What does a forklift operator do?


Warehouse work: More than driving

Do you have strong driving skills, including the ability to park in the smallest of spaces? If so, you’ll do well operating a forklift. As a warehouse and loading dock forklift driver, you navigate complex spaces with many obstacles. You'll make good use of your superior hand-eye coordination and spatial recognition skills. Keep in mind that it's important to maintain a 360-degree awareness of your surroundings.


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Forklift operator roles

More than ever, forklift operators are in demand at factories, farms, construction sites, warehouses, airports, seaports, and other transportation hubs. Forklift work runs the gamut. As a forklift operator, you'll:

  • Move bulk-packaged pallets from planes, trains, and trucks into warehouses and factories
  • Organize and run logistics operations within a warehouse
  • Lift and haul on a construction site
  • Transport hazardous materials

What is the average salary of a forklift operator?

As a forklift driver, your pay will vary depending on job type, experience, and location. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information, material moving operators earn a median pay rate of $18 an hour. The median yearly pay for a forklift operator is $37,450. An average entry-level forklift driver makes about $15 an hour. If managerial or training responsibilities are part of the job description, the pay will increase.

Industrial operators earn more

Pay rates are higher for industrial operator positions, which include professionals who use industrial tractors to move materials around warehouses, factories, and construction sites. These positions pay an average of $18.85 an hour and $39,210 a year, according to the BLS. As an experienced industrial forklift operator, you'll make upwards of $25 an hour.

Experience pays

Generally speaking, drivers with more experience command more money, and most companies—especially ones with complex jobs—will gladly pay well for forklift operators who know their stuff. A good forklift driver is a valuable asset and can make all the difference in a warehouse or on a construction site. And if you have experience with several types of machines, it's much easier to find work as a forklift operator. With enough experience, you'll be eligible to serve as a manager and earn an annual salary.

Regional pay differences

Job location is an important factor in forklift operator wages. For example, states in the Pacific Northwest tend to have higher-paying forklift opportunities. Other states that tend to offer higher forklift driver salaries include North Dakota, Arizona, and Connecticut.

Bonuses and overtime opportunities

On top of hourly pay, some companies offer modest signing bonuses for technical workers, including forklift operators. If you don’t mind putting in some extra hours, you can also get a nice pay boost by volunteering for overtime shifts. It's not uncommon to earn an extra $5,000 to $6,000 in overtime pay annually.


Working as a forklift operator

If you’re searching for stable work that will support you, becoming a forklift operator is smart. Increasing automation and artificial intelligence technology are opening up new opportunities for operators with technical backgrounds. Keep in mind that the nation’s supply chain will always depend on humans to operate machinery—whether behind a truck or computer. Forklift operation is also  a highly portable job. Forklift drivers are needed everywhere.

What are the responsibilities of a forklift operator?

As a forklift operator, your responsibilities are tied to the specific job and situation. However, most positions include a few common operating tasks, including:

  • Loading materials
  • Lifting loads
  • Operating different forklifts
  • Navigating the work area
  • Forklift safety inspection

Other responsibilities

In addition to transporting large-scale pallets and bulk packages, forklift operators are often required to shrink-wrap goods and analyze production schedules. If you work at a construction site, you use your knowledge of geological considerations. Some other duties will include:

  • Keeping your work area clean and safe
  • Following company, state, and federal safety regulations
  • Communicating efficiently with the foreman or forewoman, transportation professionals, and other warehouse workers
  • Training new hires (especially if you're a Forklift Trainer)

What type of equipment do forklift operators use?

By definition, a forklift is a powered truck that can lift and move items over a short distance. Per OSHA, all forklifts fall into one of the following six classes:

  • Electric motor rider trucks — These trucks are usually equipped with pneumatic or cushion tires and are used indoors on smooth floors.
  • Electric motor narrow aisle trucks — As the name suggests, this forklift class is for warehouses and storage centers with narrow aisles.
  • Electric motor hand or hand-rider trucks — Operators stand and maneuver this class of forklifts with hand controls.
  • Internal combustion engine trucks with cushion or pneumatic tires — Due to their cushion tires, these models are most often found on loading docks or warehouses that work with palletized loads.
  • Electric and internal combustion engine tractors — Forklifts in this class are highly versatile, making them an increasingly popular option in modern warehouses and factories.
  • Rough terrain forklift trucks — You mainly use this type of forklift at construction sites, auto recyclers, and lumber yards.

