The operator challenge

Daniel Searle 27 Jul 2015 EUROPE BUSINESS, EQUIPMENT & TECHNOLOGY

The recovery of the construction industry is being hampered in some regions, particularly developed markets, by a shortage of operators. But what are the causes, and what can be done to address the issue? Daniel Searle examines how the crane sector is addressing the issue.

One of the knock-on effects of the recession reducing the amount of work available in the construction industry was to drive many workers and machinery operators away from the sector in search of alternative employment.

Stephen Radley, director of policy and strategic planning at the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), spoke at the Construction Plant Hire Association’s Plant Conference in October 2014. An estimated 390,000 staff left the industry after the recession hit, he said, with a further 410,000 due to retire between 2014 and 2019.

In a chicken-and-egg situation, the recovery of the industry is now being slowed by the reduced number of available operators. A report from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) stated that two-fifths of its members had been forced to turn down potential projects due to the “dearth of talent” in the sector, and estimated that up to 27,000 projects could be affected by 2019.

Matthew Brown, managing director at contractor umbrella employer Giant Group, said of this situation: “Construction and its allied industries were always likely to prosper once the economic outlook improved and so these findings aren’t entirely surprising. And while it’s encouraging to see such wide scale investment, the growing skills shortage could reach crisis point if action isn’t taken soon. Roles in construction and civil engineering have been listed on the Tier 2 shortage occupation list [used to regulate recruitment of overseas labour in the UK], suggesting that businesses are already relying on overseas talent as a result of the lack of UK based experts.

“Consequently, firms, and the Government, need to do considerably more to encourage youngsters to enter these fields to prevent a severe people crisis further down the line.”

The industry has also failed to address the need for investment in training, says Nigel Howard, health and safety training manager at MPS Crane Operators:

“The tower crane industry is bracing itself for a very difficult summer. There are not enough operators to occupy and operate the cranes which seem to be shooting up in every corner of every major city.

“With several new power stations having been or waiting to be sanctioned, the demand for operators will only increase. There is no exact figure being leaked regarding cranes but traditionally projects of that magnitude operate 24 hours per day and seven days per week. One doesn’t have to have the mathematical genius of Pythagoras to recognise the huge numbers this will absorb from an already over-fished pond.

“There are several reasons why there is a shortage. Firstly, it is only in the last few years that the major players in the UK hire industry have recognised the need for investment in training and development of crane operators. But the need for crane operators has been addressed far too late.

“Also, most operators believe that rates of pay, while hardly breadline minimum wage, do not justify the huge responsibility they undertake as tower crane operators. Indeed there are still some of the older operators around who can remember the halcyon days of the late 80s. In what was a golden era for operators earnings-wise, it was not unusual for them to be earning between £45,000-50,000 per year.

“I have lost count of the number of canteen conversations I have been witness to where the above situation is discussed by small groups of dewy-eyed crane drivers.

Of course rates paid to operators are only reflective of the rates being received for the hire of the crane. However this argument cuts little ice with the crane operators.”

Crane companies affected

For crane rental companies in the UK, providing operators with cranes can prove difficult, particularly in more remote locations.

Robert Law, managing director at AGD, says: “There is a lack of experienced operators – partly due to many retiring – who are willing to travel to jobs around the country where they won’t be back at home every evening. As a crawler crane business it’s difficult to be local, and therefore we have to ask operators to travel – but many younger people who join the industry don’t want to do this.

“There are freelance operators available through agencies, who we used to employ temporarily for holiday cover. But now the experienced operators are all working on permanent jobs.

“We recently had a job in Cornwall and couldn’t find anyone interested in going due to the long distance from anywhere, as they knew they wouldn’t be able to get home at the weekends and other jobs are plentiful.

“The only solution, is to keep hiring operators and mechanics wherever possible and train them hoping they will stay.”

David Boughey, UK director at heavy lift specialist ALE, says: “Getting good people into any business is always difficult. For us, what is more important is continuing to invest in expanding and improving our technical services and engineering teams.

