Friday Firesmith – Cranes

When I started in the Transportation Construction business in 1992, crane operators were small-time gods. They were one of the few men who could sit at the controls of a machine all day, if they chose to, and not work like the other guys who could run other machines. Anyone could run a backhoe, an excavator was something that took some skill, but it was no big deal, really, but for someone to be able to get a job running a “dragline” as it’s called in construction, it took skill, and it took no small amount of guts.

A crane operator has a lot, and I mean a lot, riding on his skill. There are power lines, traffic, and unlike any other piece of machinery, at some point in the day, you’re likely to have a lot of weight swinging over every person’s head on the project. One mistake, one slip of a hand or foot, and something heavy begins a journey it really should not. Heavy objects hit other things, and people, very hard.
Operators in training are dangerous. On the job experience is the only way to learn, and being dangerous is the only way to figure out how not to be.

There was a time young men lined up to become crane operators because it paid well. But it was not easy and mistakes were never minor, and always public.
Now it’s 2020. The project I’m working on at the moment is dead in the water. We cannot drive piles. We can’t pour concrete. Our crane operator is out sick, and we’re idle.

There aren’t any. There aren’t any out there at any pay grade. They asked me if I could do it and it’s not something a man can lie about. But even if I could do it, I wouldn’t do it. I’m pushing sixty years old and I do not need the money or the responsibility.

The superintendent of the project told me he had been trying to hire a crane operator, and trying to train one, for over a year now. New guys bail out quickly because it’s dangerous and takes a long time to learn. Men straight out of high school think that sort of work is beneath them, and they want to have an inside job without dust and rain and mud and cold and sunburn and insects. College grads won’t get near the ground when they go to work.

“You could do it,” the foreman tells me, “you’re good with controls.”
It’s something to think about. It’s a job that carries a heavy responsibility, a lot of money, but it also eats a hole in the day when it comes to time. It can be tedious and it is always dangerous. Thirty years ago it might have been tempting. But I have my time in. I have nothing to prove anymore when it comes to this work.

Yesterday the guy they had filling in dropped a welder from fifteen feet when the line got caught on a pile. A half-ton piece of machinery crashed down without a sound and hit hard. It’s why I never get under a live load. None of this is safe, and all of it can be dangerous.

Take a lot of Care,

Mike writes regularly at his site:  The Hickory Head Hermit.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the management of this site.

14 thoughts on “Friday Firesmith – Cranes”

  1. Crane operators are the tip of the iceberg, plumbers, electricians, all the trades are hurting. My buddy is looking for plumbers constantly. They’re making over $100 grand, he supplies a truck, gas card, and major tools. You can’t give them much shit because there are 3 or 4 other people wanting to hire them away. I mean they get yelled at if they screw up, but you have to treat them like fairly.

    Now Jr goes to college, gets a liberal arts degree and $100+ grand debt that only death will cancel. He takes an office job making $45 grand in a building that’s gross because they can’t get plumbers.

    But mommy and daddy have voted to close the trade high schools around here, the only ones left are private. Think about that, Jr is going to public high school to prepare for college, and Butch is going to a private academy to become a plumber, electrician, mason. Used to be the other way around.

    Priorities, choices, a few people get stinkin’ rich or most everyone lives a comfortable life.
    And Vote.

    • That fair, Bruce. We get professional engineers who have never been in the field. They can run any computer program ever made but can’t stand out in the sun for an hour without passing out. Try to find a concrete finisher. It’s easier to find a transplant surgeon. Want a welder? Kidnap one. I have three different certifications unique to working on bridge projects, two of the environmental, one of them for concrete testing. They would cost about five hundred bucks apiece. But I’m getting paid great money because I have them and I’ll work outside and by the end of this year I’ll have no debt at all in my life.

  2. Crane operators can have fun commutes. We were in a city hotel (I think in Vancouver or Victoria, BC) and there was a building under construction that we could see from our hotel room window. At one point, the crane operator had to go back to the ground (lunch? End of day? Bathroom break? Not sure). His cab was probably 15 or 20 stories off the ground; it took him about 10 minutes to get to the ground–he had to hook up to a safety line, go down a flight of stairs, hook up to another safety line so he can go down another flight of stairs, and so on.

    We suggested to our son (who was 18 at the time) that he could learn to do that (be a crane operator)–but he does not like heights.

