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Heavy Equipment Licensing: Everything You Need to Know editorial staff editorial staff

Here's what you need to know about licensing your heavy equipment operators or becoming one yourself.

  • If you enjoy working outdoors in all types of weather and sitting in the seat of a piece of heavy equipment, you could be destined to be a heavy equipment operator.
  • Education and experience requirements vary, depending on the type of equipment being used; however, in most situations, all that's required is a high school education and on-the-job training.
  • Responsible, trained and experienced heavy equipment operators can look forward to an increase in the job outlook.

What you need to know about licensing your heavy equipment operators

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.

What does a heavy machine operator do?

Heavy machine operators work with various types of heavy machinery, much of which is used on construction sites, for paving roadways, and for the destruction of buildings and other structures. Responsibilities vary by project; however, the key responsibilities of a heavy equipment operator are to control and operate equipment that moves earth, freight and other materials.

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 most common types of heavy machinery are cranes, bulldozers, backhoes, graders, dump trucks and pavers. Although many heavy machine operators are trained in the use of several pieces of equipment, some tend to focus on one type of heavy machinery.

For instance, someone who operates a backhoe may alternate between the backhoe and a bulldozer. Along with operating the equipment, heavy machine operators maintain the equipment and ensure the project area is safe, abiding by the strict guidelines and procedures put in place by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as their project foremen.


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Education and experience

While a high school diploma or equivalent and a commercial driver's license are the basic prerequisites, individuals must go through various other programs, certifications and apprenticeship programs 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. In 2010, 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 depend on the state you're working in and the companies you want to work for. 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 necessary skills 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 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. 

How much do heavy equipment operators earn?

In many cases, new operators are required to apprentice under seasoned veterans before becoming fully licensed. During this time, apprentices may earn between 50% and 90% 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 a rate of 10% (faster than the national average), and there's ample room for more 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.

Job outlook for heavy machine operators

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected growth of employment for heavy equipment operators is expected to increase 10% between 2018 and 2028, which is a quicker average than other occupations. Heavy equipment operators who are trained to operate multiple types of equipment have the best job opportunities.

Make heavy equipment operation your new career path

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

Image Credit: m-gucci / Getty Images editorial staff editorial staff Member
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