“We have to work hard at recruiting people such as technical and project engineers, part of which we address through an active graduate recruitment and development programme. As a global company we can also offer progression, with some people moving on from our UK business to the global group, which helps to attract the right people.

“Even with these measures in place, it is always difficult to replace someone who is retiring with 35 years of experience – you can replace knowledge, but not always experience.”

Geoffrey Marsh, chairman of Marsh Plant Hire Ltd., says: “The recovery may also be slowed by the shortage of tradespeople – after a downturn, people may leave the industry and do not necessarily come back, and so the building sector can only expand again at a relatively slow rate.

“We are trying to train six operators a year, which allows us to just about keep pace with operators leaving the industry due to retirement or sickness.

“As we have a network of depots, this allows our operators to live locally, which reduces the potential issue of operators refusing to travel long distances to jobs.”

Training the next generation

One of the ways in which the industry is addressing the situation is by appealing to young people to consider the construction sector as a potential career path. Careers promotion event Lift & Move USA recently took place in Chicago, aiming to help employers connect with the next generation of operators, engineers, riggers, mechanics and so forth.

Crane rental company Imperial Crane is helping to promote careers in the crane sector at the show. Chief operating officer Bill Tierney says: “Every study being conducted by trade associations has forecast a shortage of tradesmen in every craft – and although it’s better or worse in different regions, it’s not going to go away soon. In the next 12-18 months there will be a shortage of craft workers, so it’s on everyone’s minds and agendas.

“There’s an ongoing push amongst trade groups and a combined effort to attract young people to industries, and to ask how we can do this.

“At Lift & Move we will have some cranes on show – an 18t and a 70-100t all terrain, and a larger 300t or above all terrain – which will be open for young people to get in the cabs. We will be explaining to them the responsibilities of the various roles in the industry, and the NCCCO has volunteered to supply a crane simulator for the attendees to try.

“This is a pilot programme – we are hoping for success and that it can be carried on and expanded to other cities.”

Gina Kaktis, marketing coordinator at Imperial Crane, says: “Part of the conference will include speakers talking about their experiences in the industry, such as crane operators discussing some of the projects they’ve been involved with, the biggest lifts they’ve completed, and what a typical working day involves for them.”

“We’ll also highlight jobs that young people may not realise are available, such as lift planning, project management, and estimating,” adds Tierney.

“There’s a generation of workers retiring with 20-30 years of experience, who will need to be replaced. Our generation created the problem – many parents have focused on young people staying in education and getting a degree. The downside to this is that the construction industry has suffered – the upcoming generation has focused on computer-based work and have drifted away from construction.”

“Parents have pushed kids to go to college, so they can have a college education to fall back on,” says Kaktis. “Some people have told young people to move away from construction after some workers were laid off and they began viewing working in the industry as a risk.”

Tierney says: “Ten years ago, nobody was trying to make the industry more attractive to young people – now there are many organisations doing it, and Lift & Move will be moving from city to city. I think we’ll be successful.

“At Imperial Crane we’ve hired six apprentices over the last 18 months, and we’re continuing to add more. One of the reasons our company has been so successful is that we have many operators who have been here for more than 20 years. But, this means many of them will be retiring in the next few years, and at the moment we do not have their replacements – so we are working on developing them through apprenticeships.

“We put the apprentices in with the experienced operators, as cranes usually require two operators – one main operator and an additional person such as an oiler. There’s no better way for the apprentices to learn than that.”

The National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO), headed by chief executive Graham Brent, was also involved in the Lift & Move show.

“We’ll be pitching entering the crane industry to high-schoolers as an alternative to going to college, and saying to young people that actually college might not be the best option for them,” says Brent. “The NCCCO can offer them a certification which represents a professional credential that they may not otherwise pursue.

It’s an option that young people may not have even considered, as they may see construction work as difficult and in unappealing conditions – we’ll explain that actually the inside of a crane cab is more comfortable than they might imagine. We’ll be backed by Skills USA, a scheme that promotes ‘dirty jobs’ to young people.”

There are plenty of positive aspects of working as a crane operator that can be used to promote it as a career choice, says Brent: “In the US, wages for crane operators are relatively high compared to other markets.

