Jim worked on mobile cranes for nearly twenty-five years before becoming an instructor in 1999. He started his career moving houses and heavy equipment where he learned his trade and the value of teamwork.
“They had a couple of cranes to handle the timbers and blocks – that’s where I started running cranes. I was a labourer / crane operator / truck driver.”
Mobile cranes are used to do work a boom truck can’t do – higher lifts, heavier loads, and lifts that need a longer reach. Jim has worked on a variety of different sites.
“I’ve worked on building bridges, worked in pulp mills and refineries, and on construction sites setting up and taking down tower cranes. Work takes me out of town about 25% of the time. If you like to travel, there are lots of opportunities.”
Being a mobile crane operator has been a very satisfying career. Jim takes pride in the fact that he has contributed to building lasting, useful structures.
“I’ve been on projects like the Cambie Street Bridge in Vancouver, where I worked for nine months. I go over the bridge and think, ‘hey, I helped make that’. When I go across another bridge on the Coquihalla I think about the great crew I was with. That’s what I like best – the sense of accomplishing something good.”
Jim is usually up by 5:00 am and arrives at work by 6:00. His work day starts in the yard where he picks up his crane. Jim usually does ‘taxi work’, meaning the crane and operator are hired out together. He likes the variety but he knows this kind of work is not for everyone.
“That’s what some people can’t handle about this type of crane work. Some people like to know where they’re going every day.”
When he gets to the yard he inspects the crane and finds out where he’ll be working that day.
“Sometimes finding a site can be a challenge, especially in the city if you’re unfamiliar with the one-way streets. If you’re driving a big crane truck and you end up in a dead end, what are you going to do? You can’t turn around.”
Once he arrives at the site, he hopes there will be someone there to open the gate and that there will be a place for him to set up. If someone from his company has assessed the site beforehand, he’ll have detailed instructions when he gets there but things can change, and they do.
“One of my biggest frustrations is reaching a chaotic site and not knowing where to go or what to do on the job. Then I have to get on the phone and talk to someone from my company, or the customer.”
An average day can be anywhere from eight to 12 hours long.
“Long days happen when you have to go to the yard, pick up the crane, and take it to a site. With a big crane, you’ll have a tractor-trailer come with you with extra components like counterweights and an extra crew to help you put it together. Then you work to get the job done in one day and you have to disassemble the crane and take it back to the yard in the evening because you might have another job to go to tomorrow.”
The first thing a Mobile Crane Operator does after arriving on a site is set up the crane. This is outdoor work and can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to a few hours, depending on the site and the type of crane.
“Every day, I hope for good weather; working in the rain gets to me. You don’t see so well, you’ve got to get all bundled up and you still get soaked.”
Once the crane is set up, he runs it from the cab using levers or joysticks.
“Some of the older cranes can be very noisy and using ear protection is essential. If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble. I stay in the crane most of the day. I pack a lunch and take breaks in the cab but it’s not lonely. I spend all day in constant communication with other people. You operate using hand signals from the crew, but if you can’t see the crew or the lift, you’ll be using radios. Working this way has its own special challenges. There is an established system of hand signals, but not everybody knows them. Communication between the operator and signal person must be clear to both. If a signal is not understood, work must be stopped for clarification.”
In the crane industry, the number one priority is safety and the operator is ultimately responsible.
“You’re responsible for the crane and if you have a crew from your employer, quite often you’re responsible for them too. When it comes right down to it, you’re responsible for anyone who comes anywhere near that crane.”
Jim feels that people on site don’t always understand the operator’s responsibilities. Tensions on the job, if there are any, usually arise over safety issues.
“It’s important to be able to stand your ground when you think something is not safe.”
Running the crane can be exhausting because the operator is constantly focused on a lot of variables that affect the safety of their work.
“You’ve got to be alert the whole day and as long as you’re working, there’s a good chance you’re going to be under stress. You go home at the end of the day and you’re mentally wiped but if it was a good day and you had a good crew, you go home pretty happy.”
Spending most of his day in the crane means Jim doesn’t get to socialize on the job, especially on sites where he’s the only operator. Even though being a mobile crane operator is nothing like an office job, he’s not immune to interpersonal politics. The key to success is earning respect. Age and experience help. Getting the respect of other people on the site goes hand in hand with earning the trust of customers.
“Don’t go thinking you’re too special. Keep the ego in check because people won’t put up with it; especially the customers. You irritate a customer and the next thing you know he’s on the phone to your company saying that next time he hires a crane he doesn’t want you as his operator.”
“You need to be able to get along well with others, think for yourself and work independently. It also helps to come from a background where you are already used to being around heavy equipment. You also need good depth perception so you can make precise judgments about landing loads safely. If you don’t have good depth perception, forget it. Don’t even think of doing this job. You need to be able to handle stress and be willing to work long, hard hours. Laziness or not showing up for work when you’re supposed to will get you kicked out very quickly. Being late or not showing up doesn’t cut it. Quite often there’s a crew sitting there waiting for the crane and if that crane’s not there, the job can’t be started.”
Jim encourages new operators to get trained properly.
“Employers have to do their due diligence. They have to make sure you’ve got some training and know how to run the crane. If not, they’re asking for trouble. When I started, 30 years ago, there were no courses you could take. You needed to learn on the job and by making mistakes. These days, you can still learn that way but you don’t have to. There are places to go for training.”
Once people become operators, they tend to stick with their jobs and stay in the industry for many years. Sometimes people move up and become supervisors or foremen and occasionally people buy their own equipment and go into business for themselves as independent owner-operators.
“My advice to anyone considering a career as a mobile crane operator is to take into account both the good and the bad. One of the most difficult things about this work is the long hours. The more hours you work the more money you make because there’s time and a half and double time but after a while that double time doesn’t mean anything. Some people love those long hours. I knew a couple of guys who no matter how many hours they were asked to work, they were always there. They liked the pay cheques.”
It’s important to recognize the impact being out of town and working long days can have on your personal life.
“I know a guy who quit crane operating because he had a couple of little kids growing up and he wasn’t around enough to be a good dad. Some guys realize, too late, that their kids grew up without them.”
And there are ways this work can affect your health. Learning healthy ways for dealing with stress, eating properly and getting enough sleep are very important. So is exercise.
“You get out of shape sitting there, and that’s not good. You can sit in your crane for hours and days in a row then suddenly, you’re required to get out and work. Then there goes your back and the injury may last for years.”
For all that, operating mobile cranes has been a rewarding career for Jim.
“There’s variety, the money’s good, it’s different every day and there’s a lot of satisfaction in going home happy after doing a good job and building something lasting.”