- A retired crane instructor shared videos documenting what it's like loading hulking cargo ships.
- Crane operators are typically dock workers with decades of experience.
- The role is precise and physically demanding, requiring operators to move at least 25 containers per hour.
Backlogs at the nation's largest ports underscore the importance of the everyday mechanisms that help keep the supply chain running.
The role of crane operators has taken center stage this year as longshoremen move a record amount of cargo through the ports. The dock workers that operate the three-story-high cranes are working against a ticking clock to move as many as 45 containers an hour amid a traffic jam of over 500,000 containers.
A recently retired crane operator and instructor who worked as a longshoremen for over 40 years shared videos with Insider documenting his experience. The former longshoremen preferred to remain anonymous as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union does not advise workers to speak to the media, but Insider verified his identity.
One video shows how operators get into the massive cranes that hang over the ships.
In the video, the operator takes an elevator to the crane's cabin. From the expansive cabin windows, 20 and 40-foot containers look miniature. While the video was taken in 2014, the crane instructor explained the process has not changed.
Much of a crane operator's time is spent looking through the glass floor of the cab.
"Imagine trying to read a book sitting on the toilet when the book's on the floor," the instructor said. "As a crane operator, you can spend five solid hours mostly peering through that glass floor."
Within the cabin there are too many buttons to count, including a large joystick that the operator uses to position the crane over the shipping containers.
"It takes a lot of your focus and can be physically demanding because of the way the cranes move," the retired crane instructor told Insider. "The cranes are designed to sway to a certain degree so when you're trolling [moving over the ship or from the ship back to the dock] you can feel the vibration inside the cabin. You're practically bouncing around up there."
Another video from the Port of Seattle shows how the cranes pick up containers and reload them into cargo ships.
The shipping containers fit into perfect slots within the cargo ship, but the positioning for how the crane picks up the container is dependent entirely on the operator's skill and training.
"At the end of the day, you're handling a container that weighs 40 tons and you have people working underneath you on the dock that are dependent on you to operate it safely from that height and put it deftly in a very specific place," the retired instructor said. "There are plenty of things that could go wrong if you don't focus. You could also accidentally snag the container under it. There could also be some stack of containers behind you on deck and could accidentally drive it into the stack."
A clerk and former crane operator at the Port of Los Angeles previously told Insider that it has become increasingly difficult to move the cargo on and off the ship due to port congestion which has packed docks and terminals with shipping containers.
The retired crane instructor, who has worked at the Port of Seattle as well as the Port of Long Beach, told Insider the role of crane operator is a highly coveted job, but it requires specialized skills. It typically takes 15 to 20 years for a longshoremen to be promoted to the more senior role of crane operator and 30 days of intensive training, exams, and simulations for a trainee to be able to operate a crane solo.