Greying crane industry needs a big lift

PHOTO: Greying crane industry needs a big lift

SINGAPORE - Handling a several-tonne steel giant with delicate precision for long hours may not seem like the ideal job for a senior citizen. But Mr Chan Cheng Poh is up to the task. The white-haired 65-year-old is a crane operator at civil engineering firm Huationg - and he is far from alone.

The pool of crane operators is greying, even as the demand for them is rising. And although there are efforts to get more locals involved, training bottlenecks and picky clients make it an uphill task.

Almost 40 per cent of Singapore's 3,600 crane operators are above 50 years old, according to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

In fact, older workers are almost a norm. "In this trade, 50 is not considered old," said Asiagroup Leasing's human resource manager Jacqueline Toh.

Industry players say crane operators can work until 70. Operators agree, but say age takes a toll.

Said Mr Cheong Kee Khong, 59, who drives a mobile crane from site to site: "As you grow older, the burden of the job is greater."

Now, he tires by the end of his eight-hour day, and clocks less overtime - even though the need for it is rising.

With strong construction activity, demand for cranes and operators is up. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in a blog post in May that "a few hundred more" are needed.

The move to prefabricated construction also means there is a greater need to hoist parts such as staircases and walls into place. Recruiting younger crane operators is a solution, and Singaporeans do seem interested.

The BCA received 1,200 enquiries when it launched the Crane Apprenticeship Programme in April. The one-year scheme sponsors the mandatory licensing course and offers on-the-job training.

But progress is stalled by a shortage of training places, with a wait of up to six months each for two modules, said Huationg general manager and Singapore Cranes Association vice-chairman Jimmy Chua.

To that, the BCA said it has ramped up provision. The three- to nine-month wait has been cut to three to six months for the first module, and one to five months for the second. Another crane training centre is also in the works.

Yet after getting licensed, new crane operators face another hurdle: Clients may not want them.

Major clients like the Land Transport Authority and the Housing Board often require operators with at least five years' experience, to improve safety.

Said the BCA: "This is a good thing as the crane operation trade is a highly specialised trade with a very high safety impact."

But it also means few opportunities for new crane operators.

"So we can't really give them ample training," said Moh Seng Cranes managing director Jovan Yap, who would like to hire more crane operators - but not if they end up being unable to take the job.

Nor is the requirement foolproof, he added, as "five years of experience" just means five years since receiving the licence. "(The authorities) should focus on the number of hours that they clock in the company," he suggested.

Raising new operators for the job

For Mr Wong Chun Hoe, 27, getting to work means a 20-storey climb - to the cabin of his tower crane.

"If you don't have much education, this kind of skilled work can earn you good money," said the O-level graduate.

As a crane operator with Smatra Engineering, he makes about $4,000 a month, working 12-hour days.

He is one of 85 trainees in the Building and Construction Authority's (BCA) Crane Apprenticeship Programme.

Launched in April, it is open to citizens and permanent residents, and aims to attract more locals to the occupation. About half of the 3,600 crane operators here are foreign.

In the scheme, job hopefuls are matched with potential employers and take a 12-day course to get a crane licence. They then begin a year of on-the-job training, which will allow them to operate more powerful cranes.

In their apprenticeship year, they earn a basic pay of at least $2,000 a month. The BCA chips in with two extra payments of $3,000. Their pay at the end of the programme is at least $2,300.

Next year, the scheme has places for 105 tower crane, 42 crawler crane and 30 mobile crane operators. But what remains to be done is to get more firms on board. So far, firms have committed to providing only about half of these places.

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