Guide to Becoming a Crane Operator

Guide to Becoming a Crane Operator

Entering trades like a crane operator allows you to get training in less than a year and begin testing for certification shortly after that. There are many avenues for entering this field, allowing you to choose a path that works for you. Whether you're graduating high school and want to enter the workforce as soon as possible or are making an occupation change, becoming a crane operator is pretty straightforward.

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How to Become a Crane Operator

There are a few paths you may take to become a professional crane operator. As with most professions, the more training and certifications you have, the more qualified you'll be to operate advanced equipment and potentially earn more money. 

In most cases, you'll need to start with basic training. Depending on where you get a crane operator job, basic training may be enough to get you started, while other areas require operators to be certified. Here are a few steps you could take to become a crane operator.

Take Trade School Courses

If you're a recent high school graduate and know you want to pursue crane operation as an occupation, you may consider enrolling in trade school courses rather than attending a four-year college. If you're an adult looking to pursue a new occupation, trade school is also an excellent place to start. 

These programs are more affordable than universities and help you obtain the knowledge and training necessary for trades like crane operation. You'll waste no time jumping into your desired field of study, learning specialized skills and often putting them into practice with hands-on training. Trade school programs provide basic training and knowledge to help you begin your career. They're typically fast-paced courses and will get you where you want to be in a short amount of time. 

If your trade school courses don't cover general operator training, you'll also need to complete this before entering the workforce. General operator training teaches you about machine safety protocols and equipment maintenance to ensure you can operate the machinery safely and skillfully. 

Once you've completed the necessary courses and training for a crane operator program, you'll typically have help finding work or further field training opportunities like an apprenticeship program.

Find an Apprenticeship Program

While many crane operators skip an apprenticeship, these programs can be highly beneficial for an inexperienced crane operator. Rather than being immediately thrown into the field, an apprenticeship program pairs you with an experienced crane operator to mentor you as you learn the field through working. 

You'll get on real job sites to experience firsthand what being a crane operator involves. Your mentor is there to guide you and make the transition into the field a bit more comfortable. Apprenticeships allow you to build strong professional connections that can lead to future job opportunities.

find an apprenticeship

Earn Certifications

Some states or municipalities require crane operators to obtain certification before being considered eligible for hire or machine operation. In other cases, certifications can be a way to grow in your career as a crane operator. There are a couple of different certifications you may obtain. Some of the most common and sought-after certifications are from the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO). 

The NCCCO, often shortened as Certification of Crane Operators (CCO), programs allow you to become authorized to operate specialized machines that typically require more than basic training. For example, NCCCO programs offer certifications for lattice boom crawler (LBC) and lattice boom truck (LBT) cranes and telescopic boom swing (TLL) and fixed cab (TSS) cranes. You can either get certified directly through the NCCCO or an accredited certification program. 

In addition to meeting general CCO eligibility requirements like being at least 18 years old and complying with policies, crane operators must pass written and practical exams to qualify for certification:

  • Written exams: The written portion of the certification exam consists of a Core Examination, which everyone is required to take, and your choice of up to four Specialty Exams. You must choose at least one Specialty — LBC, LBT, TLL or TSS — but you can choose multiple. The Core Exam consists of 90 multiple-choice questions, which you have 90 minutes to answer. Each Specialty Exam includes 26 multiple-choice questions, which you get an hour to answer. To certify, you need competency in the Core and at least one Specialty. 
  • Practical exams: The Practical Exam will require you to demonstrate your proficiency in crane operation. Depending on the Specialty you choose, you'll take the corresponding Practical. If you choose more than one, you'll need to pass a Practical Exam for each Specialty chosen.

Once you pass your certification exams, you'll be issued a laminated ID card that authorizes you for crane operation. 

How Long Does It Take to Become a Crane Operator?

Since there are several avenues for becoming a crane operator, the length of time will vary from start to end. Standard trade school programs typically last one to two years, and basic operator training programs can take up to eight months, depending on the provider. If you choose the trade school route, you may enter the workforce after two to three years or less. If you jump right into basic operator training, you could become a crane operator within a year. 

The relatively short time frame makes this occupation great for those that may be in between jobs and need a good option, especially for those who may not make crane operation a lifelong career. If you don't see yourself growing in this career, basic training courses will be enough to get you started. If you plan to make crane operation your career, you can invest a bit more time in training and certification. 

The time frame it takes to pass the certification exams will vary widely from person to person, though both the written and practical exams must be passed within a year of each other. You can take your exams in any order, though after passing the first, you must pass the second within 12 months to qualify for certification. If more than 12 months pass, you'll have to restart the certification process. 

Once certified, your certification will last five years — after five years, the certification expires. During the year before the expiration date, you're expected to recertify to maintain your certifications after the expiration date. Recertification includes retaking the written exams. If you don't have at least 1,000 hours of crane experience, you'll also have to retake the practical exam. 

The length of time it takes to become a crane operator ultimately depends on how much time you intend to invest in the career. While you can quickly learn the basic skills, you can also spend a few years advancing and obtaining additional Specialty certifications.

