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Heavy Equipment Licensing: Everything You Need to Know

By Larry Alton
Business.com / Last Modified: August 31, 2017
Image from maggee/Shutterstock

Some people like to wear a suit and tie every day and work on the 53rd floor of an urban skyscraper.

Some people like to wear a suit and tie every day and work on the 53rd floor of an urban skyscraper. Other people like to lace up their boots in the mornings and build those skyscrapers that the rest of America works in. 

If you fall into the latter category and prefer blue-collar work that pays well, you may be interested in becoming a heavy equipment operator. It takes a fair amount of work, education, and training to get started, but it is an excellent career path for those interested in hands-on labor.

Here’s What You Need to Know

As you’re probably aware, heavy equipment operators are in charge of driving and controlling different pieces of heavy equipment for construction projects. Some of the typical pieces of heavy machinery operators work with include cranes, bulldozers, backhoes, graders and pavers. Typical activities include paving roads; transporting building materials; digging trenches; and loading gravel, dirt, and debris into dump trucks.

While a high school diploma and a commercial driver’s license are the only basic prerequisites, there are a number of other programs, certifications and apprenticeship programs that individuals must go through in order to work their way up the ranks.

Because of the risk involved – both to the operator and those around them – crane operators face the most stringent licensing requirements. Starting in 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began mandating that crane operators complete an approved training or certification program. On top of that, most states require specific licenses and certifications of competence. These programs typically consist of written and practical skills exams.

For those who aren’t interested in operating a crane, licensing isn’t as challenging. Most of the requirements are dependent on the state you’re working in and the companies you want to be hired by. You’re required to have a commercial driver’s license, which involves taking a written exam and completing a driving test.

Many heavy equipment operators simply learn the skills needed to succeed while on the job. There are, however, three- and four-year formal apprenticeship programs available at community colleges, trade unions and vocational schools. Part of the time is spent in the classroom, while a large percentage is spent at job sites.

The good news is that heavy equipment training usually doesn’t cost very much. Some programs, such as a three- or four-year formal apprenticeships, are obviously more expensive than others, but the cost of getting licensed and certified is nowhere close to what it costs to get a degree in other fields. For just a few thousand dollars, you can complete a three- to eight-week training program and then pay just a few hundred dollars to complete all of the necessary exams and licensing applications. 

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Other Career Information

In many cases, new operators are required to apprentice under seasoned veterans before becoming fully licensed. During this time, apprentices may earn between 50 to 90 percent of a normal worker’s wages.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for heavy equipment operators is $21.65 per hour, which comes out to roughly $45,040 per year. The industry is growing at 10 percent (faster than the national average), and there’s ample room for growth.

Crane operators tend to get paid more than other heavy machine operators, with many making more than $50,000 or $60,000 per year. Those with lots of experience on major job sites can easily make six figures per year.

Make Heavy Equipment Operating Your Next Career Path

It’s easy to get your foot in the door, but there are a lot of licensing and training requirements with heavy equipment operation. If you’re willing to put in the work and pay your dues, exciting and potentially lucrative jobs could await you.


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