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How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

How to Become a Heavy Equipment Operator

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Heavy equipment operators are essential in industries like mining and construction. They are specially trained to operate large, complex machines such as bulldozers, excavators, backhoes and loaders.

If you are someone who enjoys working in a demanding, fast-paced environment and contributing to large-scale projects, then you may be well-suited to a career as a heavy equipment operator.

While becoming a heavy equipment operator is challenging, it’s a rewarding career choice that comes with many benefits. Heavy equipment operators are generally well-paid — and many go on to start their own businesses.

In this guide, we cover the basics of becoming a heavy equipment operator, including the requirements for certification.

Types of Heavy Equipment Operator Certifications

The first decision you’ll need to make on your path to becoming a certified heavy equipment operator is which type of heavy equipment to operate.

There is no standard heavy equipment operator certification or license, but you may need to obtain a commercial driver’s license for certain machines.

Specifically, federal law requires operators to obtain a CDL (commercial driver’s license) in order to operate any machine weighing more than 26,000 lbs. This means you’ll likely need a CDL to operate common types of heavy equipment like dozers and excavators.

Beyond this requirement, you may be required to undergo special training to operate some types of equipment. For example, OSHA requires special training for forklift operators; however, this training can be conducted by a work supervisor and there is no national certification.

Heavy Equipment Operator Certification Requirements

Since there is no national certification for heavy equipment operators, there is no universal set of requirements for becoming certified. 

Heavy equipment operators will need to obtain a commercial driver’s license to operate heavy equipment, so it’s important to understand the requirements for obtaining a CDL.

Commercial Driver’s License Requirements

While each state is responsible for issuing commercial driver’s licenses within the state, the rules for obtaining the license are regulated by the federal government.

Here are the general requirements for obtaining a CDL:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • A clean driving record
  • Possess a regular driver’s license for at least 1 year
  • At least 18 years old
  • Pass a 10-year background check
  • Pass TSA screening
  • Pass a medical examination
  • Pass routine drug screenings
  • Pass a written exam
  • Pass a driving test

Additional Requirements

In addition to obtaining a commercial driver’s license, you may also need to meet other requirements before you can begin work as a certified heavy equipment operator.

Various states, cities, counties and even individual companies may have experience requirements and other certification rules they impose on heavy equipment operators.

Depending on your circumstances and the type of heavy equipment you’d like to operate, there are a few ways you can gain the experience needed to become a fully certified operator. 

Here are the most common ways to gain experience as an operator:

On-The-Job Training

The most common way to gain experience and prepare yourself for a career as a heavy equipment operator is through on-the-job training.

If you’re just getting started in construction, you may begin by applying for jobs at construction firms you’d like to work for. While your first role at the company may not be as a heavy equipment operator, the idea is to work your way up in the company and gradually gain experience as you go.

Many companies prefer to hire from within, and construction firms can offer you the training and experience to work as a heavy equipment operator. Although this route is not the fastest, it’s an easy path to begin on and doesn’t require any investment.

Training Schools

If you’re eager to begin operating heavy equipment right away, then you may want to consider a training school.

Training schools offer programs that last anywhere from a few weeks to a year and teach operators the basics of operating heavy equipment. At the conclusion of your training program, you’ll be provided with a certificate that denotes you’re ready to begin work as a heavy equipment operator.

Although this is the most straightforward way to approach becoming a heavy equipment operator, it also presents a few drawbacks. For starters, training schools can be expensive. Plus, finding a job at the end of your program isn’t always guaranteed. In addition, training schools do not offer the same networking opportunities you’d have available while working for a company or in a union.


If you want the structured guidance of a training school, but prefer on-the-job learning, you may want to consider an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships are programs sponsored by local labor unions that place promising applicants in jobs where they can learn a new trade. In many states and localities, these programs are free to the applicant.

The great thing about beginning your career as an apprentice in a union is that you’ll be paid while you’re learning on the job. In addition, unions are a great place to network and find career opportunities, making apprenticeships a great starting point for a career as a heavy equipment operator.

Two equipment operators side-by-side while one operates a forklift

Continuous Education

Even after you’ve become certified, it’s crucial to continue improving your knowledge and skills through continuous education. Continuous education can enhance your skill set, improve your safety and reward you in your career.

There are a number of ways to continue learning after you’ve become a certified heavy equipment operator. Here are the most common types of continuous education:

  • Specialized training programs
  • Online resources
  • Industry conferences and seminars
  • Equipment manufacturer training
  • Networking and mentoring

Benefits of Becoming a Heavy Equipment Operator

Becoming a certified heavy equipment operator offers a range of benefits that make it a worthwhile investment.

One of the main reasons to become a heavy equipment operator is the potential for attractive salaries. While specific figures vary by location and type of equipment, heavy equipment operators earn an average salary of more than $40,000 in most states.

The benefits of becoming a certified heavy equipment operator don’t stop there. Becoming a heavy equipment operator opens up an array of opportunities in a number of industries, not just construction.

For instance, utility companies, mining operations and transit companies often require skilled operators. Even diverse industries such as forestry, agriculture and landscaping rely on heavy equipment operators to maintain and operate specialized machinery.

This versatility allows certified operators to explore a range of fields and careers outside of construction.


Becoming a certified heavy equipment operator is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. Heavy equipment operators play a vital role in a number of key industries and will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future.

Whether you choose to begin your career in an established company, attend a trade school or join an apprenticeship program, getting in the operator cab and gaining practical experience is the best way to reach your goal.

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