Heavy Equipment Training – How to become an Operator

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How to Become A Heavy Equipment Operator

Are you looking for a promising career path with interesting work, excellent job growth, and plenty of opportunities for advancement? Perhaps heavy equipment operating might be the right field for you. It’s a relatively easy career to break into with affordable and fast training programs that will prepare you for success. Employers reward hard work and experience, so dedicated operators shouldn’t have a problem carving out their place in the industry.

When looking to start any new career, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is research. If you’re reading this, then you’re already off to a pretty great start. Every area will have their own regulations and licenses. Reading about your local operating will help you have gain an idea of what starting a career in this industry means.

It also helps to network with actively working heavy equipment operators. They will be able to give you the most accurate view of this career possible. If you have any friends that are operators, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask them questions. There are also abundant forums and websites online where you can speak to operators about the field. There you can have your questions answered and build a plan. You can develop a path for how you will become a heavy equipment operator yourself.

You can also ask 5th Wheel Training Institute about any questions or concerns you have about entering the field.

In this guide, we’re going to highlight some of the core aspects of the job. Then we will dive into what courses you can take to become a heavy equipment operator.

What Do Heavy Equipment Operators Do?

Heavy equipment operators are the people operating the heavy machinery on construction sites. Bulldozers, backhoes, excavators; operators are the ones responsible for using these machines to move a construction site’s schedule along. Operators use this equipment to transport and lift materials, clear and grade land, pave roadways, dig trenches, and repair pipelines.

They’re usually some of the first to a construction site. Operators prepare the area for roadways, buildings, airport runways, bridges, and other structures. This means that you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the process. You will see the work happen from beginning to end. This is just one of the unique advantages of being an operator. Advantages providing you with valuable experience for working in the construction field.

As an operator, you’ll also be responsible for following all site regulations and operating equipment in a safe manner. Each site will have its own rules and requirements. It’s important that you are briefed and informed on the specifications of each location you work at. These machines are, by design, capable of being very destructive. So it is of the utmost importance that operators work responsibly and within their provided guidelines.

You will also be expected to perform light repairs on your equipment when necessary, so familiarity with mechanics is a plus. It’s not a requirement, though, and heavy equipment training will prepare you for this aspect of the job.

Working Conditions

Like any career in construction, the majority of your time will be spent outdoors and on site. Since you will be working on sites with a defined beginning and end, there are a lot of seasonal and part-time positions available for operators. However, there are plenty of full-time positions as well, depending on what area of the career you’re looking to break into. Be prepared to go home covered in dirt and sweat. Construction sites are also loud and prone to accidents. While following regulations and sticking to safety guidelines will keep you safe for the most part, it’s still a tough job with dangerous equipment and has a higher than average injury rate for employees.

Construction sites are almost always on a tight schedule. Oftentimes, you will be performing work on a structure that the public uses on a regular basis, constructing a building, or making repairs to metropolitan infrastructure. All of these are time-sensitive jobs and supervisors need to meet deadlines as quickly as possible. Because of this, you can find yourself working longer than normal hours and occasionally in less than pleasant weather conditions.

Whether it’s hot or cold, wet or dry, you’ll usually be expected to continue work. There are exceptions of course, such as severe weather storms and incidents. Areas, where it snows often, are also likely to postpone site construction during snowstorms.

Requirements For Becoming A Heavy Equipment Operator

As you would imagine, not just anyone can hop into the seat of a several-ton machine and start digging away. There are some strict requirements that you’ll need to meet before starting your career.

Heavy equipment training is great for getting these licenses, as the instructors will know everything that you will be required to have and how to help you get it. These licenses are very difficult, if not impossible, to earn without some kind of formal training since you need access to heavy equipment for practice. If you go through a reputable training institute, they will be able to walk you through the process of earning these licenses in the simplest and most efficient way possible.


While not a requirement for every piece of machinery, most employers will require all operators to have their commercial drivers license (CDL). Even though a CDL isn’t necessary for everything you will work with, your equipment options are so limited that it greatly reduces your value to potential employers. Obtaining one is easy through a training program, plus it expands your job opportunities beyond just heavy equipment operating. The requirements for getting your CDL will vary by region, so make sure you’re informed of what your local requirements are for getting a CDL. A CDL is the only license you should need to get your career in heavy equipment started, though you’ll need more as you work with more equipment.


