Learn About Being a Crane Operator

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

What does a crane operator do?

A crane operator uses advanced construction machinery to move heavy equipment and materials from one place to another. Businesses rely on crane operators to transport materials that are too heavy to move easily and to move materials to very high or very low locations. They often work closely with colleagues on the ground, who direct their movements using radio voice commands or hand signals.

Crane operators may use a variety of different cranes, including tower cranes, mobile cranes and boom trucks, to perform their duties. Crane operators are responsible for all aspects of crane operation, including their safety. While duties can vary depending on their employer and industry, crane operators perform the following tasks:

  • Inspecting cranes and their hydraulic systems thoroughly before operation

  • Moving the crane’s main arm into place, connecting materials to the crane, then moving the crane and its arm to place materials

  • Recording materials and their movements on business logs

  • Making minor repairs to cranes as required

Average salary

The salaries of crane operators vary according to their industry and experience. Crane operators working for construction and mining firms typically have higher earnings than operators working in warehousing, storage and manufacturing, for example. Working overtime and overnight shifts can boost crane operators’ salaries.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $20.52 per hour

  • Typical salaries range from $7.25 to $49.35 per hour.

Crane operator requirements

Aspiring crane operators typically gain experience on the job after graduating high school or earning their GED. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration requires all crane operators to become certified to use the type of crane they operate. The requirements for being a successful crane operator include:

Education

Crane operators need a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a General Education Development certificate (GED), to gain the required certification.

While it is not a requirement, many aspiring crane operators further their education at a trade school. A one- or two-year course teaches students practical construction skills and how to operate heavy machinery, including cranes.

Training

After graduating from trade school or high school, many crane operators enroll in a general crane operator training program. These programs offer lessons about crane operations, maintenance and safety guidelines. They also help prepare students for the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators examination. General crane operator training programs usually last between three weeks and three months, depending on the provider.

Crane operators then apply the knowledge and skills they’ve learned through education and training programs to an apprenticeship. Apprentice crane operators are supervised by experienced crane operators to increase their understanding of the industry and develop their skillsets. Apprenticeship programs typically last between one and six years.

Certifications

The National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO) administers Crane Operator Certification credentials for a variety of different crane operators, including mobile crane operators, service truck crane operators and articulating crane operators. Crane operators must hold the certification for the types of cranes they operate, under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines. Some states and cities also require crane operators to hold a local license.

Crane Operator Certification

Crane Operator Certification (CCO) is available to crane operators aged 18 years and over who have completed in-house or third-party training programs. Applicants must then meet American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ physical and medical requirements and agree to comply with NCCCO ethics and substance use standards.

Valid applicants who pass their 55-question multiple-choice written test and practical examination in their specialty crane operation area within 12 months receive certification. Crane operators must pass the recertification examination every five years and continue complying with medical, substance and ethics requirements to maintain certification.

Local license/certification

Some states and cities require crane operators to hold a local license, certification or both. Requirements vary, but applicants must usually show their CCO certification, their NCCCO certification operator card and the results of a recent physical examination to a relevant government or council department. Applicants may also need to pass an additional examination in their area’s specific construction laws and guidelines. Licenses and certifications must typically be renewed after several years.

Skills

Businesses employing crane operators typically look for applicants with the following skills:

Mechanical skills

Crane operators must understand how to use crane controls to maneuver the crane and make small adjustments when traveling from one location to the next and placing down their loads. They must work with precision especially when working on uneven terrain or in tight spaces.

Alertness

Crane operators must stay aware of their crane, their load and their surroundings at all times to complete their tasks efficiently and without incidents. This can be challenging during long shifts and overnight shifts.

Attention to detail

Crane operators need excellent attention to detail when inspecting their cranes. Overlooking a problem could compromise safety on the job site.

Verbal communication

Crane operators rely on their strong verbal communication skills to give and understand directions from the ground while they are operating their cranes.

Crane operator work environment

Construction firms, mining organizations, manufacturing firms and other businesses employ crane operators. Crane operators may work outdoors, on construction sites and docks for example, or indoors, in factories and warehouses. 

These workplaces are often noisy, as crane operators are usually surrounded by heavy machinery, including their own crane, but earplugs can minimize the impact. Crane operators working outdoors may feel the impact of extreme weather, especially during summer and winter. They must dress appropriately for these conditions to stay comfortable on the job.

Crane operators spend most of their time in their cranes. Many even take their breaks and eat meals in their crane’s cabs. Long shifts are common for crane operators. Many elect to work overtime to earn higher wages. Additional hours are common when crane operators are near deadlines. Shift times can vary, with hours fluctuating from one week or project to the next.

How to become a crane operator

Crane operators must gain relevant experience and certification to work in their field. Follow these career steps to become a crane operator:

1. Earn a high school diploma or GED

A high school diploma or GED is a prerequisite for gaining the certification that crane operators need. 

2. Enroll in a trade school

Trade schools offer courses that can help aspiring crane operators learn about the construction industry and crane operation. Most programs take one or two years to complete. 

3. Complete a general operator training program

A general operator training program offers more specific education for crane operators, including details about crane operation, safety and maintenance. These are short courses typically lasting only a few months. 

4. Secure an apprenticeship

An apprenticeship will deepen your knowledge of crane operations and give you valuable practical experience. Contact crane operators in your local area to organize your apprenticeship. 

5. Obtain your Crane Operator Certification

Crane operators working in the United States need Crane Operator Certification. Become certified to use the specific type of cranes you want to work with. 

6. Get local certification and licenses

Some cities and states require crane operators to hold a local certification, license, or both. Check your local requirements to get the paperwork you need to work unsupervised in your local area. 

7. Prepare your resume

Create a resume showing details of the training programs you have taken part in and your certifications and licenses, including your NCCCO certification. You should also detail the common tasks and projects you worked on during your apprenticeship to show your experience. Including only relevant details should help you keep your resume concise. 

8. Apply for crane operator positions

After gaining industry experience and becoming licensed and certified, you can work unsupervised as a crane operator. Submit your resume and customized cover letters to local construction firms, mining organizations, warehouses, manufacturing companies and other businesses employing crane operators. Your cover letter should highlight why you believe you would suit the open your chosen positions.

Crane operator job description example

Barker Construction Company seeks a 100-ton rough terrain crane operator to join our enthusiastic team. You will report to the construction project manager and move building materials around our job sites as directed. You should hold NCCCO certification and have three or more years’ experience working as a crane operator. The ideal candidate will also have a driver’s license and reliable transportation. You must be able to pass a pre-employment drug screening and daily alcohol breathalyzer tests to ensure a safe working environment.

Related careers

If you are interested in working as a crane operator, consider the following related careers:

  • Forklift operator

  • Truck driver

  • Construction project manager

  • Laborer

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