Become a Tractor Operator: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a tractor operator. Research the career requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in heavy equipment operations. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Tractor Operator?

Tractor operators are also referred to as material moving machine operators. Tractor operators often work in construction, agriculture, manufacturing or industrial settings. These professionals use tractors to move dirt, debris or other items, as well as tow heavy equipment or transport storage containers. This work can be physically demanding and dangerous. Special clothing is often worn for protection.

Career Requirements

Degree Level None; certificate or associate degree useful
Degree Field Heavy equipment operation or technology
Licensure Commercial driver's license may be required; other licenses vary by state and employer
Experience Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training
Key Skills Attentive to surroundings and possible hazards; able to follow directions; use of inventory management, logistics, and supply chain software; knowledge of heavy equipment operations maintenance and different types of tractors
Salary $32,090 (2015 median wage for industrial truck and tractor operators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, (July 2015)

No post-secondary degree necessary to work as a tractor operator, but a certificate in or associate degree in heavy equipment operation or technology may prove useful. A commercial driver's license may be required and other licenses may be necessary depending on the employer and the state. Tractor operators should have some experience with moving materials or using hand-operated moving equipment. Many tractor operators receive on-the-job training via apprenticeships. Key skills include the ability to pay attention to surroundings, spot hazards and follow directions; the ability to use inventory management, logistics and supply chain software; and knowledge of heavy equipment operations maintenance and familiarity with different types of tractors. As of 2015, the median annual salary for industrial truck and tractor operators was $32,090.

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  • Heavy Equipment Operation
  • Truck, Bus and Commercial Driver

Steps to Becoming a Tractor Operator

Step 1: Complete Training Program

Pre-employment training is not required for many tractor operator positions, but individuals with knowledge and experience may have better chances at finding employment. Operators often receive training through apprenticeship programs, which allow individuals to learn the skills they need to operate and maintain tractors. At the same time, apprentices work while they learn, so they earn paychecks. According to the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), most heavy equipment operator apprenticeship programs take 3-4 years to complete.

Individuals can also complete a heavy equipment operations (HEO) certificate or associate degree programs. However, not all HEO programs include tractor training. Besides learning about tractors, students can also receive training with other heavy equipment, such as backhoes, bulldozers and excavators. Course topics in these programs may include HEO safety, earth-moving blueprints, electrical systems, hazardous materials safety, surveying techniques and equipment operations.

Take Equipment Maintenance Courses

Several HEO programs offer classes in equipment maintenance. Although tractor operators may only have to perform minimal maintenance duties, additional training with equipment maintenance and repair may help individuals find employment.

Step 2: Obtain Necessary Licenses

Tractors are classified as heavy equipment, and according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, drivers need a class A commercial driver's license (CDL) if they operate vehicles that weigh more than 26,001 pounds and use these heavy vehicles to tow other vehicles or items that weigh more than 10,000 pounds. Each state regulates CDL tests, but usually individuals have to pass both written and practical skills tests to become licensed.

Some states or employers may not require any additional licenses, but they may require workers to obtain permits, which can verify that individuals have completed safety and equipment operations training. Individuals may require permits for each piece of equipment they operate.

Maintain Licenses

Tractor operators who have CDLs must keep their licenses active in accordance with state laws. Although each state has different renewal procedures, some common requirements include vision tests, proof of recent medical exams and the ability to pass related written exams. Professionals may have to renew permits as well, which could involve individuals participating in refresher training programs.

Step 3: Join a Union

Professionals are not required to join unions, although unions may help individuals find employment and maintain benefits. Tractor operators can locate unions locally by region, but there are also national and international unions available. For example, IUOE is an international union that strives to help equipment operators receive fair wages as well as promote continuing education training programs for their members.

Joining a union requires meeting eligibility requirements, which may include proving academic training or job experience. Most unions also charge membership fees on a monthly or yearly basis.

Hopeful tractor operators should first complete a training program, obtain the necessary licenses and consider joining a union.

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