Crane Operator License: How to Become a Crane Driver
What Does a Crane Operator Do?
Crane operators use cable and tower equipment to move cargo, materials, and other heavy loads from one place to another. They work from a control station in coordination with workers on the ground called riggers and signalers. In addition to actual crane operation, they may be responsible for inspecting, maintaining, and repairing their equipment.
Crane operators work in many different industries, but they're most common in construction and at major ports.
How Much Do Crane Operators Make?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average (median) salary for crane and tower operators in May 2021 was $62,240 a year (or $29.92 an hour).
The most lucrative crane driving jobs are found in:
- electric power ($88,810 a year / $42.70 an hour on average)
- specialty trades ($82,790 a year / $39.80 an hour on average)
While the lowest paying crane driving jobs are found in:
- merchant wholesaling ($43,220 a year / $20.78 an hour on average)
- iron and steel manufacturing ($53,000 a year / $25.48 an hour on average)
What Are the Different Types of Cranes?
There are two basic categories of crane operators: mobile crane operators and tower (or fixed) crane operators.
Mobile crane operators work with cranes that are…well, mobile. These kinds of cranes can generally be driven from place to place, like carry deck cranes, crawler cranes, rough-terrain cranes, and truck-mounted cranes, though sometimes their mobility is ship- or vessel-based, like a floating crane.
Fixed cranes like tower, gantry, and jib cranes don't have site-to-site mobility. They must be loaded onto another mode of transportation, taken to a work site, and assembled. The advantage of fixed or tower cranes is that they can safely handle heavier loads or greater heights than mobile ones since they also don't need to worry about stability on the move.
How Long Does It Take To Become A Crane Operator?
If you already have related experience, you can get started with basic crane operator training in just a couple of months. More advanced equipment may require several years of crane operator education, including an apprenticeship.
Below, we'll get into more details on how to become a crane operator.
What Do You Need To Be A Crane Operator?
Basic crane operator requirements include being:
- At least 18
- Having (in compliance with American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) B30 standards):
- 20/30 vision in one eye and 20/50 in the other (with or without corrective lenses)
- Able to distinguish colors
- Normal depth perception and field of vision
- Adequate hearing (with or without a hearing aid)
- Strength, endurance, coordination, and reaction time to meet operational demands
- No evidence of seizures or loss of physical control
- Completing the required training, education, testing, and ethical agreements (see below)
Some skills and abilities make up additional crane operator qualifications, like any job. Crane driving calls for you to have the following:
- Attention to detail
- Good observational skills
- Strong communication skills
- The ability to stay focused for hours while working alone
- Mechanical and maintenance skills
When you're driving a crane, these "soft skills" don't just resume buzzwords – staying focused, observant, and communicative on the job can be a matter of life and death when you're moving enormous loads of heavy materials on a crowded job site!
How To Become A Crane Operator
There's no substitute for practical experience in a crane operator's education.
It's not straight work experience, though. Driving a crane means handling expensive and dangerous equipment, so you'll need to complete a formal process to earn your crane operator qualifications.
Start Learning the Trades
Most crane operators start with general trades (construction) experience. You have two general options for getting started – trade school or on-the-job experience.
We recommend starting with work experience, then going to trade school if you decide you need or want a specific skill set. That way, you get paid, learn the business from the ground up, and make connections in the industry.
If you're starting from scratch, you'll probably begin as "general construction labor." Be diligent and show attention to detail – if your goal is to build a career in the industry, this is your first impression.
If you're still interested in driving a crane eventually, you'll want to maneuver yourself toward related work experience. Most crane drivers start with a few years of experience operating construction equipment, hoists and winches, or as a rigger/signaler assisting crane work from the ground.
Complete General Operator Training
After you've gained general trades experience, the next step in becoming a crane operator is to complete initial crane operator training. You'll learn about basic operation, maintenance, and safety through a combination of theory and practice.
There are different programs for different types of cranes. For more basic equipment, your crane operator education may only take a couple of weeks. Initial crane operator training could last several months for more expensive and complicated equipment.
You can find introductory crane operator education in a few ways. There's trade school, employer-provided training, third-party training providers, and self-study.
It's a good idea to talk to crane drivers and others in the industry to learn what kind of program is required or preferred where you live.
Get Your Crane Operating License and Certification
Crane operator training prepares you to earn your crane operating license (or, more accurately, certification). To become a fully-licensed crane operator where you live, you may need one or two different types of certification.
At the national level, OSHA guidelines require you to hold a crane operating license for each type of crane you'll be operating through an accredited testing organization like the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (NCCCO).
To become a Certified Crane Operator (CCO), you need to:
- meet ASME physical and medical requirements,
- agree to comply with the NCCCO's ethics and substance abuse standards, and
- pass the written exams (core and at least one specialty), and
- pass a practical exam within 12 months of the written.
CCOs need to be recertified every 5 years.
Depending on where you live, your local jurisdictions (state, county, or municipality) may require you to secure a local crane operating license or certification. CCO credentials typically qualify you for these local licenses, but requirements vary.
You may also want to earn a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) as a crane driver. A CDL isn't typically required for operating a crane on-site, but it comes in handy for legally driving a crane on a public road – for example, from one site to another. It's more relevant for mobile crane operators than tower cranes.
Go Through an Apprenticeship Program
You'll want to join a crane operator apprenticeship program for more complicated and expensive equipment. This program, usually offered through a professional union, will allow you to earn a living wage while gaining extensive, supervised experience.
Crane driver apprenticeships typically require completion of initial crane operator training and meeting at least some CCO requirements – the practical exam may sometimes be taken later.
The length of the apprenticeship depends on your ability to meet the program's requirements, but most crane operators complete their apprenticeship in 3-4 years.
Get Crane Operator Training Online
One of the most basic ongoing crane operator requirements is completing (and repeating) courses on the OSHA safety standards relevant to crane driving.
Luckily, this one is easy – an OSHA-authorized online training provider like us can help you meet safety training requirements on your own time, at your own pace, and from your preferred device.