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What They Do

Insider Info

A backhoe operator is the person who operates a backhoe, a piece of heavy equipment used in all kinds of construction.

A backhoe is a jack of all trades when it comes to excavation and loading. It has a large bucket mounted on a flexible arm crane and is used to move large amounts of soil, gravel or broken building materials.

If you need a lot of dirt moved in a confined space, or if you need a machine to precisely cut a trench for a pipe, a backhoe can do the job. But the most important part of the backhoe is in the cab of the vehicle pulling the levers. The backhoe operator needs to think through every job to know how much dirt to remove and where to move it.

Aside from operating machines, operators are often expected to do routine maintenance and minor repairs.

Backhoe operators are sometimes called operating engineers, or construction equipment operators, and may operate a variety of construction equipment. In other words, a backhoe operator may use other heavy equipment like front-end loaders, forklifts and trucks.

You'll find backhoes working on large and small building sites, sewer and hydro installations, road construction and shore-dredging operations.

Backhoe work is done on a project-by-project basis. Most backhoe operators work for construction companies that bid for projects. Others are independent contractors who own and operate the machinery.

As in all construction trades, backhoe operators may work seasonally. Weather is the biggest factor in this. Fewer than half of all backhoe operators work year-round, for the simple reason that frozen ground can't be excavated.

There's no set workday for a backhoe operator. Those working for large unionized companies have a better chance of working Monday to Friday. However, many highway projects now involve working under lights at night when there's less traffic. Private contractors have to work when work is available.

Backhoe operators need to be physically strong and have good vision, good hand-foot coordination and fast reflexes.

Operators also need stamina, as they often have to sit for long hours in vibrating or bouncing machinery. They must also be able to cope with high noise levels and working in all kinds of weather.

Newcomers to the industry should like the outdoors and have good mechanical abilities. "Mechanical reasoning skills are very essential," says author and backhoe operator Gary Ober.

Backhoe operators who work independently as owner-operators also often know how to operate the other equipment needed in a small construction company. They also need the skills to run a small business.

At a Glance

Operate heavy equipment

  • You can be self-employed, or work for public works departments and small companies
  • As with most construction trades, work can be seasonal
  • There's no set workday for a backhoe operator