How Much Do Crane Operators Make?

On average, a crane operator in the United States earns over $65,000 a year. A crane operator's salary will vary significantly based on several factors including certifications, experience, location and industry. For example, an operator in the steel manufacturing industry makes an average of $53,000 annually, while one in the electric power generation industry earns an average of nearly $89,000 annually. 

With the opportunity for growth and increasing demand for crane operators, you're likely to find a well-paying job in this industry if you're able to put the time and training into becoming a qualified professional.

Industries Where Crane Operators Are Needed

Cranes are extremely valuable machines. Their versatility and strength have earned them spots in various industries ranging from construction to mechanical installations. If you're considering becoming a crane operator, know that the need for this role is growing in industries like:

  • Construction: Cranes are most commonly needed on construction sites. From residential and commercial construction to public construction, this industry relies on this equipment to move heavy materials like steel and concrete. For example, cranes are necessary when constructing bridges to hold materials suspended in the air until they're secure. Cranes can also be used to move large machinery and equipment to and around the construction site.
  • Shipping and storage: Cranes are necessary in shipping and storage yards, especially when the goods being shipped or stored are heavy crates or massive shipping containers. When shipping goods overseas, shipping containers the size of houses need to be moved onto and off of cargo ships. The most effective and efficient way to do so is with cranes. 
  • Manufacturing: From automotive to cellphone towers, many manufacturing industries find uses for cranes. When manufacturing large, heavy components and products, cranes provide a way to move these pieces around facilities and finished products to other areas to keep production running. 
  • Steel: Cranes can easily move steel and other heavy metals. Whether they're unloading raw materials or transporting steel products, cranes play a vital role in the steel industry. This equipment is also necessary for moving steel beams and other components during the construction of various structures.
  • HVAC and mechanical installations: HVAC systems like central air conditioners can be extremely large and heavy, especially those for large buildings and facilities. Cranes are utilized when moving and installing these and other mechanical structures. 

Common Types of Cranes

As a crane operator, you'll potentially be operating a variety of different cranes. Crane types vary based on their structure, strength and ability to move. Learn more about common types of cranes, including the ones you can get certified to operate through the NCCCO.

Lattice Boom Crawler Cranes

Lattice boom crawler cranes are one of the largest mobile cranes, typically requiring disassembly and assembly to move between work sites. Because of their size, these machines typically remain on a job site for the job's duration. Crawler cranes are versatile, easily moving and hoisting heavy loads. The lattice boom design features welded steel in “V” or “W” patterns to provide strength without being too heavy and offers a wider radius for operation. Wide tracks provide crawler cranes with mobility and stability, typically for moving across smooth surfaces.

Lattice Boom Truck Cranes

Lattice boom truck cranes offer the strength of a lattice boom crawler option mounted on a truck. Rather than move with tracks, lattice boom truck cranes are on wheels, which makes them easier to move from site to site and traverse uneven ground. Lattice boom trucks are typically equipped with outriggers, which help distribute load weight and stabilize the crane while lifting. These pieces of equipment are effective for big jobs that need quick crane work.

lattice boom truck cranes

Telescopic Boom Cranes

Telescopic boom cranes have retractable booms. The boom is constructed of a series of sections that fit into each other, allowing the boom to extend or retract with hydraulics. These cranes are versatile because the boom height can be adjusted, and they often have a higher reach than other types of cranes. You'll find swing and fixed cabs:

  • Swing cab: Swing cabs rotate 360 degrees, giving the operator a complete view of the area around the crane. These cabs are beneficial because the operator can swivel the cab to work in different areas as opposed to having to rotate the entire crane.
  • Fixed cab: Fixed cabs are the opposite — they're stationary. Fixed cabs look like truck cabs, only allowing the operator to see what's directly in front of the crane and immediately to the left and right. 

Overhead Cranes

Overhead cranes are often permanent pieces of equipment in construction sites or facilities where the workflow is repetitive. A horizontal beam is installed over the work area where a track and trolley are used to move loads throughout a bay. These cranes are especially useful in warehouses and facilities where products need to be moved down an assembly line or are consistently moved through a specific area.

Tower Cranes

Another type of permanent or semi-permanent option is a tower crane. These are most commonly used to build tall structures like skyscrapers. These pieces of equipment are stationary. Mobile cranes are typically needed to assemble tower cranes, as they can't be driven to a job site. The jib is the arm that stretches off the mast, rotating 360 degrees for optimal capabilities.

Rent Cranes From The Cat® Rental Store Dealers

Renting cranes and crane trucks from The Cat® Rental Store dealers is a great way to take advantage of high-quality equipment at an affordable price. You'll only pay for the equipment when you need to use it, and you can avoid the need to store additional equipment. Our dealers even cover maintenance and repairs on all crane rentals. Cat dealers are readily available to help you find the best machine for your needs and can be on-site to help if any rental equipment issues arise. 

Contact us online to learn more about our dealers' crane inventories, or find a dealer near you to get a quote for rental equipment.

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