In the USA today there is effectively zero unemployment. It seems that every store and every restaurant in every mall and every high street has “Help Wanted” signs posted in the window. The labour shortage is one of the the big issues for all businesses in the USA and the crane business is no exception.

“The biggest problem [in our business] is finding technicians,” says Tom Sothad, president of Crane Pro Services and group vice president of KCI Konecranes’ Region Americas. “We are hiring 10 or 11 a month. If 50 qualified technicians walked through the door today we’d take them all on.”

Most of Crane Pro’s recruits are college graduates. No longer is the technician just someone who is handy with a spanner and a screwdriver. Today he or she needs to be a computer wizard – and also, as the front line company representative, something of a salesman.

“There’s a constant battle over technicians,” agrees Peter Kerrick, vice president Americas equipment group at Morris Material Handling, Konecranes’ arch rival in the North American crane servicing business.

“Technicians are like computer programmers these days. Competent electro-mechanical service technicians are in high demand and we are constantly taking employees off each other and threatening law suits.”

It is not just Morris, Konecranes and the crane companies who battle over their technicians. A good technician is also liable to get job offers from the clients whose cranes he or she looks after. “It’s a challenge to keep them happy to retain them,” says Kerrick. This usually revolves around remuneration, but the provision of training is also a big factor in the battle for recruiting and holding on to technicians.

Inevitably, it can be hard to persuade the brightest and best college graduates that maintaining overhead cranes in noisy, dirty factories is as attractive a career option as a desk job, working in a nice modern office, shagpile underfoot. But there are attractions. It is an independent sort of business, says Kerrick, with each technician effectively running his or her own operation.

And the pay can be good. A service technician prepared to put in plenty of overtime could make $60,000 to $80,000 a year, Kerrick says.

Both Morris and Crane Pro recruit many of their technician candidates from the military, where the standard of technical education is high and there is little fear of hard work.

One of the dangers of outsourcing any service is the risk of being fleeced by your contractor. If there is no expertise in-house and your maintenance contractor tells you that you need to spend big bucks on a new crane or a new part, you generally have to go along with it. Meanwhile the technician may take a commission on whatever he is selling you.

“We are very strict on ethics,” Sothad says. “If an employee sold a client something they didn’t need, that’s a dismissal offence.” He has never had to dismiss anyone for such a transgression to date, but acknowledges that it is hard to police. “Every employee goes through psychometric testing and must satisfy us that they are moral and ethical,” Sothard adds.