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 read the step-by-step process to start a career in heavy equipment operation.

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Do I Want to Be 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 can be seasonal, with long hours and in all kinds of weather. Some operators work in remote locations, and care must be taken to follow all safety procedures in order to lower the chance of injury.

Job Requirements

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. Operators generally learn their skills through apprenticeship programs that include classroom and on-the-job training. Once they complete the apprenticeship, the operators become journeymen and can join the workforce. The following table describes the general requirements to become a heavy equipment operator:

Common 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*
Experience 1-3 years of industry experience***
Key skills Hand-eye-foot coordination, depth perception, near and far vision acuity, good reaction time*
Technical Skills Proficiency in the safe operation of various equipment, familiarity with global positioning systems (GPS)*
Additional Requirements 18 years old, commercial driver's license, physical stamina*; some equipment requires passing Department of Transportation (DOT) medical requirements and not engaging in substance abuse**

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

Step 1: Complete 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.

Success Tips:

  • Chose 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 2: Earn Licenses and Certifications

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.

Some 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.

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    • Montana (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at The University of Montana include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Non-Degree: Coursework
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Ground Transportation
        • Heavy Equipment Operation
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    • Pennsylvania (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at New Castle School of Trades include:
      • Non-Degree: Certificate, Coursework
      • Undergraduate: Associate
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Ground Transportation
        • Heavy Equipment Operation
        • Truck, Bus and Commercial Driver
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    Areas of study you may find at Stanford University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Drama and Theatre Arts
      • Fine Arts and Studio Art
      • Musical Arts
      • Photography, Film, and Video
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    • Massachusetts (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Harvard University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Math
  • School locations:
    • Pennsylvania (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Pennsylvania include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: First Professional Certificate, Post Master's Certificate, Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Biomedical and Medical Engineering
      • Chemical Engineering
      • Civil Engineering
      • Computer Engineering
      • Electrical Engineering and Electronics
      • Environmental Engineering
      • Geological Engineering
      • Materials Engineering
      • Math
      • Mechanical Engineering
      • Systems Engineering
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    • Rhode Island (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Brown University include:
      • Graduate: First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Biomedical and Medical Engineering
      • Engineering Physics
      • Math
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    • North Carolina (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Duke University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Comparative Language Studies and Services
      • English Language and Literature
      • Foreign Language and Literature
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    • Indiana (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Notre Dame include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • English Language and Literature
      • Foreign Language and Literature
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    • Columbia (D.C.) (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Georgetown University include:
      • Graduate: First Professional Degree, Master
      • Non-Degree: Coursework
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Comparative Language Studies and Services
      • English Language and Literature
      • Foreign Language and Literature
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    • Tennessee (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at Vanderbilt University include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Transportation and Distribution
      • Drama and Theatre Arts
      • Fine Arts and Studio Art
      • Musical Arts
      • Photography, Film, and Video

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