Building boom has crane industry nearing capacity, searching for operators
Look toward any horizon and chances are there’s a crane in your sights, probably several. That’s because there are more than 150 fixed tower cranes in Metro Vancouver, a tie for the last peak the region saw during the pre-Olympics condo boom.
“Vancouver’s as busy right now as it’s ever been,” says Ron Karras of RMG Formwork.
"In 2005, 2006, 2007 we were getting pretty scarce for resources and we're approaching that now.”
Much of the high-rise activity is fueled by the City of Burnaby, where staff granted a record $879-million worth of building permits last year alone.
"Our growth is by design. We've been planning to have higher density around our transit centres,” says Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.
“Burnaby is lucky to have four town centres and all of them are accepting higher density in order to protect our local single family neighbourhoods. We don't have a lot of choices in how we're going to develop and how we're going to accept new people to our city."
As newcomers flock to the region and city officials green-light developments, the construction industry is scrambling to keep up.
"All of industry right now is struggling to get enough talented people to build what's out there,” says Karras.
A rookie crane operator can start out making $40 per hour and within a few years can easily earn an annual income in the low six figures. But it’s not as easy as signing up for a course at a technical school. The BC Association for Crane Safety demands construction site experience alongside written and practical tests. Then candidates are expected to spend at least 200 hours as riggers, loading the cranes and getting familiar with how they work.
Then comes the hard part: climbing hundreds of feet into the air.
“I don’t find it intimidating,” says crane operator Tyler Strachan.
“I guess I did at the very beginning, but not anymore. I got used to it pretty quick and it’s good money.”
Strachan is a big, burly guy but he’s remarkably fast climbing up and down the painted metal ladders arranged in landings that take him up to his operator’s box at the top. CTV News interviewed him atop a 200-foot (60-metre) fixed tower crane, but he’s worked on ones as tall as 550 feet (167 metres). Strachan says that kind of vantage point provides a special perspective of large-scale projects.
“Watching the progress of the job and then seeing when it’s finished. Every week, seeing what you’ve accomplished. It’s special.”
During his 10 years as an operator, Strachan has seen many towers and tower clusters come together, but one man has seen entire communities grow from nothing.
At 85 years old, Val Coupal still operates his crane rental business.
“Can barely keep up [with demand] right now,” he says.
Over more than four decades in the business, Coupal has provided the tower cranes used to build a staggering 556 high-rises throughout the region. He says there’s a connection between his equipment and the scale of the city.
“The cranes are about four times bigger than what we started with. We started with little 82-foot (25-metre) units and now we have cranes that can (extend) 250 feet (76 metres).”
They are big cranes for big projects. Burnaby is strategically planning for dozens more towers along SkyTrain corridors to accommodate an estimated 100,000 new residents by 2030.
"This new growth is allowing us to have all sorts of new amenities in our city so we're creating new trails, new bike trails, new recreational facilities,” says Corrigan.
"We're no longer that bedroom community to Vancouver, we're now a city that's able to state its case."