STAR-BULLETIN / 2004
A flurry of construction driven by military contracts as well as residential housing is stretching the availability of crane operators. Above, a large crane towered over the site in Kakaako that now features several luxury towers.
Construction boom magnifies scarcity of crane operators
Military and civilian projects throughout the state are drawing on the limited supply
A good crane operator is hard to find these days.
The people who operate what are sometimes referred to as Hawaii's state bird are harder to come by due to the training and certification that's required, as well as the high level of demand from the islands' construction boom.
"A crane operator doesn't happen overnight," said Allan Parker, district representative of Hawaii Operating Engineers Local 3.
Parker estimates there are about 300 certified crane members in Local 3.
While some projects may only require a handful of crane operators, others, like a subdivision, may require up to 30 operators at a given time.
A law went into effect beginning in October 2003, requiring crane operators to be certified or fined up to $70,000.
The new requirement was an effort to stem worker fatalities, injuries and public endangerment. The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations established an advisory board to help enforce the requirements, but is still ironing out a final draft of rules.
It adopted the national standards set by the National Commission for Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO).
Most operators in Hawaii are taking written and physical exams administered by NCCCO, according to Kerwin Chong, vice president of Hawaiian Crane & Rigging. Still, there aren't enough to go around.
"There is a shortage," said Chong.
Chong, who has about 50 certified operators working for his company, said the new requirements scared off many of his older workers when they went into effect.
"They got scared and retired," he said. "That created a shortage itself."
He estimates that he lost about a third of his staff over the last few years. Moreover, the operators who retired were the most experienced and skilled operators the company had. That resulted in a generation gap, he said, between the most experienced operators and those that are new on the job.
Hawaiian Crane has about a dozen recruits in its apprenticeship program, but not all of them are necessarily going to stay on as employees.
"We weed them out," he said.
In some cases, developers have no choice but to bring crane operators over from the mainland due to the shortage.
The shortage has spillover effects to other parts of the construction industry.
Structural engineer Steve Baldridge of Honolulu-based Baldridge & Associates, said his team may refine the designs of buildings because they have to consider that there may only be one, rather than two, crane operators available for a project.
When the new requirements went into effect in 2003, there were only 87 certified out of an estimated 1,000 crane operators in the state.
As of August 2004, there were about 480, according to DLIR spokesman James Hardway. He said the department at this time, does not actually have the authority to force crane operators to be certified.
Local 3 estimated it has about 300 certified operators out of its 3,000 members, who also operate backhoes and other construction machines.
Chong said his workers have been doing plenty of overtime.
"We're booked solid," he said. "We're typically putting in more than the standard week of hours."
The work is driven by military contracts as well as the residential housing boom stretching from Kakaako to Ewa Beach. Much of the demand is also coming from neighbor islands.