Certifications will be one of the core components of your heavy equipment training program. Think of them as your bread and butter. Every certification you get allows you to work with more equipment, increasing your value as an operator and opening up new job opportunities. The goal of heavy equipment training is to obtain the basic certifications for most sites, specific certifications for a type of operating, or to simply get as many as possible. The number and type of certifications you decide to get before seeking employment depends on the kind of operating you’d like to do and what kind of training you can afford.

Trainers will work with you on a specific set of equipment until you have met all the necessary requirements for that machinery, and then you will be issued a certificate for that machine. These certificates are usually good for five years, at which point you’ll need to renew the certification through an exam (if you’re still an actively working operator).

Being able to obtain a large number of certifications in a short amount of time with minimal paperwork and hands-on exposure is what makes heavy equipment schools such a great option for prospective operators. They do all of the figurative heavy lifting for you so that you can do the literal heavy lifting as quickly as possible. The courses will often give you their own certification for graduating in addition to your other certifications, which will help solidify your reputation with potential employers. Some employers even require that their employees have certification from an official training institute before considering hiring them.


While there are some cut and dry legal requirements you’ll need to go through to break into this field, there are also some general qualifications most employers will look for in potential employees.

For starters, it helps if you’re in relatively good shape. You’ll be performing physically demanding tasks on a routine basis as well as making repairs on your equipment when necessary. It also helps if you have a good sense of balance, the ability to judge distance, and reliable eye-hand-foot coordination. Some sites will have you working at heights, so being able to maintain your senses while above the ground is important as well.

Because operating involves a lot of mechanics, those who are familiar with working on machinery, vehicles, tractors, and the like will have an easier time picking up this trade. Military veterans are usually well suited to this kind of work as well. That said if you’ve never opened the hood of your car before, not to worry! Your heavy equipment training will make sure that you are prepared and capable of handling any situation that arises while on site.


Heavy Equipment Operator Training

While it’s technically not impossible to start working in the operating field with no experience or education, your odds of being hired are slim at best. Most employers require that new hires have an education beforehand and the people you compete with for the job most likely have certifications from a heavy equipment training program. The following education routes will ensure you have the best opportunities possible in the field.

High School Diploma or GED Equivalent

As is the standard in just about any career field, having your high school diploma or GED equivalent is almost a necessity. Not every employer requires it, but if you can, it’s definitely worth your while to invest the time into earning it. Not only will it make it easier to break into this field, but it’ll help in a multitude of other areas of your life as well.

For those still in high school, taking automobile mechanics courses and similar classes will help prepare you for a career in heavy equipment operating. Classes in mechanical drawing and science will also help you understand the inner workings of the machinery you work with as well. While everything you need to know will be covered in heavy equipment training, taking pre-courses while you can will make it easier to pick up the material in vocational school.

On-The-Job Training

On-the-job training will become a regular part of your career. Every construction site has different requirements, regulations, and equipment, so being able to adapt and learn on the go will be invaluable.

You can also get your career in operating started through on-the-job training, though it is much more difficult and time-consuming than going through an official training program. If you do decide to go this route, your training will be conducted by another, more experienced operator. They’ll likely start you off with simpler, lighter equipment, and help you work your way up to more heavy duty machinery.


An apprenticeship is a great way to learn the fundamentals of heavy equipment operating because it allows you to work on site under the supervision of experienced and working operators. Through an apprenticeship, you’ll have the opportunity to work hands-on with a wide variety of equipment in practical applications. And since an apprenticeship is through an employer, you’ll pretty much be guaranteed a job by the end of your term. This route will give you the most field experience.

The downside to this method is that it is the most time-consuming path. The average term of an apprenticeship is three years, or 6,000 hours, of on-site training. Apprentices also have to take at least 144 hours of classroom lessons each year of their apprenticeship. They are paid, however, which helps offset the time it takes. Every region has slightly different requirements for apprenticeship, so research the rules of your area before making your mind up.

Vocational Schools and Training Institutes

Vocational schools and training institutes are the fastest way to get your career in heavy equipment operating off the ground and onto the construction site. They give you the ability to work with equipment hands-on, learn about important regulations, site methods, procedures, and more. These forms of education will give you all of the certifications and licensing you need to get hired as quickly as possible.

Students at a training institute will be able to practice with equipment in a safe and monitored environment, keeping them and their career from any serious harm. They’re also a great way to set yourself apart from the competition. Having a certification from a reputable school, especially one that is respected among your local employers, will give you a good amount of negotiating power during the application process. Make sure that you research a heavy equipment training school’s reputation before going through the application process.

5th Wheel Training Institute Courses

heavy equipment training

5th Wheel Training Institute offers comprehensive, high-quality courses over an extensive amount of equipment. They also offer different levels of education and different areas of focus, so no matter what kind of education you’re looking for, 5th Wheel can accommodate.

