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Heavy Equipment Operator Certification & License Requirements

Heavy Equipment Operator Certification & License Requirements

There are many different paths you can take to become a heavy equipment operator (HEO). If you don’t have the time or money to attend a heavy equipment operator school, an employer that offers on-the-job training or an apprenticeship can get you the experience and training you need to operate certain types of heavy equipment.

OSHA doesn’t require a specific type of certification for most machines, but it does require employers to train heavy equipment operators on the safety and use of their equipment on site.

This post discusses what types of equipment require a heavy equipment operator license or certification and how to earn one or become properly trained.

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What Does Heavy Equipment “Certification” Mean?

You won’t need to be certified through a vocational school or apprenticeship program for most equipment. OSHA only has specific certification requirements for powered industrial truck and crane operators, with more general requirements for other types of heavy equipment operators.

Although employers are only required to train you on the safety and use of heavy equipment in their specific environment, some employers will offer on-the-job training so that you can become a skilled operator on other types of equipment as well. So weigh your options to see what’s the best fit for your future goals.

Types of Licenses and Certifications

OSHA requires certain licenses and certifications for operating specific pieces of heavy equipment. We’ll explain each type below.

heavy equipment operator required licenses and certifications

Commercial Driver’s License

Per the Department of Transportation, to operate commercial motor vehicles (CMV) that have a gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more, you need a commercial driver’s license or CDL.

Heavy equipment operated on a jobsite like front end loaders or bulldozers doesn’t fall under this license, but you may want a CDL to operate heavy trucks, like dump trucks, or transport equipment between jobsites.

There are different classes of CDLs based on the type of vehicle you’d be operating, so ensure you choose the correct class for your CDL before getting it. As with most licenses, you’ll need to complete a driver training course, pass a medical exam, a driving record check, a skills test or practical exam, and written tests.

Powered Industrial Truck (Forklift) Certification

OSHA standard 1910.178 details the required training and certification for forklift operators. Training requirements include formal instruction and practical training. Once an operator has been trained and passes their evaluation, they receive a certification certificate.

The operator must be evaluated at least once every three years. Should an employee operate in an unsafe or incorrect manner, they are subject to refresher training and a possible alteration of their duties to keep everyone safe.

Crane Operators

According to OSHA 29 CFR 1926.1427, crane operators have to be certified and must be retested every five years.

Certification may occur through the National Commission Certification of Crane Operators or NCCCO. However, if you operate derricks, side boom cranes, or equipment that lifts 2,000 pounds or less, you may not need this certification. Depending on the state you’re in, you might need a different or additional certification, so be sure to check with your state and local laws.

How to Get Trained and Certified

Whether you have just graduated high school, are in the construction industry, or considering a job change, becoming an HEO is a great way to attain a construction job. This section will discuss how to get certified through different types of training.

heavy equipment operator training options


If you’re fresh out of high school or switching careers, you should consider an apprenticeship program. In these training programs, learners work in field training or structured programs under supervision. You quickly gain hands-on experience and learn relevant information on the machinery you will later operate yourself. This combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction is typically sponsored by unions.

On-The-Job Training

If you’re already in the construction industry, you should ask your employer for training in heavy equipment. From there, you may be introduced to on-the-job heavy equipment training from your employer. You’d begin learning skills as a heavy equipment operator, but you won’t start as one immediately. Companies may provide such training or get it from a third party, and this training won’t take as long as an apprenticeship might since you learn as you go.


Another way to get into an apprenticeship is to join a union, as many look to join the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). This is a competitive route to go, as you have to go through several interviews and tests, but if the branch has lots of jobs open, you’re likely to get a spot.

Another option available would be applying to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which may allow you to work with heavy equipment that performs trenching as well as give you hands-on experience with excavators. If you have connections in the IUOE or IBEW chapters and heavy equipment experience, you may have a better experience applying for these programs.

Training Schools

If you’re currently in a career you don’t enjoy, or if you’re fresh out of high school, you can start learning about heavy equipment through vocational school. Training or vocational schools offer you a structured education with heavy equipment as the focus. These schools offer an online, hands-on, or a combination of classroom and practical learning experiences. After graduation, you can immediately apply for an HEO job, instead of working your way up from the bottom.

10 Highest Paid Heavy Equipment Operator Jobs

Here are the most common heavy equipment operator jobs. The annual salary ranges are also listed.

  • Winch truck driver: $53,500–$72,000
  • Crane operator: $45,000–$69,000
  • Yard manager: $40,500–$64,500
  • Rigger: $48,000–$62,000
  • Backhoe operator: $46,500–$61,500
  • Construction equipment operator: $44,500–$57,000
  • Mobile equipment operator: $36,000–$54,000
  • Equipment Operator 1: $41,000–$53,500
  • Equipment Operator: $38,000–$52,000
  • Concrete mixer truck driver: $40,500–$51,500

Career Paths for Heavy Equipment Operators

Many HEOs begin at the entry-level and work their way up to the heavy equipment. To do this, many start as laborers, like oilers, drillers, and miners. They also show a general interest in construction sites, how construction sites work, and learn about different heavy machines through their work. After you’ve received your training through an apprenticeship, vocational school, or on-the-job training, you can move up to become a heavy equipment operator.

heavy equipment operator career path examples

Once you’ve become a heavy equipment operator, you can go down several different career paths. For example, you could start as a field technician, move up to team leader, become a warehouse manager, and end as a warehouse operations manager.

The career path isn’t linear and for some it may be a stepping stone into other industry roles:

  • Truck driver → electrician → superintendent → general superintendent
  • Foreman → supervisor → warehouse manager
  • Maintenance technician → electrician → maintenance supervisor → facilities manager

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Ready to Start Your Career in Heavy Equipment Operation?

No matter where you are in life, it’s never too late to become a heavy equipment operator. There are plenty of routes to choose from when earning your license and certification, and there are plenty of job opportunities for HEOs. Once you become equipped to operate heavy machinery, BigRentz has heavy equipment rental options for all of your needs.


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