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How to Get a Heavy Equipment License

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Although construction zones can be a nuisance, heavy equipment operators ultimately help maintain the ease and flow of modern life. From shopping malls to access roads, they build the structures and routes we need. Some of the machinery classified as heavy equipment includes backhoes, loaders, bulldozers, backhoes, pavers and cranes. Although there are no baseline licensing requirements for heavy equipment operators, there are regulations in place, depending on the job. For example, in 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that crane operators in the United States must earn some form of licensure, training or certification. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many states also require heavy equipment operators to get a CDL driving license in order to transport machinery.


The education required to earn a heavy equipment license or certification is not formally regulated, though most applicants must have a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends that students interested in this field take courses in mathematics, English, shop and auto repair. Vocational programs are also available at some community colleges and vocational schools; however, before enrolling, students should make sure that the course chosen offers hands-on experience in addition to classroom instruction. The BLS stresses the importance of learning through realistic simulation, or actually operating the equipment in a safe, controlled environment with a qualified teacher.

Training and Apprenticeship

Many companies offer heavy equipment operators on-the-job training under the tutelage of a seasoned operator. Another option is to complete an apprenticeship, such as the one offered through the International Union of Operating Engineers. Apprenticeships can last between three and four years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that apprentices typically have to complete a minimum of 144 hours of instruction per year; classroom training usually consists of lessons on job safety, equipment maintenance, first aid, map reading and operational procedures. Apprentices must also complete 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training annually; students learn how to maintain and operate equipment, and use special technology. For admittance, applicants must be at least 18, with a high school diploma or equivalent, and a valid driver’s license.

Licenses and Certification

Many states require heavy equipment operators to get a CDL (Commercial Driving License) in order to safely haul equipment. According to, trainees are often required to have a CDL just to practice on real equipment. Specific requirements vary but typically involve a written and driving test. Recently, OHSA ruled that crane operators must attend some type of certification or training program; as of 2014, pile drivers are classified as cranes in 18 states. According to the BLS, many cities, including New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, mandate crane operators to obtain a special license.


Beyond licensure and certification, heavy equipment operators must be physically able to perform the job. They must also have some mechanical skills, as they are sometimes required to fix and maintain their own equipment. Excellent hand-eye coordination is also needed, as well as the ability to handle working from great heights.