What is a Heavy Equipment Operation Degree?

Heavy equipment operators drive equipment such as bulldozers, forklifts, and hydraulic truck cranes on construction sites. They work on residential, commercial, industrial, and civic infrastructure construction projects. Heavy equipment operator training programs provide students with the knowledge and skills required to safely operate, maintain, and conduct on-the-job adjustments to heavy equipment.

The typical curriculum prepares students to work as:

  • Construction equipment operators, who handle loading and excavation machines used to dig and lift sand, gravel, or earth
  • Paving and surface equipment operators, who use equipment to spread concrete and asphalt in the construction of roads
  • Pile-driver operators, who control equipment to hammer heavy beams of wood, concrete, and steel into the ground

Program Options

Regardless of the learning path chosen, it is important to note that in some states students will also need to get a commercial driver’s license and/or become licensed to operate and transport heavy equipment.

Apprenticeship in Heavy Equipment Operation – Three to Four Year Duration
A heavy equipment operation apprenticeship is the most common educational path. The majority of apprenticeships are provided or sponsored by local unions and their affiliates, as well as by non-union contractors. The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America regularly offer apprenticeships. Apprentices receive 144 hours of annual classroom instruction plus on-the-job training.

Diploma / Certificate / Associate Degree in Heavy Equipment Operation – One Year Duration
These programs are offered by technical and vocational schools.

Here are some samples of courses included in both school programs and apprenticeships:

  • Business Practice – the economics and operating costs of owning and operating heavy equipment
  • Workplace Reading and Writing Skills
  • Computer Applications – using word processing, spreadsheet software, operating systems to create technical documents
  • Applied Mathematics – using algebra, trigonometry, and geometry to manage technical issues
  • Compact and Heavy Equipment Construction Techniques (Introduction) – the start-up, use, and shutdown of handheld power equipment including skid steers, power saws, and Tractor Loader Backhoe (TLB)
  • Workplace Safety – personal protective equipment, safe operating practices, hazard awareness, hand signals, fundamentals of rigging and loading of equipment, and related regulations
  • Environmental Practices – overview of environmental considerations in the heavy equipment industry
  • Tractor Loader Backhoe – pre-operation inspection, maintenance, proper fluids and lubrication, log sheets and reports
  • Tractor Loader Backhoe – start-up, site planning and setup, installing attachments, operating test equipment, excavating, trenching, grading, loading, ramp building, stockpiling, backfilling, hoisting, shuttling, shutdown
  • Fundamentals of Heavy Equipment and Field Repair – overview of heavy equipment systems and controls; introduction to GPS technology, diesel and hydraulic operations, preventative maintenance, equipment inspection and adjustments/repairs on the job site
  • Soils, Concrete, and Asphalt – engineering geology; soil types, properties, and structure; concrete and asphalt composition and variations
  • Surveying (Introduction) – differential leveling, grade calculations and turning points, interpreting site blueprints
  • Compact and Heavy Equipment Construction Techniques (Advanced) – operation of skid steers, excavators, and bulldozers, locating utilities, operation of bulldozers with grade controls
  • Dozer and Excavator Maintenance – pre-operation inspection, maintenance, proper fluids and lubrication, undercarriage care, log sheets and reports
  • Excavator Operation – start-up, site planning and setup, installing attachments, operating test equipment, excavating, trenching, grading, loading, ramp building, stockpiling, backfilling, hoisting, shuttling, shutdown
  • Dozer Operation – start-up, site planning and setup, installing attachments, operating test equipment, excavating, trenching, grading, loading, ramp building, stockpiling, backfilling, hoisting, shuttling, shutdown
  • Paving – simulated standard paving operations
  • Surveying (Advanced) – calculating material removal, fills, stake marking, grid layout, measurements, elevations, and slopes

Degrees Similar to Heavy Equipment Operation

While there are few degrees or certificates that are similar to heavy equipment operation, the following are certainly related, because they also lead graduates to employment in or connected to the road building and heavy construction trades.

Carpentry training programs teach the skilled trade of cutting, shaping, and assembling wood for buildings and other structures. Students of the trade learn about the two basic types of carpentry: rough carpentry and finish carpentry.

Civil Engineering
Civil engineering students learn how to design and plan civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. Classes include math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, and building codes.

Construction Management
Construction managers plan, organize, direct, control, supervise, and evaluate construction work. Construction management degree programs teach the various aspects of the occupation, which include preparing cost estimates and contracts, budgeting, hiring subcontractors, managing staffing schedules, enforcing building codes and safety regulations, labor relations, liaising with clients, and overall project management.

This degree field prepares students to work as electricians – the tradespeople who install, maintain, and repair electrical wiring and systems, including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, security, lighting, and computer networks. Programs may cover all types of electrical work, while others may focus on one of the four principal classifications of the electrical trade: residential, commercial, industrial, low voltage.

Engineering Technology
Engineering technology programs teach the engineering skills required to assist engineers in their work. Common classes are computers for engineering technology, construction methodologies, structural systems, strength of materials, and technical drawing.

Some of the subfields of engineering technology are civil engineering technology, construction engineering technology, aerospace engineering technology, and automotive engineering technology.

Plumbing degree programs teach the skilled trade of installing, maintaining, and repairing plumbing fixtures and systems. These systems include water, heating, irrigation, sewage, fuel, medical gas, and compressed air.

Surveying Engineering
Students of surveying engineering learn how to use geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and various technologies to measure and map land surfaces and their features.

Welding students learn the process of joining metals using extreme heat. They study metallurgy, the properties of different types of metals, and different types of welding.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Ability to read blueprints and schematics
  • Attention to detail
  • Capacity to work both independently and as part of a team
  • Communication/listening skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Hand/eye coordination
  • Hand/foot coordination
  • Multitasking
  • Physical strength and stamina
  • Reading and adjusting gauges, dials, and other indicators
  • Troubleshooting

What Can You Do with a Heavy Equipment Operation Degree?

Various kinds of companies and government departments employ or contract heavy equipment operators. These are among the most common:

  • Construction companies
  • Oil and gas companies
  • Forestry/logging/timber companies
  • Land surveying companies
  • Mining companies – surface mining, quarrying, land-clearing activities
  • Military
  • Utility companies
  • Municipal, state, and federal governments – construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports


Find out what graduates typically earn.

Read about Salary