What is the work environment of a forklift operator?

As a forklift operator, your work environment depends on the job. In some situations, you'll coordinate with a large team; other opportunities are more solitary positions. Depending on your employer and the required tasks, you’ll spend your days indoors in factories, loading docks, storage facilities, and warehouses or outdoors on development sites.


Who are your colleagues as a forklift operator?

Although you work independently while operating the forklift, your orders for moving around supplies, products, and materials come from your warehouse or supply chain manager. If you’re in an entry-level position or are part of a larger staff, a warehouse or forklift supervisor communicates your daily duties. You’ll also interact with your fellow warehouse, shipyard, or construction site colleagues as you practice safety measures and complete tasks as a team. 

What is the work schedule of a forklift operator?

Work schedules for forklift operators vary. However, the majority are paid hourly. Since forklift operator is a supply chain job, shifts are available round-the-clock. Most shifts will be either eight or nine hours.

Shift considerations

If you're flexible with your work schedule, you'll have more forklift operator job opportunities. Entry-level movers often get their start working night or early-morning shifts. Because  the supply chain never stops, operators often need to work weekends. Alternatively, construction-related forklift work is primarily project-based.


What is the career outlook for a forklift operator?

According to BLS projections, forklift jobs will increase by about 7% through the 2020s. This is roughly at the same pace as other manufacturing-related fields. Considering the expected growth in construction and e-commerce that requires warehouse shipping, the outlook for forklift operating is strong.

Take advantage of training opportunities

While forklift operator jobs are secure for the foreseeable future, warehousing technology is advancing. If you have a knack for learning new technology, you can take advantage of this growth potential by getting certified in high-tech mechanics. That way, when AI changes come, you’ll have the skills needed to grow along with trends.

What are the advantages of working with Spherion as a forklift operator?

Working with a company like Spherion has many advantages, such as the following.

  • Weekly pay
  • Flexibility with shifts ranging from full time to overtime or fill-in shifts
  • Convenience of an on-call point person who helps find jobs and serves as an advocate when you need assistance
  • Valuable training opportunities for workers

What education and skills do you need as a forklift operator?

One advantage of forklift operation is that it doesn’t require a specific educational level. If you’re good at reading and following specific instructions, you’ll excel in this role. Many employers prefer to hire forklift operators who’ve graduated high school or have their General Education Diploma (GED). Previous experience is also a plus, but people starting out rarely have a difficult time finding work.

Training & certification

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes workplace welfare rules that are especially important at warehouses and construction sites. As a forklift driver, you often operate in potentially dangerous environments; therefore, OSHA certification is a requirement. If you're interested in a job as a forklift operator, sign up for and pass an OSHA-approved training program. These courses are generally offered at local training schools. An OSHA training program will cover:

  • Safety tips
  • OSHA rules
  • Driving techniques
  • Forklift maintenance

Expect your six- to eight-hour training course to include lectures, training videos, and written materials. Some training schools offer in-class as well as online classes. To receive your certification, you'll need to pass a written exam as well as an operation evaluation supervised by a forklift trainer. In many cases, a company will employ a forklift trainer who can perform the evaluation at your job site.

Skills & competencies

To excel as a heavy machinery driver, you need impeccable spatial recognition, peripheral vision, and hand-eye coordination. Companies will also expect you to be able to lift at least 50 pounds. Manual labor and upper-body strength are occasionally required to adjust loads or conduct light repair work. A valid driver’s license is required when you enter this field.

Detail-oriented people do well

Are you known for your attention to detail? This is an often overlooked aspect of forklift driving. For example, moving pallets of products efficiently to the right locations is important for an employer's bottom line. The same holds for construction site forklift work. A mistake could set the project back days, which costs money.



Forklift operators are a crucial part of the nation’s supply chain and are currently in demand. Learn the answers to the most frequently asked questions about becoming a forklift operator below.

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