Earthmoving Machine Operator
Kaiwhakamahi Wakapana Oneone
This job is sometimes referred to by alternative titles
Earthmoving machine operators use digging machines (such as bulldozers, graders or hydraulic excavators) to remove, shape or level earth, rock and rubble.
Earthmoving machine operators who are new to the role usually earn
$17-$20 per hour
Earthmoving machine operators with more experience usually earn
$20-$32 per hour
Source: Trade Me Jobs; Seek, 2016.
Pay for earthmoving machine operators depends on their location and experience.
Their income is likely to vary during the year, as they often work longer hours in summer, and shorter hours in winter, or when it is too wet to work.
- New earthmoving machine operators usually start on about $17 an hour, and can earn up to $20 an hour with experience.
- Those with more experience usually start on about $20 to $25 an hour and may earn up to $32 an hour.
- Very experienced earthmoving machine operators or those with specialist skills may earn more.
Pay for earthmoving machine operators who run their own businesses varies depending on the success and size of their business.
Source: Trade Me Jobs; Seek, 2016.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the figures and diagrams in our job information)
What you will do
Earthmoving machine operators may do some or all of the following:
- operate large earthmoving vehicles such as bulldozers, graders or excavators
- use GPS and computers, as well as plans and diagrams, to help plan and carry out their work
- excavate earth and other materials and load it onto trucks
- check and maintain their machines
- talk to site managers or clients
- meet health and safety regulations, including writing accident and near miss reports.
Skills and knowledge
Earthmoving machine operators need to have:
- skill in operating and maintaining heavy machinery
- knowledge of different types of digging attachments
- knowledge of safe work practices, and health and safety regulations
- the ability to read GPS, plans, diagrams and drawings.
Self-employed earthmoving machine operators also need business skills.
Earthmoving machine operators:
- usually work up to 55 hours a week in summer and dry periods, and shorter hours during winter and in the wet. They often do shift work or work weekends, and may be on call
- work outdoors on building sites, roads, quarries and other areas where earth is being moved
- work in most weather conditions
- may travel locally or nationally to work sites.
What's the job really like?
School student Gloria drives a digger and finds out what's it like to work in the civil infrastructure industry - 3.44 mins. (Video courtesy of Connexis Industry Training Organisation)
Clinton: You might think we’re taking Gloria on a surfing holiday, but this will be no holiday. For we’ve come to Raglan to mend roads. New Zealand has a very extensive network of rural roads and keeping them in good order is no small job.
Gloria’s mentor is Don Stevens.
Don: There’ll be no time for surfing this morning. Because we’ve got plenty of work to do.
Clinton: Don is road maintenance supervisor for Tanlaw, the Waikato’s road maintenance company. Tanlaw have to systematically inspect every road, sealed and unsealed, in their area.
First job – marking up a high shoulder – a section where grass is preventing good drainage.
Gloria: Trust me with it? [A roadmarking implement]
Don: You’ll be fine – girl power!
The type of people that you need in the construction industry – maintenance and construction – are people that are reliable for a start, have good work ethics, people that are self-driven. Looking for people that enjoy the outdoors, the physical side of things, have certain skills. Licences are a big plus within our industry.
[Gloria marks the road with the implement]
Very good! That’s our high shoulder marked up. Now all we have to do is load it in the PDA.
Clinton: GPS tells them where they are and the PDA is used to record all faults.
Fixing faults in public car parks are part of the job too.
Don: As you can see down here, Gloria, the car park area here’s started to break up. The metal’s unravelling and it needs to be strengthened. So we’ll bring in a hoe, and a stabilisation gang, and they’ll fix this.
Clinton: First water, and then cement is laid on the surface. The hoe then churns up the existing road materials and blends them with the cement. It’s like mixing one giant rock cake.
There’s no shortage of toys on this job. Each machine is designed for a specific task, which means each driver requires specialised training.
Don: So what they’ve done, they’ve sprayed on an emulsion, a 180-200 emulsion mixed with kerosene, and then they’ve come in with the trucks and spread a layer of grade three chip, and they’ll go and spray again, and apply a grade five chip, which is a smaller chip.
Then you’ll be able to jump on the roller, and give it a good pounding!
Clinton: There’s a thorough driving lesson, and Gloria’s given it a go.
At this site, there’s been a very big slip. Thousands of tonnes of fill are being tipped to provide a wider and safer roadway.
