Backhoe Operator Job Profile

Backhoe operators are skilled machine operators. A backhoe is a standard tracked excavation vehicle, usually with front scoops like bobcats, and an articulated rear "hoe" digger. Backhoes are all purpose excavators, used for laying pipes, digging drains, and other excavations requiring linear accuracy.  This job takes a lot of training and experience to do properly.

The Work Environment

Underground pipes, cables, and water connections are all laid by backhoes. This is a much tougher job than it looks. These lines have to be laid on specifications, and have to be accurately sited according to strict planning requirements. The backhoe operator's job is to dig these lines according to specifications, despite the nature of the ground. Digging can be difficult work. A backhoe may have to operate in all sorts of ground conditions, working with heavy clays, fine sand and the idiosyncrasies of the terrain. Backhoe operators typically work in major industries:

  • Construction
  • Telecommunications
  • Infrastructure
  • Energy
  • Power
  • Water
  • Waste management

Job Requirements

The job also requires a good understanding of the construction issues. Water pipes, for example, contain lots of water under pressure. If the pipe isn't laid properly, stress can destroy it. The pipes have to be laid well, and any distortion of the pipe when in position by the trench line can cause real problems.

Another major part of the backhoe operator's job is to avoid damaging other underground cables or pipes. This can be delicate work, and backhoe operators may find themselves working with site plans which don't accurately indicate the presence of these underground hazards. It's a real risk, and operators do unintentionally hit these structures.

The backhoe operator needs to be an expert operator. Vehicle navigation for backhoes is an art form. It requires an excellent knowledge of vehicle handling, and an understanding of the balance and needs of the digger. The digger can only work on a flat base, and must be stable. The articulated arm can be at risk from sideways pressures, and can be damaged by mistakes. In construction work, hitting foundations or other hard objects can also be a risk.

Salary and Hours

Highly variable bandwidth, from $31,000 to $54,000. Hourly wages can vary considerably, from $15 to $32, based on experience. The hours worked may involve small site jobs or long term contracts, depending on nature of work and industry. Hours are also affected by project schedules. 

The Career Environment

Backhoe operators have excellent job mobility, and experienced operators are very welcome in any construction project. Specialist operators are usually employed in specific industries, where their expertise adds a lot to productivity and site work efficiency.

Career progression in this field is hierarchical, usually from operator to supervisor or foreman, then to management. This is a "must" job in many fields of supervision, where experienced operators oversight and train staff. The experienced operators are also expert site workers, who know how to handle site issues and assess risks.

The career field isn't limited to being an employee. Some experienced operators move into business for themselves as excavation subcontractors. That can be a particularly lucrative business, serving the construction industry and local authorities with high value contracts. This career option also requires business training, and extensive industry experience.