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How to become a forklift operator

What is a Forklift Operator?

Forklift operators are skilled professionals who operate powered industrial trucks, commonly known as forklifts, to transport, load, unload, stack, and retrieve materials and cargo. The primary duties of a forklift operator include driving both indoor and outdoor forklifts, reading instructions and orders for material handling, and loading and unloading items from trucks, ships, and other vehicles.

Forklift operators work in a variety of environments including warehouses, distribution centers, construction sites, ports, storage facilities, and manufacturing plants. And although we’re using the term “forklift,” a broader term for equipment they operate is “powered industrial trucks,” which includes equipment such as counterbalance forklifts, reach trucks, pallet jacks, order pickers, and side loaders. The piece of equipment operated depends on the specific job requirements and materials being handled.

Some key responsibilities of operating forklifts or other powered industrial trucks includes:

  • inspecting equipment
  • maintaining fluid levels
  • charging batteries
  • securing special attachments
  • driving loaded forklifts
  • safely maneuvering around the work site.

In addition, forklift operators must be able to lift, push, pull, and manipulate various objects and materials.


Outlook and Forklift Operator Salary Expectations

The job outlook for forklift operators is quite positive, with the number of jobs expected to grow faster than average over the coming years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of industrial truck and tractor operators, including forklift operators, is projected to grow 4% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.  

This growth will be driven by expansion in the construction, warehousing, and manufacturing industries as the economy continues to expand. Forklift operators with up-to-date training and certifications should have favorable job prospects. 

The top paying states for this occupation are Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Nevada, and Illinois. Major industries that offer strong wages include construction, aerospace product and parts manufacturing, warehousing and storage, grocery and related product wholesalers, and general freight trucking. 

Some key factors that can affect a forklift operator's earning potential include: 

  • Experience level - More experienced operators tend to earn higher wages 
  • Industry - Construction and manufacturing tend to pay more than retail/wholesale  
  • Certifications - Having additional certifications beyond the base license can make you more marketable to employers  
  • Region - Big cities and states with higher costs of living pay more 
  • Overtime hours - Forklift operators often have opportunity for OT pay 
  • Type of equipment - Operating heavier, more complex lifts may provide a pay premium 


Forklift Operator Skills and Qualities Needed

To be successful as a forklift operator, there are certain physical abilities, technical skills, and soft skills that are required.

Physical Abilities

Forklift operation is physically demanding and requires good health and fitness. Operators need strength and stamina to sit or stand for long periods while working. Good hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness are essential for maneuvering in tight spaces. Being comfortable working at heights is also important when stacking and retrieving loads.

Technical Skills

Forklift operators must be able to read and understand instruction manuals to learn how to operate new equipment. Mechanical aptitude is useful for conducting inspections, troubleshooting issues, and making minor repairs. Spatial perception and depth perception help operators properly position forks under loads.

Soft Skills

Forklift operators need soft skills as well. Attention to detail is crucial for ensuring accuracy and avoiding accidents. Safety awareness is vital to protect yourself, your equipment, and others in the workplace. Good communication skills help operators coordinate their work with managers, truck drivers, and coworkers. Reliability, punctuality, and a strong work ethic are also essential qualities for success.


Education and Forklift Training Requirements

To become a forklift operator, there are some basic education and training requirements you need to meet:

High School Diploma/GED

Most employers require at least a high school diploma or GED. While no specific degree is needed, having a diploma of GED demonstrates basic skills in reading, writing, math, and communication that are essential for operating forklifts safely and effectively.

On-the-Job Training 

Many forklift operators gain their initial training on the job. Under supervision, you can obtain practical experience operating different types of equipment. This allows you to develop specialized skills for the forklifts you'll be using.

Formal Forklift Certification

While on-the-job training is common,  employers are required formal forklift training & certification is completed for operators as well. This involves completing a training course that covers safe operating procedures, equipment handling, and hazard avoidance. At the end, you must pass a practical exam demonstrating your ability to operate a forklift properly.

Forklift certification provides competency of your skills. Certifications must be renewed at least every three years to ensure you maintain your knowledge and proficiency.


Finding a Forklift Training Program

Forklift operator training is widely available through various channels, although you will still need to be certified by your employer’s designee. Here are some of the main options to receive quality instruction:

Vocational Schools and Community Colleges.

Vocational programs allow you to get certified quickly while gaining knowledge from experienced instructors. They also give you access to equipment for hands-on practice. The main downside is the tuition cost, which can range from $500 to $2,500.

Online Courses

For self-motivated learners, online forklift operator courses are a convenient option. These programs cover topics like equipment handling, load balancing, and occupational hazards through video tutorials and quizzes. Many also help you find a testing location to complete your hands-on evaluation after finishing the course.

Online classes that cover course material offer flexibility to learn at your own pace. But beware of providers that claim to offer full certification online, as you need access to equipment to practice your skills.