Truck Driver: DZ and Heavy Equipment Certification: 8-piece

The Truck Driver: DZ and 8-Piece Heavy Equipment course covers all of the major forms of equipment you’ll be working with on a construction site as well as provides you with a DZ license. This license allows you to drive heavy goods trucks, dump trucks, fire trucks, and more. After graduating this course, you’ll have the ability to operate all of the necessary heavy equipment for just about any site you work on and have the flexibility to be a driver as needed. You could even use it as a starting point for a career in truck driving if you end up changing your mind.

The course is 232 hours long and takes 6 weeks to complete. During that time you’ll learn how to work a backhoe-loader, bulldozer, dump truck, elevated work platform, excavator, forklift, grader, skid steer, and large truck. Graduates will also have a multitude of wallet cards that will qualify them for several positions.


  • MTO Class D Driver’s Licence
  • MTO Air Brake (Z) Endorsement


  • Air Brakes – Theory
  • SmartDriver
  • Powerline Safety Awareness
  • Surface Miner Common Core: Classroom Theory
  • Truck Driver: DZ and Heavy Equipment Certification: 8-piece

Heavy Equipment Certification: 8-piece and Mechanic’s Assistant

The 8-Piece Heavy Equipment and Mechanic’s assistant course will give you the tools and certifications to not only operate the full spectrum of heavy machinery but also give you the qualifications to work as a mechanic’s assistant. The skills of being a mechanic’s assistant can be used in a wide variety of fields, giving you greater job flexibility and value for potential employers. Not only that, but it will make repairing heavy equipment when necessary much smoother and easier. The combination of these two certificates gives you a flexible and in-demand skill set.

The course is 360 hours long and takes 9 weeks to complete. During that time you’ll learn how to operate a backhoe-loader, bulldozer, dump truck, excavator, grader, skid steer, forklift, and elevating work platform. Graduates will also have a multitude of wallet cards that will qualify them for several positions.


  • Air Brakes – Theory
  • SmartDriver
  • Powerline Safety Awareness
  • Surface Miner Common Core: Classroom Theory
  • Truck Driver: DZ and Heavy Equipment Certification: 8-piece

Other Multi-Piece Certifications

5th Wheel Training Institute also offers slightly smaller programs that still cover a wide range of heavy equipment. These courses will give you the building blocks for starting a career in heavy equipment operation in a shorter timeframe. While not quite as comprehensive as the 8-piece programs, they give students a good entry point for their career and provide them with the skills to build up their knowledge and certifications during their career. These courses focus on the practical application of the equipment as well as standard safety practices in the industry. Graduates from these courses will earn several wallet cards that will qualify them for multiple areas in the industry, though not as many as the 8-piece courses.

7-Piece Heavy Equipment

The 7-Piece Heavy Equipment course is 280 hours long and takes 7 weeks to complete. During that time you will learn how to operate a backhoe-loader, bulldozer, dump truck, excavator, grader, forklift, and skid steer.


  • Heavy Equipment Operator: 7-piece
  • Powerline Safety Awareness
  • Surface Miner Common Core: Classroom Theory

6-Piece Heavy Equipment

The 6-Piece Heavy Equipment course is 200 hours long and takes 5 weeks to complete. During that time you will learn how to operate a backhoe-loader, bulldozer, chainsaw, dump truck, excavator, forklift, and skid steer.


  • Heavy Equipment Operator: 6-piece
  • Powerline Safety Awareness
  • Surface Miner Common Core: Classroom Theory

Equipment-Specific Courses

For those looking for the fastest, most affordable courses available, or for those who only plan to specialize in one kind of equipment, 5th Wheel offers five equipment-specific courses, each focusing on only one kind of equipment. These are great for beginners looking to try out this career path or experienced operators that want to fill out their certificates.

These courses come with a minimum amount of wallet cards and include a Powerline Safety Awareness certificate and equipment-specific certificate. They are each 80 hours long and take 2 weeks to complete, aside from the Forklift course, which is 8 hours long and takes one day to complete.

Demo Days

For those curious about 5th Training Institute’s courses or a career in heavy equipment operation in general, you register for our Demo Days. Demo Days is a one day program that gives prospective operators a chance to look at our facilities, learn about our courses, explore job opportunities, and more! The staff will answer any questions you may have in order to give you a better idea of what a career in this field is like. It’s a great chance to get a feel for this line of work and have an up-close look at what we have to offer for our students.

