How to Become a Machine Operator in Construction
By Daniel Green
It’s been said there’s more than one way to skin a cat, which is kinda fitting because an old-timey term for an operator of one of the first pieces of construction equipment [the humble bulldozer] was a catskinner. The cat was because your dozer was likely made by Caterpillar and the skinner was because you’d skin its hide with your whip to get it moving. But before we get into some kind of historical earthmoving inception, let’s take a look at how to make it as a career machine operator.
What’s a Machine?
We should probably start by defining what a machine is. In construction, the term ‘machine’ is parlance for a piece of large, powered, mobile equipment used in the construction, demolition or remediation of structures that requires [or did once require*] a ticket to operate. The list includes but is not limited to:
- Materials handlers – forklifts, telescopic material handlers, Manitous.
- Elevated Work Platforms – boom lifts, scissor lifts, knuckle booms, cherry pickers etc and divided into 11m< and 11m>
- Dump trucks – artics, Moxies and Hydremas
- Tippers – rigids, bogeys, truck-and-dogs, side-tippers, end-tippers
- Earthmoving equipment – excavators, rubber duckies, wheel loaders, track loaders, skid-steers [bobcats, positracks], graders, trenchers, dozers, scrapers and backhoes/JCB’s, rollers, compactors and spreaders.
- Cranes – Franna, mobile and tower.
- Hoists – materials, personnel.
*the need for qualifications changes frequently, please do your own research before operating any machinery, on site or otherwise.
But what now?
Unfortunately, the short answer is kinda vague, kinda specific and kinda zen: there is no one path, grasshopper. Becoming a qualified, seasoned, employed machine operator sometimes needs to be a perfect storm of events. I know because I’ve done it. You can be qualified but not seasoned, seasoned but not qualified and both but not employed. I’ve been all three.
Get your Qualifications
In Australia and most parts of the western world, qualifications are almost always needed to operate machinery. This is due to their inherent danger to yourself but mostly to others [I’m yet to see someone put their excavator bucket through the glass of their cab – but the day is still young]. This is a good thing because it sets a standard for us all to work to, but unfortunately, it also means there’s an extra hurdle for you to jump.
Don’t fret though! Most courses will only run for a day or two. That doesn’t mean you’re ready to operate on-site, but it does mean you’ve acquired the basic skills and knowledge you need to be qualified in the operation of that machine. There are a few pitfalls though, like needing a prerequisite qualification first or a logbook to show experience or passing a special medical. Make sure you’re well-read before signing up for any [potentially expensive] training.
Experience as a Machine Operator
So you’ve dropped a good few hundred bucks on a ticket, you’ve got your certificate and/or card and are at home trolling Seek for machine operator jobs. Except as you scroll you notice one alarming word appears more and more often: experienced.
Now if you’re Bruce Wayne you could probably just rent a 50t Liebherr excavator and use it to dig out a new Batcave. Then again if you’re Bruce Wayne you’ve probably got better toys to play with than a 50t Liebherr excavator. Yep, you need experience. ‘But how am I going to get experience if no one will hire me??’ you cry. Well, cry it up pal because we all started the same way.
Learning the skills to safely, efficiently and confidently operate your favourite piece of construction equipment out on-site can be time-consuming. It can take weeks or even years. Remember, grading the driveway of your uncle’s acreage is vastly different from grading a pad for a billion-dollar gas plant.
One route to glory is the way my mate Ian did it. He’s a career machine operator up in sunny Queensland and he can safely, efficiently and confidently operate almost every earthmoving machine there is. Ian grew up in a small town and the day after he left high school he found employment with the local earthmoving company. He wasn’t paid much [which was okay because he was still living at home] but that meant he could start at the bottom. This consisted of cleaning up, doing odd jobs and helping service plant alongside their full-time fitter. Ian made sure he remembered that he had two ears and one mouth and used them in that order, soaking up information like a sponge. This keenness to learn, coupled with daily exposure to machines meant that he soon caught the owners eye and was taken through a kind of an apprenticeship in plant operation and maintenance. Now he cruises the leafy fire trails of the local State Parks in 12H Cat grader. He’s 35.
Another way is the way I did it. In 2015 I was extremely lucky to know a bloke looking for Moxy operators to work on a joint Laing O’Rourke/Origin Energy project out in the Queensland desert. 21 days on, 7 off. On my first swing of RnR, I got my excavator ticket thinking I’d go back to work and they’d put me straight on a machine. Twelve months went by and I think I sat on one only once. I was devastated, but in reality, it was no surprise – I was all ticket and no skill. Fast forward to April 2018 when I gained employment with Perfect Contracting as a hook truck driver. It was mostly picking up skips but very occasionally I would float small excavators. This meant I got to load and unload the machine and attachments into a skip. Slowly, slowly my skills grew until one day an opportunity came my way. A small job site needed a machine operator and there was no one else. Lucky for me there was hardly anyone there to see me quivering in my boots, but I got stuck in and got the job done. I was a bit of a pig on roller skates but the client was so happy with my attitude that they called the office to thank them for sending me. Fast forward six months and I’ve just finished a five-night rail possession for Downer driving a 35t Volvo and three days piering on a 5.5t Kubota for Hawke’s new brewery.
If you were to look at both cases you’d see that we were exposed to the machines we wanted to operate, showed a keen interest, were ticketed and when the opportunity presented itself we grabbed it with both hands.
Now we’re both gainfully employed as safe, efficient and confident machine operators.
The important thing is to persevere. Through your course. Through watching others operate from the sidelines. Through your frustrations, at yourself, because you’re a terrible operator because you’ve just begun. Through people telling you you’re no good. Persevere, persevere, persevere. It’s the only real rule for success.