- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

High above the District’s skyline, construction cranes are steadily changing the landscape of the nation’s capital.

But high demand for cranes and operators is quickly outpacing supply, making spare cranes a rare bird in these parts.

“The D.C. market is exceeding what anyone had anticipated years ago,” said Steve Smithgall, director of operations at Balfour Beatty PLC, a London construction company with offices in Fairfax. “Nowadays, it takes a lot more scheduling to get a crane on site.”

“Every marketplace that we’re in right now is saturated,” said Sam Latona, preconstruction manager with Turner Construction, a Dallas company with offices in Arlington. “All the contractors are basically at 100 percent capacity and exceeding it.”

Commercial building is hot in the U.S. Spending on nonresidential construction rose nearly 14 percent during the first three months of 2007 from last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Washington, increased spending by real estate developers and the federal government is making the construction market here even hotter.

More than $15.2 billion worth of mixed-use development projects have been completed in the District since 2001, and $7.5 billion in new projects are under construction, according to the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership.

“We’ve never seen development like this from the federal sector,” said Ed Small, president of Tompkins Builders, a subsidiary of New York’s Turner Construction Co. “There is $8 [billion] to $10 billion of work coming from the federal government that needs to be built by 2011, and that takes a lot of cranes.”

Crane companies around the Washington area said demand for cranes is stretching their resources thin.

“We have 200-plus machines, and a lot of them are tied up in Northern Virginia,” said a spokeswoman from W.O. Grubb Steel Erection & Crane Rental of Richmond.

“A lot of the time we don’t have enough equipment, so we have to go to other companies and rent cranes for our own customers,” the spokeswoman said.

W.O. Grubb’s cranes helped to build the Wilson Bridge and have now moved across the river to build the National Harbor convention center in Prince George’s County.

Overseas demand for cranes is making it even more difficult for U.S. construction companies to get their hands on new cranes.

“China has taken a lot of the new frames that used to stay here in the U.S.,” said Michael Scott, president of the Crane Rental Co. Inc. in the District.

“We used to get a lot of cranes from overseas, and get a pretty good deal on them,” Mr. Scott said. “Now with the dollar as cheap as it is, those cranes are leaving here and going overseas.”

“I’ve looked around. If I put a down payment on a crane now, I wouldn’t see it until 2009,” he said.

Construction companies said that even if they do find a crane, the pool of veteran crane operators is beginning to dry up.

“We have 1,400 crane operators in the D.C. area, and there are definitely more cranes than there are operators,” said Josh Van Dyke, a spokesman for the International Union of Operation Engineers, a crane-workers union based in the District.

“Many of today’s operators came into the industry in the 1970s, and now as they reach their late 50s and 60s they are getting closer to retirement,” Mr. Van Dyke said.

Mr. Scott said there aren’t enough young operators to replace the veteran workers who retire.

“There is a shortage of apprentices in this profession,” Mr. Scott said. “Many companies don’t want to pay for an extra man who’s going to just sit there and learn.”

“It brings people into the business who haven’t had enough training, and the quality of operators has been going down,” Mr. Scott said.

Mr. Van Dyke agreed that it has been very difficult to recruit and train enough qualified operators to meet demand.

“We bring in a lot of apprentices, but we also wash out a lot,” Mr. Van Dyke said. “There is more of a directive in D.C. toward higher education rather than getting into the building trade.”

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers has begun offering construction scholarships to high school students. The Milwaukee-based group estimates the construction industry will need to add 1 million jobs by 2012.

The Crane Rental Co. in the District offers a three-year program to aspiring crane operators, Mr. Scott said. The program pays the apprentices $19 per hour and gives them on-the-job training with cranes larger than 60 tons.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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