How Can I Earn a Heavy Equipment Operator License?

Heavy equipment operators work with cranes, excavators and other large pieces of machinery at construction sites. Read on to learn which types of heavy equipment require a license to operate and how to obtain it. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Overview of Heavy Equipment Operator Jobs

As a heavy equipment operator, you could be working with backhoes, cranes, loaders, graders, bulldozers, pavers or a combination of machines. Much of this equipment is used in the construction and manufacturing industries. You may find yourself hoisting shipping containers, leveling surfaces for paving, digging trenches or loading gravel onto dump trucks. In some cases, you may also be required to maintain the proper working condition of the equipment you're operating.

Important Facts About Heavy Equipment Operators

Material Moving Machine Operators Construction Equipment Operators
Median Salary (2014) $32,890 $42,900
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 3% 10%
Key Skills Alertness, visual ability Physical strength, not afraid of heights
Work Environment Warehouses, mines, manufacturing facilities Construction projects in remote locations, factories, mines

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Licensing Requirements

Crane Operators

In late 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandated that all crane operators must complete an approved training or certification program ( Many states also regulate crane operators by requiring them to obtain a license or certificate of competence.

In most cases, a state will grant you the necessary credential if you've completed a nationally recognized certification program, such as those offered through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators ( This certification is for applicants who can pass a written and practical skills exam. Other states may require you to complete an apprenticeship program and pass a series of state-issued exams.

All Others

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that you may need a commercial driver's license (CDL) to operate and transport pavers, bulldozers or other heavy equipment to a construction site ( The CDL is a special license for drivers who operate vehicles that carry hazardous materials or weigh over 26,001 pounds on public roads, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ( Applicants are required to pass a written exam and road test. Some employers may require you to earn additional endorsements for tank vehicles or double trailers.

Training Options

Many equipment operators learn this trade on the job. However, you may need a high school diploma or GED to get hired, according to the BLS.

You can also complete heavy equipment operator training through a formal apprenticeship program. These 3-4-year programs are available through community colleges, vocational schools and trade unions, such as the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). You'll spend part of your time in the classroom studying topics, such as job safety and equipment maintenance procedures. The remaining time is spent at job sites. You may learn how to work with light machinery at the beginning of your training and progress to operating heavier, more technologically advanced machines. Depending on the program, you may receive pay for your work.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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