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Forklift Operator Career Guide

What is a forklift operator?

Forklift operators are the folks who drive forklifts, those big machines you see in warehouses, construction sites, and factories. They’re super important because they move heavy stuff around quickly and safely, making sure nothing gets damaged and everyone stays safe.

Duties and responsibilities

As a forklift operator, your main job is to drive the forklift without any accidents. You’ll be moving stuff around, loading and unloading things, and making sure everything is in the right place. It’s also your job to keep the forklift in good shape, doing checks and small repairs. Plus, you might need to do some tidying up in the warehouse and keep track of what’s where.

Work environment

Forklift drivers usually work in warehouses and factories, which can be pretty loud and hectic. Sometimes, you might have to work outside, no matter the weather. Safety is a big deal, so you’ll wear things like hard hats and safety boots.

Typical work hours

How much you work depends on where you’re working. In some places, like shipping centers that are always busy, you might work in shifts, even at night or on weekends. It’s usually a 40-hour week, Monday to Friday, in more regular warehouse jobs. Sometimes, you might need to work extra during busy times. There are breaks during the day to help you stay fresh.

How to become a forklift operator

If you’re thinking about becoming a forklift operator, here’s a step-by-step guide on what you need to do:

Step 1: Finish high school

First things first, you need to have your high school diploma or GED. You’ll learn safety rules and basic math, which are important for the job.

Step 2: Start with an entry-level job

Before you start driving forklifts, it’s common to work in a warehouse or factory doing basic jobs to help you get used to the work environment and learn how things operate.

Step 3: Receive on-the-job training

Most places will train you on the job. This training follows certain safety standards and teaches you to use different forklifts, safety rules, and how to handle materials correctly.

Step 4: Get your forklift certification

You must be certified to drive a forklift, which involves a training course with classroom learning and practical driving tests. After passing these tests, you’ll get your forklift license.

Step 5: Keep your certification up-to-date

Your forklift certification isn’t forever. You have to renew it every three years to make sure your skills are still sharp. Also, if you switch to a different type of forklift or have an accident, you’ll need to update your certification.

How much do forklift operators make?

Forklift operator salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. The nature of their tasks, like operating heavy machinery and implementing safety measures, can sometimes mean higher pay, and factors like certifications and the type of forklift operated can also influence compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Warehousing and Storage: $39,750
  • Wholesale Trade: $39,200
  • Manufacturing: $39,060
  • Transportation and Warehousing: $38,960
  • Administrative, Support, Waste Management: $38,480

Highest paying states

  • Alaska: $46,800
  • Washington: $44,690
  • California: $44,590
  • Connecticut: $42,460
  • Massachusetts: $42,350

Browse forklift operator salary data by market

Types of forklift operators

  • Warehouse forklift operator: These operators work in warehouses, moving items around, loading and unloading goods, and making sure everything’s in the right place. They need to be both quick and safe, keeping everything running smoothly.
  • Dockyard forklift operator: Dockyard operators deal with loading and unloading cargo ships. The environment here can be more challenging because of the sheer size of goods and the hustle of dock activity.
  • Construction forklift operator: On construction sites, these operators move building materials and lift heavy stuff to high places. The job’s tricky because they often have to maneuver through tight spaces. 
  • Cold storage forklift operator: Working in cold storage means dealing with freezing temperatures. These operators move and stack frozen goods, working efficiently but carefully to keep the products in good shape. 

Top skills for forklift operators

  • Knowledge of machinery operation: You need to really understand how forklifts work, like how to use the controls, load the truck correctly, and drive through tight spaces. You should also be able to check the forklift to make sure it’s in good shape.
  • Safety first: Safety’s a big deal. You should know all the safety rules, like wearing the right gear and how to handle dangerous materials safely. 
  • Inventory management: Forklift drivers often need to know a bit about managing stock, including how inventory is tracked, how to stack things properly, and how to handle paperwork for shipments and deliveries.
  • Physical fitness and sharpness: Being physically fit is super important; you might need to lift heavy stuff, stand for long hours, and move around quickly. Staying alert is crucial too, especially in busy or crowded work areas, to avoid accidents.

Forklift operator career path options

Starting as a forklift operator opens doors in the logistics field, and with experience and extra training, you can move up the ladder. Here’s how you can grow your career:

  • Team lead or warehouse supervisor: After gaining experience, you might become a team leader or warehouse supervisor. You’d manage other forklift drivers and oversee daily warehouse activities.
  • Warehouse manager: The next step could be warehouse management, where you take charge of all warehouse operations. Here, you would manage staff, keep track of inventory, and make sure everything runs smoothly.
  • Logistics coordinator or supply chain manager: With the right training and certifications, you could become a logistics coordinator or supply chain manager. This job is about planning and organizing the storage and movement of goods efficiently.
  • Health and safety officer: Using your on-the-job knowledge, you could become a health and safety officer, focusing on keeping the workplace safe and following safety standards.
  • Logistics analyst or warehouse project manager: If you’re into more education, like business administration or logistics, you could aim for jobs like logistics analyst or warehouse project manager, where you’ll handle more complex tasks in warehouse management.
  • Forklift trainer: Some forklift operators decide to teach, sharing their skills and experience with new drivers.