“Operators who can run a high-capacity crane are in high demand, so are paid high wages. It’s the best job on the construction site in some respects, being stationed in an air-conditioned cab, although it does of course also come with the most hazards and responsibility.”

The financial incentives of a career as a crane operator does need to be highlighted to the next generation, agrees Tierney: “If there’s one point we need to get across more, it’s the financial benefits of working in the construction industry – including the lack of tuition fee debts, and the insurance schemes.”

Other schemes and programmes are being held throughout the US, notes Ted Blanton, president of the North American Crane Bureau (NACB): “There are several programmes and associations working very hard in this area.

Build the Future and NCCER are two organisations running in the forefront of this challenge. These not-for-profit associations sponsor hundreds of high school programs to introduce our youth to the construction trades including crane operations.”

In the UK, the British branch of leading crane manufacturer Liebherr sponsored the My Future My Choice event at the Vertikal Days exhibition, which took place in May. My Future My Choice is a charity aimed at promoting engineering to young people, with the event hosting children from the ages of nine to 14 from the local area and explaining what a potential career in engineering could involve, as well as visiting the stands at Vertikal Days to see cranes up close.

Next generation training

Anyone planning to train to become a crane operator, whether a young person or a member of another sector of the industry, faces the challenge of gaining sufficient experience of operating a crane to be employable to a crane company, says Graham Brent:

“In 1995-96 there were only a few training companies, and it was therefore hard for the NCCCO to gain momentum, as we don’t offer training directly. Since then there has been an explosion in the number of training companies, with at least 150 listed on the training providers page on the NCCCO website.

“However, there isn’t so much training specific to the full process of becoming a crane operator. Many places offer training in the theory, hazards, rules and regulations and so forth, but there are not many schools who can train a student with no experience into a crane operator.

“Equally, there are not many crane companies who will take on untrained operators, due to the risk involved, time demands and so on. So you end up with a chicken and egg situation.

“It all comes back to how we can make the industry more attractive to people who may want to join.”

One method of giving trainees experience operating a crane is to use a simulator – something which L D Stutes, vice president of sales and marketing at the NACB, is keen to see more of.

“I feel the growth of simulation has really been attributed to exposing people to the true benefits and capabilities that the systems have to an otherwise unknowing industry. Simulation programming and technology has advanced to a point where it now allows for more accurate representation of a real world environment.

“Other high-risk industries have been progressive in informing and implementing the use of simulation to train without the risk that real life presents. From my perspective, crane rental companies have been a bit slow to progress into the world of simulation. I think that they, like many other organisations that have ready access to cranes, see that the use of a real crane is better training.

Many fail to try to comprehend the true cost and money savings that simulation brings to the table when it comes to both reducing ‘wear and tear’ to real heavy equipment, and the improved training that a simulator provides in enhancing the operators skills and productivity.”

Crane training provider Crane Service Industries (CSI) uses a Vortex simulator manufactured by CM Labs Simulations, after seeing it at ConExpo last year.

Dub Huggins, who manages training at CSI, says: “The main benefit of Vortex is that it cuts down on actual crane time – you can get the guys to ease in and ease out of a swing on the simulator, and ease in and ease out of the boom and then catch the load, and you’re not putting that wear and tear on the real crane. It has reduced our maintenance and fuel costs phenomenally.

“It allows the student to get comfortable with the controls, and it takes that fear away – they’re not going to turn over a crane, they’re not going to break a rotation bearing, they’re not going to be slapping cable on the boom.”

CM Labs has also supplied simulators to the Crane Institute of America, Nigeria’s JCI International, Mammoet, and Canada’s Northern Crane Services Group.

Over in Abu Dhabi, offshore lifting company Enermech has taken a similar approach, installing a simulator that had previously been used by the company at its locations in Australia and Singapore. Training crane operators is one of its key services, and due to the nature of its key market – oil and gas – performing this on-site is expensive and potentially hazardous.

Using a highly-specialised piece of software, the simulator recreates the experience of operating an offshore crane with screens filling almost 180º of vision and a full set of controls.


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