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How to Hire a Forklift Operator: Job Skills

How to Hire a Forklift Operator: Job Skills

By: Joanne Cleaver

Are you looking to hire a forklift operator? The job brings to mind a familiar sound, "Beep-beep-beep…"

That sound is a cultural cliché for a reason: it is the signal to get out of the way because a large, heavy load is headed in your direction. Warehouses and distribution centers are busy – even chaotic – with fleets of forklifts scurrying to meet deadlines and customer demands.

Operating a forklift requires steady nerves and an even steadier focus on safety. Distribution logistics managers say that good forklift operators have an easy-going confidence in their ability to handle materials and customers alike.

Forklift training programs can provide basic competency, but employers are still required by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to train all hires, regardless of experience levels, on their equipment, in their environment. 

The following recruiting tips will help you interview, source and retain forklift operators.

Key Forklift Operator Licenses and Technical Certifications:

Training programs must provide both classroom and hands-on learning in the how’s and why’s of forklift operation, including these essentials, according to OSHA:

  • What to expect at this workplace, including how surfaces and types of loads affect load stability and driving safety.
  • How to manage traffic in the workplace, especially pedestrian traffic.
  • The types of forklifts typically used, how to use them and how to understand mechanical problems.
  • Basic maintenance of the machine.
  • An understanding of physics and load mechanics.
  • OSHA safety standards.

As well, your hiring process must include a hands-on test that validates the operator’s skills.

Additional Background Checks and Screens:
OSHA closely monitors warehouse safety, including forklift-related accidents. While there is no centralized database of individual operators’ track records, as there is for commercial truck drivers, OSHA does require:

  • Employer certification that each operator has gone through training and has been evaluated at least once every three years.
  • Immediate training when an operator’s performance fails to meet safety standards. The training must include formal instruction, hands-on exercises and an evaluation of the operator’s performance.


Cultivate relationships with a few local training programs so you are familiar with their processes. The Greater West Town Training Partnership, in Chicago, for example, goes beyond OSHA basics to include obstacle courses and training in navigating crowded workplaces and narrow aisles, explains Carmen Myers, employer relations coordinator for the nonprofit training center that helps nontraditional candidates.

Key Forklift Operator Job Skills:

  • Skills in operating the type of forklift used at your facility. Forklifts vary in size, type of cab, and type of fuel. Skills are somewhat transferable, but even if the candidate has experience on the precise machines used in your warehouses, you still must train him, per OSHA requirements.
  • Math abilities at least at an eighth grade level, for calculating loads, bills of lading and freight quotes.
  • Aptitude for learning automated and computerized processes for inventory control.
  • Reliability. Forklift operators are a key link in the supply chain, getting the right materials to the right spot for on-time pickup or order fulfillment.

Recruiting Tip:

Part of the hiring process involves having the candidate demonstrate skills on the equipment he or she will be using. You can detect the candidate’s attitude toward safety by how he or she gets in and out of the machine, says Paul Satti, technical director for the Construction Safety Council

Look for a candidate who dismounts carefully, facing the machine; hopping or jumping out is a red flag. “Did he reach for his seatbelt right away?” asks Satti. "That says a lot about whether this person has bad habits that need to be broken.” 

How to Source Forklift Operators:

  • Veterans with large vehicle experience often pick up forklift skills quickly 
  • Construction workers who have operated large vehicles and equipment are a natural fit 
  • Non-traditional workers, such as the long-term unemployed, ex-cons, and those re-entering the workforce after substance abuse recovery, often view operator jobs as a steady first step into the workforce 

Recruiting Tip:

What to Cover in Interviews with Forklift Operators:

Your interview questions should pivot around safety habits and teamwork — ask the candidate:

  • How they've made suggestions for process improvement at a prior position 
  • How they've gone above and beyond for an internal customer 
  • For an example about when his concern for safety has made a difference to co-workers or to the organization

Recruiting Tip:

Ask the candidate to explain what a stability triangle is (it’s a basic precept of keeping the forklift upright while handling loads). If he can’t explain it, his training didn’t stick, says Satti.

Recruit to Retain your Forklift Operators:

Potential forklift operator career advancement may include:

  • Training on specialty forklifts, such as cherrypickers
  • Team or shift leader 
  • Supervisor

Related jobs could include:

  • Inventory manager
  • Trainer

Recruiting Tip:

Don’t take prior titles at face value, says Jon Beauregard, regional warehouse manager for Salt River Project, a Phoenix utility. Working at big-box retail stockroom or ‘warehouse’ is much different from handling construction materials. 

“If the candidate is mentioning high-stakes responsibilities, such as handling explosives, be sure to ask them how that translates to what they learned, such as, ‘My experience in handling explosive translated to skills with all kinds of hazardous materials and to cleanup,’” says Beauregard.

There’s no automatic pilot for forklift operators. Those with strong safety records should be, and expect to be, rewarded with raises and preferred shifts.

Recruiting Tip:

An organizational culture that values safety is a selling point. Andrea Noel, head of human resources for G&D Trucking, in Morton Illinois, says that candidates appreciate hearing about G&D’s policy of empowering every employee to stop work if he or she sees a safety problem emerging.

"Employees want to work at a place that ensures that they’ll go home with the same 10 fingers and ten toes they came to work with,” says Noel. 

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