what does a forklift operator do?

  • job profiles
  • August 14, 2020

Forklift operators — also known as “forklift drivers” or “freight operators” — are literally drivers of so much of the action alongside warehouse workers and other blue-collar professionals on industrial, manufacturing, logistics and distribution worksites. That's because they're the ones in charge of steering and maneuvering the forklifts (as well as other equipment, in some cases) that play a key role in loading and unloading materials, moving inventory from storage to delivery trucks (and vice versa) and so much more.

Of course, like a lot of personnel in large industrial environments, forklift operators often have multiple hats to wear. And the exact type of forklift that is being used in operations also determines to a large degree the kind of background experience and training required of candidates.

That said, common responsibilities of forklift operators include:

  • consulting with supervisors on production schedules and shipping orders to ensure the feasibility of scheduling, appropriateness of onsite staffing levels and more
  • inspecting forklifts and other machinery as part of preventative maintenance programs
  • coordinating activities in all areas where the forklift operates in order to ensure the safety of other onsite personnel
  • maintaining baseline physical fitness

Day-to-day duties of forklift operators typically include:

  • reading and ensuring alignment with production schedules and shipping orders
  • transporting material, products and equipment to and from designated areas on site
  • loading, unloading and moving goods from vehicles, pallets, crates and more
  • ensuring the timely movement of goods and products throughout the facility
  • stocking, scanning, packing and unpacking goods

what are the key skills of a forklift operator?

Forklift operators are at the center of industrial activities that are fast-paced, labor-intensive and tend to be executed in a time-sensitive manner. As such, skills that can be key differentiators for forklift operators include:

  • leadership skills
  • eye-hand coordination
  • excellent vision
  • time management skills
  • knowledge of safety best practices
  • understanding of building, construction, engineering and technology processes
  • written and verbal communication skills

how much do forklift operators make?

The national average compensation for forklift operators is $17.98 per hour, according to the latest data. That said, pay for forklift operators varies considerably by market, location and industry. So if you've just received certification in this highly in-demand skill set, we recommend one of the following two options to figure out what your newly acquired expertise is worth.

  • You can ask around — and hope to figure out the answer by word of mouth.
  • Alternatively (and this is the far easier approach), you can use our free salary comparison tool to uncover at-a-glance insights about pay in your market. Plus, it's always up to date with the latest figures — so you can rest assured that you'll have timely and accurate information.

how do you become a forklift operator?

Becoming a forklift operator is a more attainable goal that many industrial employees realize. Ready to embark on the journey — and begin the next chapter in your career? Just follow these six steps.

1. choose your forklift

  • Industrial forklift? Sideloader? Counterbalance forklift? There are a number of different types of forklifts used at manufacturing and logistics plants, storage facilities and other industrial sites today, so there are any number of certification options to choose between.
  • Not sure which is right for you? Ask your production supervisor or colleagues at your worksite for insights about which forklifts are most commonly used in your area and industry (alternately, you could search job descriptions in your area in order to find out). This is a critical first step — because, as in all journeys, you won't get to your destination unless you know where it is you want to go!

2. sign up for certification

  • Wherever you are, there are likely OSHA-approved training programs somewhere nearby. Note that these are also increasingly being held virtually, in no small part thanks to COVID-19. Search online or consult your employer, coworkers, forklift dealers or even community colleges in your area for more information. In some cases, a high school diploma is a requirement for certification.
  • Need additional help understanding OSHA's certification? Click here for handy resources.

3. complete the classwork

  • Forklift operator training typically comprises several parts — safety best practices, OSHA rules, mastering various driving techniques, equipment maintenance and more. That might sound like a lot, but some of these certification programs can actually be completed in as little as six to eight hours.

4. ace the exam

  • All done with the classwork? Good for you. You're nearly there. Now, you just need to pass the written exam (getting 75 percent of the answers correct generally constitutes a passing grade).

5. complete a little hands-on training

  • Once you've passed the exam, you still need to get a little hands-on training to become proficient at the wheel. Working one-on-one or in a group setting with your trainer, you'll put in some time in a relevant work setting. Here's your chance to demonstrate your skills actually using the forklift. Now's the time to shine!
  • Plus, you needn't worry if everything doesn't go perfectly as planned on the first go round. As with all things, practice makes perfect.

6. secure your final evaluation

  • Once you've got a little real-time, hands-on experience under your belt, your instructor will give you a rating on your overall performance. This rating is a composite of your actual driving as well as your score on the written exam. Do a satisfactory job on both and — voila! — you're all set and certified. Now, it's time to get working.

key takeaways

Becoming a forklift operator by getting certified could be the beginning of the next exciting stage in your career — and if so, we're thrilled for you. Bear in mind, too, that while COVID-19 stuck a wrench in the gears at many organizations, demand for skilled forklift operators remains high, particularly at companies like Amazon that have maintained or even broadened their operational footprint since the global pandemic got underway.

In other words, this is a valuable certification — it represents time well spent. You should have no trouble finding opportunities to put it to use, so why not start searching for roles in your area today?

Plus, if you're looking for additional guidance about career paths and wages in the manufacturing and logistics space, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know.