Is A Career In Heavy Equipment Operating Right For Me?

Becoming a heavy equipment operator can be one of the best decisions you ever make. It’s a fun and exciting career path that gives you the opportunity to work with equipment and vehicles that most people will only ever see from a distance. If you enjoy working with tools and machinery and love the thought of being in the seat of an excavator or bulldozer, then you’re most likely going to enjoy a career in heavy equipment operating.

That said, it’s not completely without its downsides. In order to know if it’s truly right for you, you need to be sure that you’re comfortable with the cons as well as the pros. For one thing, it can be a very demanding job, with long hours and tight schedules. You’ll also be required to complete strenuous workloads in uncomfortable (though not necessarily dangerous) weather conditions, get dirty, and dig into challenging assignments. If you don’t mind the challenge, however, and still feel like it’s the job for you, then you have a very rewarding career ahead of you.

Salary Expectations

Now that you have a good idea of what heavy equipment operators do, what it takes to become one, and feel confident that it’s the right move for you, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of heavy equipment operating, starting with salary.

While it is possible for operators to make a fixed annual salary, the vast majority of the time you will be on an hourly payroll. This is because you won’t be working a consistent, predictable schedule, so working on a fixed annual income isn’t really feasible. That said, the median pay for heavy equipment operators in Ontario is $26/hour, with a spread of $17/hour to $37/hour, based on results from 2016. The longer you stay in the field, the closer your pay will be to the top. Operators will typically make around $50,000/year, with a spread of $32,500/year to $71,000/year, which is an excellent return on investment, considering it only takes a few months to get through heavy equipment operating school.

Like any job, your experience level, location, and employer will determine where you fall on the salary spectrum. Operators that work in more densely populated, metropolitan areas will typically make more since the work is under heavier regulations and in a more confined space.

Job Outlook

For operators just graduating heavy equipment training, the job outlook is better than a lot of college graduates. There is a higher than average level of job growth in the industry thanks to a high demand for and short supply of workers. This shortage of workers is due in part to the general stigma around working a job in construction, leading to many qualified workers not seeking for a job in this field. It’s also not uncommon for quality operators to work their way into an upper management position, leading to even more openings. This is great news for operators, as there are plenty of well-paying employers in need of hard-working, dedicated, and educated heavy equipment operators.

The operators that will have the easiest time navigating the job market are the ones with the biggest variety of equipment training. Employers will prefer workers that can be deployed on any site without the need for on-the-job training. It’s more convenient, cost-effective, and timely for everyone involved. Having a variety of experience with different equipment is also beneficial because it shows employers that your competent and dedicated to the field. Taking a longer, more thorough training course will improve your chances of being hired and increase your value to potential employers. It’s a bigger investment up front, but the reward is greater job opportunities and security.

Career Advancement

If you’re considering a career in construction, heavy equipment operating is a great way to get your foot in the door. You’ll have a quick and secure start in the field, work on a broad variety of sites, learn the ins and outs of the trade, and make valuable connections with others in the field. This can lead to great job opportunities in other areas of construction.

By building on your experience and networking with your coworkers you can leverage your way into a supervisory position, become a heavy equipment trainer, teach at an operator school, or even start your own heavy equipment contracting company. Or, if you enjoy being an operator but are looking for a better work experience, you can join other construction opportunities and work your way up there. Like any career path, the decision you end up taking is entirely up to you. There’s plenty of room for entrepreneurial spirits in this field.

Work Satisfaction

While there is a stigma around working in construction, it is actually a very rewarding and exciting field to be a part of. Unlike other jobs where you never see the impact your work is having, heavy equipment operators are able to watch their efforts literally take shape before them. Not only that, but you’re also working with large, powerful equipment to perform physical and exciting tasks. Not many people can say they’ve sat in the seat of a bulldozer or operated a crane.

Don’t just take our word for it. According to a study done by Payscale.com, 80% of operators are highly satisfied with their job. Despite the irregular hours, strict deadlines, and demanding workloads, operators typically enjoy their work. This career provides its workers with immediate feedback on their accomplishments and a strong sense of purpose.


Hopefully, any questions you may have had about how to become a heavy equipment operator and essential training courses have been answered! There are multiple routes you can take on your journey to becoming an operator— it all depends on what your goals are and which option best meets them.

The next step is to decide between a training institute, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training. Apprenticeships are great if you have the time for one, on-the-job training is somewhat possible if you want to break into the field without any education, and training institutes are great if you want a quality education in a short amount of time.

Whatever path you take, becoming a heavy equipment operator can be one of the best decisions you make for your career!



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