Construction, freight handling and other types of industry require the use of cranes for heavy lifting. Tower cranes, used on heavy construction sites and for freight at major ports, are among the most challenging to operate. Many states require licensing or certification for tower operators, and their salaries are among the highest in the trade.
Bureau of Labor Statistics:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups all crane and tower operators together for reporting purposes. Its May 2011 figures show a median income of $46,460 for workers in this category, with the top 25 percent earning $61,060 or higher and the top 10 percent earning $78,850 or higher. As California's Labor Market Information website points out, tower operators are typically among the top earners in the grouping and should fall among those upper percentiles.
Workplace and Geography:
Figures from the bureau don't distinguish between tower and other crane operators. Still, given that tower operators earn above-average wages, BLS workplace and geographical data can provide a useful benchmark for tower operators. Specialty trade contractors are listed as the highest-volume employer, paying an average of $59,040 per year. Freight handling at seaports is the second-most common source of employment, paying $58,600 annually. Heavy iron and steel manufacturing is third, and pays $45,710. Geographically Alaska has the highest wages, averaging $77,800 per year. Washington, Nevada, Hawaii and California are also among the highest-paying states.
The Davis-Bacon Act:
The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 made it mandatory for contractors on large federal contracts to pay locally appropriate wages. In the case of tower operators, California's Davis-Bacon rates are especially interesting since the state is among both the highest-volume and highest-paying employers. In that state, crane operators' wages begin at Group 5, or a base of $39.61 per hour. Tower operators' wages begin at Group 10, a base of $41.18 per hour, and go up to Group 13, where the base wage is $44.18 per hour. All of these groups receive an additional $17.22 per hour in various benefits, and are eligible for premiums on some work sites.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that demand for crane and tower operators will increase by 16 percent between 2010 and 2020, roughly equal to the rate for all occupations. However, demand will be much higher in some sectors. As the economy continues to recover from the 2008 downturn, demand for operators in construction should increase by 31 percent, while freight handling in ports will create job growth at a rate of 26 percent. According to California's Labor Market Information site, only about 10 percent of crane operators are licensed for towers, but employment prospects should be good given that both high-growth niches rely heavily on towers operators.