How to Become a Heavy Machine Operator: Education and Career Roadmap

Mar 11, 2020

Research the requirements to become a heavy machine operator. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career in machinery.

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Should I Become a Heavy Machine Operator?

Heavy machine operators, also known as construction equipment operators, prepare machines to function, drive and operate machinery and monitor the machines during operation. Some of their job duties include adjusting machine settings, performing basic repairs and ensuring that machines meet various safety standards. This occupation can be physically demanding, and operators must follow safety precautions to prevent injuries. reported the median annual salary for heavy machine operators in February 2020 was $41,531.

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma or equivalent; certificate/associate's degree availablel
Degree Field Heavy machine or equipment operation
Training 3 to 4 year apprenticeship; on-the-job training
Licensure and Certification Specialty license required in some states; most states require CDL license, voluntary certifications available
Key Skills Mechanical skills, hand-eye-foot coordination, comfortable with heights, ability to use construction equipment and machinery
Median Salary $41,531 (as of February 2020 for all heavy machine operators)


To work as a heavy machine operator, you need a minimum of a high school diploma. Certificate or associate degrees in heavy machine or equipment operation are available, but are optional. Typically you'll need to go through on-the-job training or a 3-4 year apprenticeship. A specialty license may be required in some states, and most states require a CDL license. There are voluntary certifications available.

You'll also want to possess mechanical skills, good hand-eye-foot coordination, and the ability to use construction equipment and machinery. You should also be comfortable with heights.

Steps to Become a Heavy Machine Operator

Let's see what steps you'll need to take to become a heavy machine operator.

Step 1: Complete an Apprenticeship

Many heavy machine operators begin their job by completing an apprenticeship, which typically requires meeting the age requirement, having a high school diploma and being able to physically complete certain tasks. In an apprenticeship program, which generally takes 3-4 years to complete, you'll learn in the classroom and on the job, as well as by observing experienced workers. You may start your training by doing simpler tasks, such as starting and stopping machines, and advance to more complex tasks like repairing machines.

Consider training in a post-secondary program. Individuals who would like to advance their knowledge may consider enrolling in community colleges and other schools that offer certificate or associate's degree programs in heavy machine operation. Students in these post-secondary programs study topics such as safety, equipment operations and environmental compliance.

Step 2: Obtain the Necessary Licensure or Certification

For workers who will be driving heavy machinery, such as those used for construction, a commercial driver's license may be required. This generally means you will need to pass knowledge and skills tests as well as meet other specific requirements. In some states, operators of heavy machinery such as cranes need certification. Requirements vary by state, but typically require some professional experience, like training through an apprenticeship.

Step 3: Find Work as a Heavy Machine Operator

You may look for available positions in industries that include construction, government and trade work. You can find jobs that allow you to operate a specific type of heavy machinery, such as surfacing equipment, cranes or pile drivers. With additional training and experience, you can become self-employed.

Step 4: Consider Obtaining Additional Certification

Voluntary certification is available for professionals who want to show proficiency and professionalism. Trade groups and organizations, such as the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) offer certification programs for machine operators. The NCCCO certification options, which are available for mobile crane, tower crane and overhead crane operators, include passing a written and practical exam. Certifications typically last a set number of years, after which operators need to be recertified.

To become a heavy machine operator you need to complete training, get appropriate licensing, gain experience and consider certification.

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