment.)

• Lower the left-hand controls, put on the safety belt and move the control 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 toward 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 do I become an excavator operator?

The best track to becoming an excavator operator is by attending a reputable heavy equipment operator school. You can get hands-on excavator operating training at Heavy Equipment Colleges of America (HEC). The Certificate of Heavy Equipment Operations – Level I gives you practical understanding of basic heavy equipment operation. During the three-week program, you’ll learn about earthmoving, digging, trenching, loading and unloading, as well as heavy equipment safety and preventive maintenance. You’ll also gain knowledge in grades and elevations, soil properties and blueprint reading.


How long does it take to learn to operate an excavator?

You can learn to operate an excavator in three weeks at an excavator school like HEC. You’ll get to practice on excavators and other equipment like backhoes, skid steers and wheel loaders. Enroll in the Certificate of Heavy Equipment Operations – Level II course (also three weeks), and you can build on the skills you learned in Level I. You’ll learn to operate a bulldozer as well as a hydraulic excavator.

How do I get certified to operate heavy equipment? Do you need a license to operate an excavator?

Attending a school like Heavy Equipment Colleges of America can give you the hands-on training and the heavy machinery license employers across the country value. You need a driver’s license and/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 you complete 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 by employers. You’ll have earned a Certificate of Heavy Equipment Operations and will get your operator’s card (license).

Where can I find excavator training near me?

HEC offers programs in several locations throughout the United States:

• North Carolina – Fayetteville
• Georgia – Conyers
• Tennessee – Clarksville
• Oklahoma – Oklahoma City
• California – San Bernardino
• California – Ft. Irwin*
• Washington – Lakewood*

How much does an excavator operator make a year?

According to O*NET OnLine, the 2019 median wage for excavating and loading machine and dragline operators was $21.54 an hour or $44,800 a year.

What is the job outlook for excavator operators?

O*NET OnLine reports that the projected job growth for excavator operators in the United States through 2028 is 7-10 percent, which is faster than average for other jobs.

Would you like to become an excavator operator? Contact HEC to get the training you need to succeed.

*Located on a military base and eligible to veterans only through the Career Skills Program (CSP). VA Education Benefits can be used in Washington.


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