Want a Bigger Paycheck? Advanced Construction Training Pays

Average pay for a construction worker is significantly higher than the typical occupation. In the right job with the proper training, construction workers can earn even more.

Construction workers tend to earn more than the typical occupation. According to 2017 wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the entry-level wage (10th percentile) for construction workers is 32 percent higher than the occupational average. The typical wage (median) is 15 percent higher.

With the right job and the right training, construction workers can earn even more than that. For example, when compared to the median national wage for basic construction workers:

  • Construction equipment operators make another $1-2 an hour
  • Crane and tower operators make another $4 an hour
  • Mining machine operators make another $4-5 an hour
  • Piledriver operators make another $6-7 an hour
  • Boilermakers make another $9 an hour

Additionally, construction supervisors make another $10 an hour. To get on the fast track to a supervisory position, construction professionals need the right skills, attitude and work ethic—along with the proper training and education.

Acquiring the Skills for Well-Paying Field Positions

Many construction professionals develop their skillsets through on-the-job training. Training is also provided by labor unions, technical schools and associations. Companies such as Associated Training Services (ATS) often partner with these types of organizations to help deliver that training.

ATS is based in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The company has been delivering truck and construction equipment operator training since the 1950s. ATS offers beginner-level training for people looking to pursue a heavy equipment operator career. Additionally, specialized training is offered to people already working in the construction industry.

Enrollment in ATS’s specialized training has been growing. “In the past, construction companies often sent employees to our 50-acre campus for training in response to an accident or to comply with regulations,” says John Klabacka, president of ATS. “Now it’s more about helping employees gain new skills that will move them into higher-paying jobs—jobs that are also in high demand.”

ATS students can learn how to operate a variety of heavy equipment including dump trucks, all-terrain forklifts, wheel loaders, excavators, directional drills, cranes and more. This heavy equipment operator school is very hands-on thanks to ATS’s fleet of more than 100 pieces of equipment.

“Our training is designed to get people what they are looking for in a short period of time,” Klabacka says. “On the second day here, a student can get in a piece of equipment and start digging dirt or lifting a load with a crane. There is also some classroom training.”

The heavy equipment operator program is offered in two levels, each taking about three weeks to complete. Students who then want to go through additional crane, rigging, directional drilling and CDL training could spend up to four months at ATS. “We actually have many students who do this,” Klabacka points out. The more skills one has, the more marketable he or she is.

Because of the high-dollar equipment that is needed, there is a cost associated with this type of hands-on training. But as Klabacka points out, the student often begins seeing a return on his or her investment relatively quickly.

For example, the cost of the six-week heavy equipment operator program is equivalent to one year at the typical four-year university, if not just a single semester. “So after a month or two at ATS, students can often find a good job and start making good money right away,” Klabacka says.

That is precisely why ATS has been seeing an increase in enrollment. With the beginner-level programs, Klabacka says it is a mix of both young adults fresh out of high school and working professionals looking to switch careers. Those career-hoppers are typically in search of more job stability, better pay and increased job satisfaction.

Thousands of companies from around the country maintain regular contact with ATS. “In summer 2018, we were getting as many as 10 calls a day from construction companies looking to hired skilled people,” Klabacka relates. “Whether it is construction, utility, energy or fiber, these industries aren’t getting any smaller—yet the labor force continues to shrink. That creates great opportunity for people with the proper training and skills.”

Raise Your Stock with Certification

Certification goes hand in hand with training and education. Training and education help construction professionals attain necessary skills and knowledge. Certification helps validate those skills and knowledge. Thus, certification gives employers some additional peace of mind—and that helps employees “raise their stock” and become more marketable.

“It is very clear that certification helps construction professionals reassert their position in the industry,” says Graham Brent, CEO of the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO). Certified operators are highly coveted during times of economic boom. “During times of economic slowdown, on the other hand, certified operators are often the least likely to get laid off,” Brent adds.

The NCCCO has been certifying crane operators since 1995. The non-profit also certifies riggers and signalpersons, as well as digger derrick operators and piledriver operators. Safety continues to be a focal point of the NCCCO’s certification effort. Nowadays, it’s also about helping chart a career pathway for professionals first entering the construction industry, as well as those already working in it.

“We have been certifying a wide variety of crane operators,” Brent relates. “Some are totally green, having just completed some kind of training course. Others have recently finished their technical school training. Others had worked their way through a standard three- or four-year apprenticeship program.”

Regardless of the circumstance, the desire to become certified is often tied to the desire to become a more valuable employee. According to Brent, certification definitely helps a construction equipment operator increase his or her value.

Gaining Supervisory Status

As pointed out earlier, construction supervisors tend to make another $10 an hour compared to the average construction worker. There are a few different pathways construction professionals often take to get there.

“Many employees with associate-level degrees also have field experience,” says Mike Holland, president of the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE), the accrediting agency for construction programs at colleges and universities. These types of employees are often looking for that combination of classroom and field experience to help elevate them into some kind of field-oriented supervisory role such as a superintendent or jobsite foreman.

On the other hand, people enrolling in a four-year college have their sights set on a supervisory or management role once they graduate. Field experience is often minimal at best, but that doesn’t matter.

“Every company always needs that element of management-level employee,” Holland reminds. “Companies need talented people who have the ability to understand things like cash flow, capital expenditures, productivity, human resources and contracts. There is a real need for those types of college graduates today.”

Holland says people leaving four-year colleges with construction-related degrees often move into well-paying jobs such as estimators, field engineers and assistant superintendents. Most graduates with master’s if not bachelor’s degrees embark on a path where they become middle- to upper-management employees within 10-15 years.

Enrollment in construction-related programs around the country had dropped 30-40 percent in the few years following the 2009 recession. Like the economy, enrollment has recovered—but Holland says there is still a void in the pipeline.

“Many students have jobs lined up before they even graduate,” Holland adds. “I’m also hearing about students getting several job offers and even signing bonuses in some instances. Furthermore, many are rising up to middle management much faster than in the past because there’s a hole there, too. Anybody who wants a job gets a job—and a good, high-paying job at that.”

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