Plant Operator

The Job and What's Involved

Plant operators use heavy machinery on construction sites, at road works, in quarries and in mechanical workshops. They drive, operate and maintain very large earth-moving and construction equipment.

The machinery they use on construction sites includes:

  • 360 degree excavators for digging soil and rock.
  • Bulldozers and dumper trucks for moving earth and rock.
  • Static tower cranes for lifting building materials up to heights of 750 metres or more.
  • Mobile cranes that travel on roads to the site where they are required.
  • Mobile crawler cranes working on construction sites.
  • Compactors, such as rollers and small machines for flattening out work areas.
  • Fork lift trucks and telescopic handlers to move or load building materials.

Machinery used in other situations includes:

  • Overhead cranes on rails working in factories, metal foundries, power stations, docks and shipyards.
  • Small fixed cranes in special situations, such as harbour installations.
  • Lorry-mounted loaders.

Plant operators working on construction sites can move hundreds of tonnes of earth in a day or shift some extremely heavy loads. In addition to driving and operating machinery, operators change buckets and other attachments, maintain equipment and carry out daily safety checks. Operators working in workshops and factories may have to move heavy machinery or ladles of molten metal.

Operators control the loading and unloading mechanism of the plant by means of levers and switches. They may work in partnership with an assistant called a banksman/woman based at ground level who directs by signals or radio when visibility may be restricted.

In addition to the proper working of the equipment, operators are also responsible for the safety of those working around them. They must be aware of the stability limits and safe working load (SWL) of cranes and other equipment and ensure that it is not exceeded. Crane operators who drive on public roads must also be aware of the traffic restrictions that apply to their particular vehicle.

Although the average working week is 37 hours, work on building sites can be seasonal, with shorter hours and sometimes layoffs in winter. The working day usually begins early and depends on hours of daylight. Evening and weekend overtime is common.

Work is mainly carried out in a driver's cab, sometimes at heights. Operators work alone, but keep contact with other workers through hand and radio signals. They must be fit enough to climb up to and down from the equipment. Conditions can be hot, dusty, noisy or muddy. Protective headgear, footwear and ear protectors are worn.

Work on construction sites may involve travel to different sites and periods away from home. A full driving licence is often essential.

Starting salaries for a plant operator may start from around £15,000 a year. A lodging allowance may be paid for periods away from home.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Cranes and heavy machinery are used in every type of industry throughout the UK, particularly in construction and engineering. Employers include:

- Crane-hire companies
- Large construction or civil engineering companies
- Steel manufacturing and vehicle assembly firms
- Docks and harbours
- Local authorities
- Gas, electricity or water companies

Industrial areas of the Midlands, north-east and north-west tend to provide more employment for operators engaged in engineering work. Those working in construction and with utility companies could find employment throughout the UK.

The number of employment opportunities varies and depends on the strength of the economy. Vacancies are generally advertised in local Jobcentre Plus offices and in the local press. It is also advisable to approach companies direct to ask about jobs.

Education and Training

No specific academic qualifications are required, although GCSE's in English, maths and technology may be helpful.

The Diploma in construction and the built environment may be relevant for this area of work.

Apprenticeships are the usual route in and candidates are required to take a skills learning exercise. Plant Apprenticeships in this area are available in different specialisms:

- Plant operation - civil engineering plant
- Plant operation - construction
- Crane operation

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work, Careers Wales; and for Northern Ireland contact

Information and advice on careers in construction and applying for Apprenticeships is available on the ConstructionSkills website.

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Roustabouts do basic tasks to help keep the rig and platform working efficiently and Roughnecks do practical tasks involved in the drilling operation, under the supervision of the driller.


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Apprentices spend 12 weeks on block release at the National Construction College (NCC) East and the rest of the two-year programme on site with an employer to gain work experience. Apprenticeships lead to an NVQ Level 2 in plant operations (construction), key skills at Level 1 and an Intermediate Certificate in specialised plant and machinery operations.

All plant operators in the construction industry must register for a CPCS card that proves they are competent to work on site. The Apprenticeship framework includes qualifying for the CPCS card.

There are two levels:

1. The red card enables trainees to operate plant on site. Before red cards are issued, applicants have to pass the CPCS technical test, which requires some basic training with a CPCS test centre, and a pass in the ConstructionSkills health and safety test. Red cards are valid for two years.

2. In these two years, operators must log 300 hours and complete a relevant NVQ to attain the blue competent operator card. Plant operators must renew their blue cards every five years.

Full details are available on the ConstructionSkills website.

Short courses in training to operate different kinds of plant and machinery are available. It is also possible to take an NVQ Level 3 in construction plant and equipment supervision.

Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A plant operator should:

  • Have a practical aptitude for machinery.
  • Have stamina and agility to cope with lifting, climbing and carrying.
  • Have a good head for heights.
  • Have steady hands, and good eyesight and hearing.
  • Be safety conscious.
  • Be able to work independently and in a team.
  • Display good spatial awareness and judgement.
  • Have good co-ordination.
  • Be willing to work outdoors in all weathers.
  • Have a basic knowledge of vehicle mechanics.

Your Long Term Prospects

Once experience has been gained on the job and with the relevant skills it may be possible to move on to:

- A particular area of specialisation
- Other types of plant or equipment
- Become a site instructor

With further training and qualifications experienced plant operators may go on to become site supervisors or site managers.

Get Further Information

Bircham Newton, King's Lynn,
Norfolk PE31 6RH
Tel: 0300 456 7577

National Construction College (NCC) East,
Bircham Newton, King's Lynn,
Norfolk PE31 6RH
Tel: 0300 456 7616

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