Education and Training: High school plus training
Salary: Median—$17.99 per hour
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Crane operators, like other heavy equipment operators, know a great deal about different machines and different kinds of construction. Operators are sometimes called operating engineers. Some work as tower operators and hoist and winch operators.
There are several types of cranes. Some are truck mounted, some are self-propelled, and some are assembled onsite on top of a tall tower. Some cranes move from construction site to construction site, while those used in certain industries, such as shipping, often do not. Each crane has a place for the operator to sit and a long arm or boom to which wire ropes, hooks, and other equipment are attached. Operators sit in the cabs of the machines, sometimes high above the ground, or in a remote control center at the site. They control the machinery with pedals, levers, dials, and switches. Their work has become more complex in the past decade, because the controls have been computerized. The operator's job at a worksite may be to hoist concrete or steel, to dig out and lift dirt, or to knock down walls with a wrecking ball. To run the crane, operating engineers must be able to judge spaces correctly and handle many controls at the same time.
Cranes are usually visible above large construction or demolition sites, but most crane operators work in manufacturing industries that use heavy materials, such as steel, and in transportation and shipping industries that move large containers of goods. Some crane operators are employed in the logging and mining industries.
Education and Training Requirements
Apprenticeship programs are the best way to learn the trade. They combine at least three years of on-the-job training with at least 144 hours of classroom instruction each year. Apprentices learn how cranes work and how to operate them. They learn how to communicate with workers on the ground, which is usually done by two-way radio or with hand signals. Much of the training emphasizes safety, for crane operation follows guidelines established by the industry and the government. Operators, for instance, often work near power lines, so training involves proper procedures and distances. Electrocution is a leading cause of fatalities for crane operators.
The apprenticeship programs are administered through a joint effort of the Associated General Contractors of America and the International Union of Operating Engineers. Applicants for apprenticeship programs must have a high school diploma or its equivalent and be at least eighteen years old. They must also be in top physical condition and have good hand-eye coordination. The ability to work as part of a team is very important.
High school classes in automobile mechanics, electronics, science, and mechanical drawing are good preparation. Experience operating other heavy equipment, such as tractors and bulldozers, are useful.
Some states require crane operators to be licensed. Qualifications and licensing procedures vary. The industry has been working toward a national certification procedure for crane operators, which would require testing to make sure training has occurred. As yet, the certification program is voluntary.
Getting the Job
Working as a helper for a construction equipment repairer is a good way to learn about the trade, but the best way to become a crane operator is through an apprenticeship program. Local contractors and union offices should have information about such programs. State employment services, newspaper classified ads, and job banks on the Internet are all sources for job openings.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Experienced operators may become supervisors. Some buy their own equipment and start contracting businesses.
Employment for crane operators is expected to increase as fast as the average for all jobs through 2014. Employment in most construction trades fluctuates with the economy. It also varies from one part of the country to another. Because of mechanization and computerization, those with the most advanced skills will find more job opportunities. Much of the job growth for crane operators is expected to be in the shipping industry, which is becoming increasingly mechanized and handles more and more cargo manufactured in other countries. Jobs will open up as workers retire or transfer to other occupations.
Crane operators in the construction industry work with more regularity during the summer than in the winter. Rain or snow causes a good deal of lost work time. Operators work in very cold as well as warm weather. Physical stamina is important because operators must sit for long hours, repeating the same motion many times, and because the bucking, jolting, and vibrating of the machines can be tiring. Crane operators usually help to set up the crane, which requires agility and the physical strength to lift heavy parts. Operators in the construction industry generally work forty hours a week, although most move from job site to job site, which can make the workweek irregular and disrupt family life. Operators usually earn extra wages for overtime work. Crane operators' hours in other industries may be more consistent. Many crane operators belong to labor unions.
Earnings and Benefits
The median wage of crane operators in 2004 was $17.99 per hour. Union workers usually earned more than nonunion crane operators. Earnings for qualified workers were also affected by the location and the nature of the work and by loss of work because of bad weather. Apprentices usually begin at fifty to seventy percent of the qualified craft worker's hourly wage. Their pay is increased as they progress through training.
Where to Go for More Information
International Union of Operating Engineers
1125 Seventeenth St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
Associated General Contractors of America
2300 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 400
Arlington, VA 22201
National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators
2750 Prosperity Ave., Ste. 505
Fairfax, VA 22031-4312
U.S. Department of Labor
Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services
200 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20210
Union workers generally receive paid holidays, life insurance, and hospitalization and pension plans. The number of vacation days they receive depends on the number of days they work each year.