Why I wanted to become a tower crane operator

Ellie Hale
Catalyst
Published in
6 min readJun 26, 2022

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I spent two weeks this month on a course at the CITB National Construction College in Norfolk. After intense training and tests, I’m now the proud bearer of three separate qualifications in tower crane operation.

Me holding my CITB badge and sitting up in the cab of a 30m Saddle Jib tower crane, in hi-viz attire

Say what?

I’ve always wanted to be able to operate a massive crane. It’s a bit of a childhood dream.

One day last year I went to a building site near my house, asked to speak to the crane operator on site and asked him where he got his training. He directed me to CITB, whose qualifications are recognised everywhere.

I rang CITB and they were super helpful. They told me the big ones are called ‘tower cranes’. They said many of their tower crane course participants had no previous experience in construction; one man they’d spoken to the week before was a 50-year-old pastor, who wanted to try something different.

Within 30 minutes I had all the info I needed and had booked myself onto the course.

But… Why?

Lots of people have been surprisingly perplexed when I’ve told them I’m doing this. Here are some of my reasons:

Tower cranes are really cool

I’ve always loved tower cranes. And diggers, but that’s another story. I think they’re majestic and beautiful, and amazing feats of engineering.

They remind me that humans are also pretty cool

I find it inspiring that humans have created these giant tools to augment and extend our dexterity. To lift and manipulate objects of greater weights and across longer distances than our own bodies could manage. All in service of realising bigger ambitions than our physical nature allows. Go us!

They provide peace and perspective

Whenever I go to a new place my first instinct is to find the highest point and climb it — be it a hill, church, skyscraper etc. I love seeing the big picture.

Everything’s more peaceful high up. You get a refreshingly zoomed-out perspective on the world, away from the minutiae of everyday experience.

The world is burning

It’s hard to know what to do to prepare for a future of climate and ecological collapse. I spent a lot of time thinking about this during my time in Extinction Rebellion — mostly ‘how can I be useful in the coming years, given what I think may be most needed?’ I concluded that skills in community-building, navigating/transforming conflict, and regenerative food production are probably all going to be essential, so I’m working on each of those at the moment.

Looking at the climate science, I also imagine the world is only going to need more reconstruction efforts, sadly, as the effects of extreme weather and conflict play out. For example, the latest IPCC report cites analysis which suggests 2C warming will increase the probability of “conflict risks” by 13%, due to reduced food and water security, and disruption to lives and livelihoods. We already see the devastating effects of this on the news daily. I’d like to train now and get some practice in so that I can be very practically useful when the time comes.

Sobering image from Carbon Brief, showing a map of extreme weather events attributable to climate change

Balance is important

Our work at Catalyst is mostly intellectual and relational — building effective collaboration, and thinking about/designing the culture, systems and structures that enable that.

I find that hugely stimulating and meaningful, but I also wanted to have a go at something manual and physical, that works out a new part of my brain. There are different joys and challenges when things like spacial reasoning and careful motor skills matter as much as the ability to reason, communicate and empathise.

Even with my eye breaks reminder app, Stretchly, I often get eyestrain focusing on a screen at close distance for so many hours each day, and my muscles ache with so much remote, sedentary work. No fear of that when the first 20–60 minutes of your day is spent climbing a ladder, and the next object at eye-level is sometimes several miles away!

I think I sometimes get a bit too into my work. It can take up all my headspace if I’m not careful. