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How Do I Become a Crane Operator?

Research what it takes to become a crane operator. Learn about the job duties, educational and licensure requirements and salary information to find out if this is the career for you.

What Is a Crane Operator?

A crane operator specializes in the use of crane equipment to lift and move building materials, machines and other heavy objects. They typically work in close conjunction with workers on the ground, who use hand signals or radio equipment to relay information about extending and retracting horizontal boons and rotating the superstructure, among other crane-related tasks. Most jobs for crane operators are at construction sites, where they contribute to infrastructure projects, or at ports, where they help load and unload cargo for transportation.

The table below provides an overview for this career:

Education Required High school diploma or GED
Training Required On-the-job training, apprenticeship
Licensure/Certification Some states and cities require licensure; voluntary certification available
Job Growth (2018-2028)* 5%
Average Salary (2018)* $58,160

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

How Many Types of Cranes Are There?

There are basically two types of cranes: mobile and fixed. Within each class, you can learn to operate several large and small cranes, including cranes used from a vehicle, ship or helicopter; tower cranes that are usually found at construction sites for tall buildings; telescoping cranes that extend and contract using hydraulics; or overhead cranes used for loading cargo. Though similar in function, each type of crane requires you to obtain specialized knowledge and skills to manipulate the controls and cables necessary to move heavy objects, machinery, materials and equipment.

Each type of crane has a specific purpose. As a crane operator, your expertise will be needed on construction and manufacturing sites, ports and loading docks, offshore building sites, warehouses and rail yards. You'll often depend on and take direction from teams of workers to correctly lift and position loads using radios or visual signals.

What Kind of Education Do I Need?

You'll receive much of your required training on the job. You might not need any education beyond a high school diploma, though an associate's degree, bachelor's degree or undergraduate certificate in a relevant field could provide useful preparation. You can also participate in apprenticeship programs through companies, unions and educational organizations.

Do I Need a License or Certification?

To demonstrate your expertise with certain types of cranes, such as tower, articulating or overhead cranes, you could obtain voluntary certification through the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (www.nccco.org). You can test for certification as an operator, signaler or rigger if you're over 18 years old, have the physical capability and experience in crane operations. Although the credential is optional, some employers might require it. Additionally, some states regulate the operation of certain cranes, and you could need to pass written and practical tests to earn state licensure.

What is the Job Outlook?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that employment for crane and tower operators was anticipated to increase by 5% between 2018 and 2028 (www.bls.gov). The BLS stated that your employment prospects would also depend on economic fluctuations.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of working as a crane operator, you could specialize in the use of a different type of moving machinery. For instance, as a dredge operator, you would operate a machine that excavates waterways. If you worked as a derrick operator, you would control the machines that move platforms carrying workers and equipment from one location to another. Alternatively, you could get a job operating a different type of heavy equipment on a construction site, such as a bulldozer, which is a machine that clears away earth and debris. The minimum educational requirement for a job as a heavy equipment operator is a high school diploma.