    If anyone is interested in learning the trades (like plumbing or wielding), check out Mike Rowe Works. I heard Mike Rowe in an interview; he said his Mike Row Works programs offer grants for someone to learn a trade. The cost of the grant to the student is that they have to get good grades and pass–as well as update MRW how they are doing in the training. Not bad–free education and a starting salary around $100,000 as Bruce mentioned.

    • Tim, I’ve heard of that program. It’s designed to get willing people into good jobs, and that can never go wrong. Plus, no lifetime of debt. I’m all for college, and I think we need it, but there’s this idea you aren’t doing anything with your life if you have a dirty job, and that’s just plain wrong.

  3. Here in Georgia there are state sponsored trade schools that train folks to be successful and make a good wage (nope, no crane operator classes). Many high schools offer diplomas that include free training in trades such as welding, auto mechanics and many more.

    • Richard, I had no idea. And I’ve been in Georgia all my life. I think that’s a great idea. I wonder how they can get anyone to work on cars these days without a double PhD in computer science, however.

  4. There are a ton of concrete workers around here. They don’t get paid so well, I guess there’s too many of them.
    I also know a guy who is a fantastic welder, but he has no welding certifications. He learned to weld in high school and never got the paperwork, he just never got it. So he gets screwed around. I’ve tried to tell him to go get certified, he’s a stubborn guy. He’s only hurting himself. Come to think of it, he does concrete as well, and tile work.
    Most of the plumbers in my area are family business type, the father and son things. They pass it down generation after generation.
    Any type of large construction projects requiring crane work they bring in someone from out of town. Or the state of Texas if it’s road work.

    • Chick, we got our operator back today, but he was not 100%. I don’t think he’s coming back Monday.

      It’s weird how in some places there are too many people who know how to work and in other places it is too few.

      Tell your friend to get certified. It is worth it.

      • I have known this guy since 1989. Most of what I’ve told him has gone in one ear and out the other, including the bit about the welding certification. I’ve even had people who have been welding for many years tell him. They have even told him how talented he is. stubborn. You can lead a horse’s ass to water…..

  5. My dad work in a county road department when I was a kid so my summer jobs were usually in that area. I got involved doing survey work which led to working in the engineers office drawing road profiles and eventually, bridges. One summer they put me in charge of doing the survey work for a new bridge so I was on hand for the pile driving. You are right, those crane operators were gods. My dad ran a road grader for over 20 years, he was revered among the other operators. That was a skill I could have used later in life. The guys I really looked up to on the job were the welders. These welders worked on heavy equipment and bridges, not exactly finesse work. When my dad broke his clip on sunglasses one day one of these welders looked at them for a bit, took then back to the shop, and returned in a few minutes with them neatly welded. Eighth of an inch at most and he welded them! Now 55 years later it is still cool to run into folks who display skills like this. Me? I worked in air conditioned comfort in medical laboratories with disease and pestilence, piece of cake.

    • wmenns, Great story about a motor grader operator. We had a woman who was a foreman and one day the mortorgrader backed over her. Put her in the hospital with a lot of damage. The operator was incredibly sorry he had injured her so he went to the hospital every day to read to her.

      They were married less than a year after she got out, and she was able to continue working as a foreman. Uh, foreperson.

      The motor grader gods were hard to find. Now they can hook a GPS to a motor grader and even I could operate one.

  6. In Chicago, the union(s) will pay you as you learn on the job, while taking the required night classes. I believe the the night classes are partially or fully paid for by the union. So you get your journeyman’s license with basically no debt.

    Personally I think it would be fun to learn how to be a crane operator. Even at my age.

    While I was in the military, I learned how to be an electrician, drive semi’s, work around hi voltage, pulled cables and other assorted crafts.Wasn’t always fun but I know I will never be unemployed. Reduction in pay I can live with. Not fun mind you but I will rebound.

    • fat puppy,
      Tis better to be able to rebound than to learn how to starve, thinks I. There are times I wish I had learned to be a crane operator, because it is a lot of fun. I’ve seen some damn good ones, and it’s a great skill. But there are few minor accidents in this line of work. I’ve had to run for my life more than once.

      Thank you for your service to this country, even when it wasn’t fun, no, especially when it wasn’t fun.

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