Here are the key trends for forklift operation and what they mean for the future:

  • Rise in automated forklifts: Technology is changing things up, with more automated forklifts and warehouse machinery coming in. Operators should learn how to work with these new technologies to keep up. 
  • Shift toward environmentally friendly technology: Many companies are going green, using electric forklifts to reduce pollution and save energy. If you’re a forklift operator, it’s a good idea to get familiar with electric forklifts, along with the traditional ones.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for forklift operators is pretty stable, with a 7% growth expected through 2031. This is about the same as the average for all jobs. Even with more technology in the mix, these operators are still going to be really important in keeping things moving in logistics and transportation.

Forklift operator career tips

Know your forklift inside out

Different forklifts have different features, depending on what they’re made for. Whether lifting heavy loads or moving stuff short distances, you need to really understand your specific forklift. Knowing how it works helps you do your job better and safer.

Keep up with safety regulations

Staying safe is the top priority. You’ve got to keep up with the latest safety rules. This means knowing how much your forklift can carry, how to lift and move materials properly, and what safety measures are in place at work.

Perform regular maintenance checks

Like any machine, forklifts need regular check-ups. This keeps them running well and can stop accidents caused by mechanical problems. If you notice anything odd, report it right away for repair.

Build your professional network

Getting to know others in your field can open doors. Join groups like the International Warehouse Logistics Association or the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association. Going to events or joining groups can connect you with forklift operators everywhere.

Continue learning

Staying sharp means always learning. Look for courses and seminars related to your job. This could be forklift certification, safety training, or learning about specific forklift types. It’s all about keeping your skills up to date.

Organizations and courses to consider:

  • International Warehouse Logistics Association
  • Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
  • International Material Handling Research Colloquium
  • Forklift Operator Certification
  • OSHA Safety Training
  • Courses on specific forklift models and brands

Where the forklift operator jobs are

Top employers

  • Amazon
  • Walmart
  • FedEx
  • UPS
  • Home Depot

Top states

  • California
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Texas
  • Florida

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Monster.com
  • SimplyHired
  • LinkedIn


What training is necessary to become a forklift operator?

Training typically includes completing a certification course that covers the safe operation of forklifts and understanding of relevant regulations. Companies often provide on-the-job training as well, where new operators learn from experienced colleagues. Some community colleges and vocational schools also offer forklift operation programs.

Do you need a driver’s license to operate a forklift?

Though a standard driver’s license is not required for operating a forklift, employers generally require forklift operators to have a forklift certification. Some companies may prefer candidates with a valid driver’s license, especially if the role requires driving forklifts on public roads.

What skills are necessary for a forklift operator?

Good hand-eye coordination, attention to detail, and physical fitness are essential. They must also have a clear understanding of safety rules and regulations, know how to follow instructions accurately, and adapt to changing situations. Being able to assess the weight and size of loads to prevent overloading is crucial as well.

Are there different types of forklifts that I will need to operate?

Yes, there are various types of forklifts, and the operator may be required to handle different ones depending on the workplace. These include industrial trucks, rough terrain forklifts, telescopic handler forklifts, and pallet jacks. If a job requires operating a specific type of forklift, they must be trained to use it properly and safely.

What are some common risks associated with being a forklift operator?

Some common risks associated with this role include accidents due to collision, falling loads, tipped forklifts, or working in unsafe environments. They may also risk injury due to repetitive movements or sitting for prolonged periods.

Can I work as an independent contractor as a forklift operator?

While most are employed by warehouses, factories, or shipping terminals, some work as contractors, hired on a project-to-project basis.

What types of industries employ forklift operators?

Many industries, including manufacturing, construction, freight, and retail sectors, have large warehouses or storage facilities. They also work in seaports and airports, loading and unloading goods from ships and planes. Some operators even work in waste management facilities to unload and handle waste materials.

Am I required to perform maintenance on the forklifts I operate?

While specialized technicians typically perform major repairs, operators are often expected to conduct basic daily maintenance and inspection duties, such as oil checks, brake tests, and general cleanliness. They’re also usually responsible for reporting any mechanical issues they encounter.

Are there opportunities for advancement as a forklift operator?

Since experience is valued in this field, experienced forklift operators can advance to supervisor positions overseeing a team of operators. Some even move into roles involving the training and certification of new operators, while others may shift into inventory management positions.