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Building Boom Creates Shortage of Cranes

Fri June 15, 2007 - West Edition

DALLAS (AP) It’s daybreak when Michael Machovsky climbs nearly 200 ft. (60 m) to the cab of his tower crane for a 10-hour day of hoisting equipment and supplies across a downtown construction site.

As morning joggers shuffle by and commuter traffic backs up, Machovsky methodically swings the crane’s jib and drops the hook for the morning’s first lift. His counterparts across the Dallas skyline repeat the drill as the construction day rumbles to a start.

“You never want your hook to sit still unless it’s a break, and that’s very seldom,” said Tony Townley, a senior superintendent with Dallas-based Beck Group. “If you don’t schedule it very precisely, it can cost you time and money.”

Booming commercial construction, an aging work force and more certification requirements are all factors contributing to increasing demand for cranes and their operators across the nation.

“Every marketplace that we’re in right now is saturated. All the contractors are basically at 100 percent capacity and exceeding it,” said Sam Latona, preconstruction manager with Turner Construction, a Dallas-based company with offices across the country. “Certainly in Dallas there’s more tower cranes up now than I think there’s ever been.”

Commercial building is hot in Texas, Florida, California, New York and other parts of the West Coast, Midwest and Northeast, industry officials say. Spending on nonresidential construction was up nearly 14 percent during the first three months of 2007 from last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ken Simonson, chief economist with The Associated General Contractors of America, said much of that spending involves crane projects, such as multistory hotels and offices. A strong economy, including favorable consumer spending and employment rates, is helping to fuel the projects, despite a slowdown in home construction.

“I personally believe we’re in for long-term growth of heavy construction projects that require lifting cranes,” Simonson said.

Projected power and transportation needs also could result in construction activity such as power plants, wind farms, transmission towers and highways.

“All of those will require lots of high or heavy lifting,” Simonson said.

Machovsky, 46, left his trade as an iron worker and started operating cranes eight years ago, attracted by better pay and less strenuous labor. He started on small cranes and worked his way up to high-rise projects, operating cranes in eight states in as many years.

“There’s definitely more of a need for operators in the bigger cranes,” he said. “If they see you have the ability, they’ll attempt to move you up — until you get about 200 feet in the air, and that’s as high as you can go.”

Joe Bob Williams, owner of East Texas Crane Academy in La Porte, said the number of crane operators seeking certification cards is up. His school trains operators to pass a test administered by the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.

Texas is not one of the 15 states to require licenses for operators. But Williams said some Texas construction firms and oil refineries are requiring certification cards, either for insurance reasons or to ensure safety around hazardous materials.

“It’s just been a steady increase in the demand for this certification,” said Williams, who said approximately 80 percent of his students come from Texas and western Louisiana.

Attrition is thinning the ranks of crane operators, said Ronnie Bentley, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 178, which covers most of North Texas. He said demand for crane operators is the highest it’s been during his 36 years in the industry.

“Nobody’s son is getting into it anymore,” Bentley said. “The average conventional operator in our area is probably in his late 50s.”

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers is working to address the problem by providing high school students with information and scholarships in construction careers. The Milwaukee-based group estimates the construction industry will need to add a total of 1 million jobs by 2012.

For its part, the operating engineers union offers an apprenticeship program with classroom and on-the-job training, Bentley said. Payment for union members working in North Texas is approximately $21 an hour plus benefits, approximately a dollar more than a union ironworker or bricklayer, he said.

To meet the current demand for equipment, Morrow Equipment Company has been adding to its fleet of approximately 500 large-scale cranes that it leases to contractors across the country.

The Salem, Ore.-based company is importing more cranes than ever before from its primary supplier, German manufacturer Liebherr, said Gary Vosper, Morrow’s advertising director.

“There is a backlog for the bigger cranes, but we have been making orders and the factory has been trying to keep up,” he said. “It seems right now the demand is outstripping the ability to produce these cranes on the manufacturing level, and I think that’s the case with most of our competitors as well.”

China’s building boom is pulling on the same resources needed to build cranes, he said.

“We’ve been told by the factory that the availability of high grade steel is becoming an issue and affecting their level of production,” Vosper said. “Sometimes we’ll order a crane and we may not get it for 12 months.”

Simonson, of The Associated General Contractors, said crane manufacturers may be leery of expanding production because they can’t be sure the demand will last.

“Since cranes are expensive, they don’t want to build a lot and then find in 12 months that demand shrivels up,” he said.

For now, construction firms are lining up cranes and crane operators early in the process to ensure their projects aren’t delayed.

“We’re already targeting them even before designers get through with their design drawings,” Latona said.

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