Excavator operator

How can you learn to operate an excavator in New Zealand?

Last Updated on May 3, 2023 by Admin

With excavator jobs paying up to $60 per hour, operators are in high demand. It takes several years to become an experienced operator, but everyone starts somewhere.


In New Zealand, the first step is to obtain a driver licence endorsement for wheeled vehicles and tracked vehicles – these are shown as W and T on the rear of the driver licence. This gives the greatest flexibility as, while most excavators have tracks, some have wheels for when the application requires a machine that can move at speed between sites, or is required frequently on tar-sealed roads.

For the endorsement to be applied, the licence must be, at minimum, a full car licence (class 1). To drive equipment with a gross vehicle mass of more than 18,000kg on the road, a full medium rigid vehicle (class 2) or higher is required.

The endorsements themselves are a half-day course in road safety and regulations, and then manoeuvring the vehicle; they don’t cover digging or any specific excavator skills. In essence, they are simply designed to ensure that an operator is capable of driving the vehicles on a road without causing a danger to other traffic. Plus, wheels and tracks endorsements are due to be made obsolete, and they are not legally required if the machine is only operated on private property.



So, how does a budding operator learn everything that’s required on the job? Once the wheels and tracks endorsements are attained, there are five main options new operators use:

  1. On-the-job training
  2. Hire a mini excavator to practice
  3. Do an online course
  4. Watch YouTube videos
  5. Additional in-vehicle training

On-the-job training

On-the-job training is difficult to get without first starting in a lower-paid job such as a labourer. People work their way up into these jobs and it can take a while before you are trusted on the gear. It also needs an understanding boss and someone to mentor the operator as the potential for costly mistakes is high. Arriving at a construction site and learning on the job can be a baptism of fire – a sink-or-swim experience that can be intimidating and demoralising.

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Hire an excavator to practice

Mini-excavators can be hired on a day rate for less than NZ$250, making it attainable to have one for a few days to practice the techniques.

Do an online course

An online excavator operators course is the perfect easy way to learn a lot of the critical information required to function as an operator on a job site. The important topics to understand when operating an excavator are:

  • Pre-operational checks
  • Safe operation
  • Driving up ramps and slopes
  • Loading trucks
  • Digging/trenching
  • Battering and benching
  • Safe shutdown
  • Worksite safety
  • Site consents and permits
  • Transporting the machine.

The trainee can then take their phone out into the excavator, review the material and practice based on what they have learned. It’s important to purchase the course from a reputable supplier, and preferably one that has been made with expert input by experienced operators.

Watch YouTube videos

YouTube is free, but it can be hit and miss. Some YouTube videos are excellent, while others demonstrate unsafe practices. Picking between the good and the bad is difficult for a new operator. Plus, most videos are from America where the regulations are different.

Additional in-vehicle training

This type of training is ideal once the theory is mastered by using an online course. The operator can put into practice the techniques learned, and have them refined by the trainer. This option can be expensive as it will require the excavator hire plus a trainer’s time (possibly $400+ for a half day)

New operators can’t expect to be proficient in all the main excavator skills immediately. Feeling at one with the machine takes time to achieve. Getting in and out of different machines also can be challenging with multiple types of interface and setup. A new operator must understand the theory and then develop the motor skills, and this takes time.


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