Heavy Equipment Operator: How Do I Become a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Research the requirements to become a heavy equipment operator. Learn about the job description and duties and see the step-by-step process to start a career in heavy equipment operation.

Should I Become a Heavy Equipment Operator?

Heavy equipment operators maneuver heavy machinery safely, as well as calculate appropriate loads, follow blueprints and designs and ensure the proper running and maintenance of their machinery. Heavy equipment is a category of machinery that includes bulldozers, cranes, excavators, forklifts and other moving parts designed to transport earth or materials, erect and install construction materials, lay down roadbeds or pave materials.

Work is typically completed outdoors and can be seasonal, with long hours and in all kinds of weather. However, work is available full-time. Some operators work in remote locations, and care must be taken to follow all safety procedures in order to lower the chance of injury. Because of the large size and power of these machines, heavy equipment operators must be well trained and highly skilled in operating and servicing their machinery. The following table describes the general requirements to become a heavy equipment operator:

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma
Licensure and Certification Some heavy equipment, such as cranes, loaders and bulldozers, require a license or certification to operate
Training Apprenticeships and/or on-the-job training
Experience 1-3 years of industry experience
Key Skills Hand-eye-foot coordination, depth perception, near and far vision acuity, good reaction time and physical stamina, proficiency in the safe operation of various equipment, familiarity with global positioning systems (GPS), must be 18 years old and hold a commercial driver's license; some equipment requires passing Department of Transportation (DOT) medical requirements and not engaging in substance abuse
Salary $43,637 per year (Median salary from July 18, 2015 for heavy equipment operators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale.com, National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, CareerBuilder.com job listings (November 2012)

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

Nearly all heavy equipment operating jobs require a high school diploma or its equivalent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school courses in shop, mathematics and auto technology often benefit prospective heavy equipment operators.

Step 2: Complete Heavy Equipment Training

There are three ways to become a heavy equipment operator. Individuals can complete a union apprenticeship, a state apprenticeship program or go to a college or technical school. Most states require apprentices to be registered with the state. Apprenticeship programs provide classroom and on-the-job training with approved companies and generally take 3 to 4 years to complete. In the classroom, students learn equipment regulation and safety, equipment maintenance and repair, soil science, site grading, math and blueprint reading.

Apprentices work under qualified and experienced operators learning machinery operation, site safety and practical application of the skills learned in the classroom. College or technical school programs also offer classroom training and hands-on experience operating and maintaining the equipment; however, the graduate may not be exposed to as much field experience as an apprentice. Depending on the school, credits earned may be transferable to an associate's degree program in a major such as construction.

  • Choose the best apprenticeship for the locale. If the applicant is in an area that's unionized, a union-sponsored apprenticeship may be something to consider. If the region isn't unionized, the state apprenticeship program or training through a community college or technical school may be the better option.
  • Check the school's reputation with local businesses. Before enrolling in a technical or trade school, verify that local companies employ their graduates. This information may help in selecting a training institution and provide insight into career placement.

Step 3: Earn Licensure and/or Certification

In some states, heavy equipment operators, like those who operate different types of cranes, may be required to earn a state license or be certified by a national organization. The National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) offers certification in a number of types of cranes, such as mobile and tower cranes. Becoming certified typically requires completing a written and practical exam in crane operation.

Certification lasts five years, and it must be renewed by passing a recertification exam and having at least 1,000 hours of crane experience. Applicants must also adhere to NCCCO substance abuse, ethical and medical guidelines.

Many employers require heavy equipment operators to have a commercial driver's license (CDL) so that they can drive the truck and trailer that transport the equipment to and from the job site. Requirements for these licenses vary by state but generally include a written and practical examination. Maintaining licenses and certifications may ensure steady work and lead to promotions or career advancement.

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