Many children spend happy hours in their sandboxes, playing with toy construction equipment and dreaming of the day they'll be big enough to use the real thing. Relatively few follow through on that goal of operating heavy machinery, and the ones who do are referred to as operating engineers. Training and certification in operating engineering trades is usually done in an apprenticeship format.
Apprenticeship and Journey Status
Each state has its own regulations governing trade apprenticeships, though they correspond closely to standards published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. Operating engineers typically serve a four-year apprenticeship, with at least 144 hours of formal classroom training and 2,000 hours of full-time employment during each calendar year. Apprenticeships are usually offered through the International Union of Operating Engineers, or IUOE, though large employers, industry organizations or individual states might also provide apprenticeship opportunities in some areas. After completing the four years, apprentices can take the state's certification exam and earn journey status as operating engineers.
Although most training for heavy equipment operators happens on the job, some technical, vocational and community colleges offer formal training programs for operating engineers. These usually take one year or less and combine classroom and practical instruction on engines, fuel systems, welding and other related skills, as well as opportunities to operate heavy equipment. New, higher-tech construction equipment often contains GPS receivers and other computerized subsystems, and some technical schools provide a solid grounding in these technologies. Most states will count your time in a technical school toward your apprenticeship and eventual journey person status.
Some states require operating engineers to have a special license if they operate the large cranes or piledrivers used in many construction projects. Requirements for this license vary by state, but typically require certification as a crane operator. Certification is available through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, or through the IUOE. In each case, the operating engineer must document experience in crane operation, and has to pass both a written and a practical examination.
Operating engineers are responsible for the broad strokes of heavy construction, including clearing a site, preparing it for construction, and performing the initial excavation. In road construction, they also construct bridges and overpasses, grade a roadbed, and lay the asphalt. They're also important in many forms of mining, which is essentially a long-term form of excavation. Aside from operating the equipment, operating engineers are often responsible for routine maintenance and service. They have to be skilled at working with gasoline and diesel engines, electric motors, and hydraulic or pneumatic subsystems. Other useful skills include welding, and knowing how to change a faulty circuit board.