Rock Orbell, currently in his third year of apprenticeship, is one of the team here. Rock intends to train for another five years, in order to advance his qualifications.
Rock: I know it’s a hell of a long time to do an apprenticeship for, but, you know, at the end of the day, sitting in an office and earning a lot of money – pretty choice!
Gloria: Yeah, no complaint!
Clinton: Well another load of fill’s arrived, and someone’s got to shift it.
[Gloria is in the cab of a digger with Rock outside]
Rock: Right hand forward.
Gloira: Right hand forward?
Rock: Right hand forward and down.
Don: We have a lot of staff training. Tanlaw puts a lot of money into getting people up to speed, getting their licences, ranging from your graders, your back hoes, your diggers…
Rock: And swing around quietly.
Rock: And place that metal out.
Rock: I think for the amount of time she had to practise, she was amazing. She’s got plenty of potential there, she picked up what I told her very quick. She’d be a great digger operator.
To become an earthmoving machine operator you need:
- a minimum of a full car driver's licence, but employers usually prefer a Class 2 licence and tracks, wheels and/or rollers endorsements
- to pass pre-employment medical and drug tests, and a police check.
Employers may support you to get the licences and endorsements you need to drive specific large earthmoving vehicles. These are:
- heavy vehicle licences (Classes 2 to 5), depending on the vehicle
- T, W, R (tracks, wheels, rollers) endorsements.
If you are working as an earthmoving machine operator, you can gain the following qualifications through a training programme and/or by having your existing experience assessed:
- New Zealand or National Certificates in Infrastructure Works (Levels 2 and 3)
- New Zealand or National Certificates in Civil or Infrastructure Works (Level 4 or 5) – if you have a leadership or supervising role.
Tai Poutini Polytechnic offers a 26-week, full-time National Certificate in Civil Plant Operation (Level 3), which includes training in operating heavy machinery.
You can also apply for Civil Trade Certification if you have either:
- an approved Level 4 qualification and 8,000 hours (around four years) of practical experience
- at least five years' experience in the industry and documentation, such as a logbook, to prove you have a high skill level.
- New Zealand Transport Agency website - information on heavy vehicle licences
- Connexis website - information on Certificates in Civil or Infrastructure Works
- Connexis website - information on applying for Civil Trade Certification (PDF - 650KB)
- Tai Poutini Polytechnic website - information on the civil plant operation course
Level 2 NCEA in English and maths is preferred.
Earthmoving machine operators need to be:
- responsible and safety-conscious
- able to follow instructions
- team players, with good communication skills.
Useful experience for earthmoving machine operators includes:
- driving heavy vehicles, particularly off-road
- any work in building construction, roading, forestry, or mining
- engineering or mechanical work
- operating heavy machinery.
Earthmoving machine operators need to be reasonably fit and healthy as they have to work in all types of weather.
Find out more about training
- Civil Contractors New Zealand
- 0800 692 376 - www.nzcontractors.co.nz
- (07) 834 3038 - www.connexis.org.nz
What are the chances of getting a job?
Strong demand for earthmoving machine operators
Chances of getting a job as an earthmoving operator are good due to:
- government plans to spend over $13 billion on transport networks between 2015 and 2018
- the $850 million Transmission Gully project north of Wellington, which is expected to be under construction until 2020
- more earthmoving operators approaching retirement age – for example, 45% of bulldozer drivers and 33% of grader drivers are over 55
- high staff turnover – as earthmoving operators are in demand, they can easily change employer for better conditions.
Best time to look for earthmoving work is in spring
Most earthmoving machine operators work all year round, but the best time of year to look for work is between October and March, when the weather is better and most earthworks are undertaken.
Most earthmoving machine operators work for construction or roading companies
Most earthmoving machine operators are employed by construction or roading companies.
They may also be self-employed and contract out their services.
- Abernethy, M, executive officer, NZ Civil Contractors, Careers New Zealand interview, March 2016.
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 2006-2014 Occupational Data (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.
- National Infrastructure Unit, 'The Thirty-Year New Zealand Infrastructure Plan 2015', accessed March 2016, (www.infrastructure.govt.nz).
- New Zealand Transport Agency, 'Transmission Gully', accessed March 2016, (www.nzta.govt.nz).
Progression and specialisations
Earthmoving machine operators may progress into team leader or management roles, or may start up their own businesses.
They may specialise in operating specific types of earthmoving machines, such as:
Last updated 7 June 2017