Continuing Education and Professional Development 

Operating a forklift is not a skill you learn once and then stop improving. To excel and advance in your career as a forklift operator, it's important to pursue ongoing professional development and continuing education. Here are some ways to stay sharp and continue growing your expertise: 

  • Stay Up to Date on Regulations and Safety Standards
    Forklift operation is governed by strict safety regulations that are periodically updated. Read trade publications, take refresher courses, and stay in touch with colleagues to ensure you're following the latest protocols and best practices. Being current on the rules will keep you in compliance and boost your professionalism. 
  • Attend Industry Workshops, Seminars, and Conferences
    Look for opportunities to gain new skills and insights by attending local and national forklift operator education events. These are great places to network with peers while also picking up tips and techniques from industry experts. You'll return to work energized and inspired to improve. 
  • Join a Professional Organization
    Organizations like the Industrial Truck Association provide a wealth of resources for forklift operators who want to advance their careers. From access to training materials to regional chapter events, memberships in such organizations can help you stay engaged and at the top of your game. 
  • Network with Fellow Forklift Operators
    Connecting with other professionals in your field can lead to mentorship opportunities. You can exchange ideas, ask questions, and build relationships that further your career. Social media groups, online forums, and local meetups are all great networking channels. 

Obtaining Forklift Certification

Forklift certification is required for all operators. However, it is not a broad certification like a driver’s license. Instead, operators are certified on specific pieces of equipment and in specific operating environments. Certification can be obtained through classroom instruction, hands-on training, and passing written and practical exams.

Forklift operation classes are typically offered by manufacturers, safety councils, private training companies, vocational schools, and community colleges.

The classroom portion to achieve certification typically covers topics such as forklift physics, controls, and instrumentation, refueling and maintenance, load manipulation, and workplace safety. Students learn about center of gravity, stability, and how to properly handle different types of loads on inclines, ramps, and uneven terrain. Forklift safety is emphasized, including pre-operation inspection, traffic rules, hazardous material handling, and preventing tip-overs.

Hands-on training allows students to put their knowledge into practice by operating forklifts under supervision. Training starts in an open, safe area to learn controls and maneuvering before progressing to lifting and transporting actual loads. Students practice picking up, driving, and depositing loads using pallets and skids. The instructor provides feedback to correct any mistakes and ensure safe practices.


Gaining Hands-On Experience

After completing forklift training and earning certification, the next step is to gain hands-on experience operating forklifts and material handling equipment. There are a few ways to get this crucial on-the-job training:

  • Take an entry-level position in a warehouse or distribution center that uses forklifts. Job titles like warehouse worker, material handler, and stock clerk are common starting points. While performing your daily tasks, you'll have opportunities to get experience driving different types of forklifts under supervision.
  • If you get hired at a company that provides in-house forklift training, take advantage of any additional hands-on practice that they offer. The more time you can spend using the equipment, the better.
  • Entry-level positions allow you to start developing specialized skills using equipment such as reach trucks, order pickers, side loaders, and pallet jacks. The needs of each warehouse or logistics operation differ, so getting diverse experience is key.
  • Make sure to follow all safety protocols and ask for assistance if you ever feel unsure about how to operate equipment properly. It takes time to become fully comfortable maneuvering forklifts in tight spaces and at high elevations.
  • Approach each on-the-job training opportunity as a chance to expand your capabilities. Keep an open mind, stay focused, and learn as much as possible from the experienced forklift operators around you.

Hands-on training is the best way to reinforce what you learned in the classroom and prepare you for advancement to full-time operator roles. Look for warehouses that are hiring forklift trainees or apprentices to learn more quickly. With dedication and experience using the equipment, you'll elevate your forklift operating skills over time.


Career Advancement Opportunities

Once you gain some experience as a forklift operator, you can start to explore opportunities to move your career forward. Here are some potential pathways to consider:

Supervisory Roles

With several years of experience operating different types of equipment, you may be able to move into a supervisory or management role. Some possibilities include:

  • Forklift Trainer - Experienced operators are well-suited to train new operators by teaching classroom courses and providing hands-on supervision. You can work directly for a company's training department or get hired as a contract trainer.
  • Warehouse Supervisor - Overseeing daily warehouse operations and personnel is a natural fit for someone who has deep knowledge of material handling procedures and equipment. This role allows you to leverage your expertise and serve as a leader.
  • Fleet Manager - Managing a fleet of forklifts, truck loaders, cranes and other equipment for a large warehouse or distribution center is a high-level role for seasoned operators. You ensure optimal fleet utilization, maintenance, and procurement.


You can focus your forklift operating career on a particular industry or type of equipment specialization such as:

  • Construction - Operating rough terrain forklifts, telehandlers, and other heavy lifting equipment on construction job sites. This role combines equipment operation with general construction knowledge. 
  • Logging - Timber harvesting operations rely on experienced forklift operators to load, unload, and transport logs using specialized rough terrain lift trucks. This could be a niche application of your skills.
  • Air Cargo - Airport cargo handlers operate large capacity forklifts to load and unload air freighters. This fast-paced role requires working overnight shifts and passing airport security clearances.


Some experienced forklift operators start their own lifting equipment rental or contracting businesses. This allows you to apply your expertise while also developing entrepreneurial skills. Possible business ideas include:

  • Forklift rental company that supports local warehouses and distribution centers
  • Material handling consultant who helps organizations optimize warehouse layouts and processes
  • Forklift maintenance and repair service that provides upkeep services to equipment owners

In Summary

By dedicating time to continuing education and professional development, you'll elevate your skills, employability, and earnings potential as a forklift operator. The industry is constantly evolving, so be proactive in keeping your knowledge sharp. 

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