DALLAS — It's daybreak when Michael Machovsky climbs nearly 200 feet 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. The same morning ritual is repeated across the Dallas skyline 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" says Tony Townley, a senior superintendent with Dallas-based Beck Group.
Booming commercial construction, an aging work force and tighter certification requirements are pushing demand for cranes and their operators nationwide.
"Every marketplace that we're in right now is saturated," said Sam Latona, preconstruction manager with Turner Construction, a Dallas-based company with offices across the country. "All the contractors are basically at 100 percent capacity and exceeding it."
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. Projected power and transportation needs could also 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, quit his iron worker job eight years ago and started operating cranes, attracted by the pay and less strenuous labor. He started on small cranes and worked his way up, literally.
"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," he said.
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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 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 has taken to providing high school students with information and scholarships in construction. The Milwaukee-based group estimates the construction industry will need to add a total of 1 million jobs by 2012.
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 about $21 an hour plus benefits, about a dollar more than a union ironworker or bricklayer, he said.
To meet the current demand for equipment, Morrow Equipment Company, of Salem, Ore., has been adding to its fleet of about 500 large-scale cranes that it leases to contractors nationwide.
"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," said Gary Vosper, Morrow's advertising director.
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."
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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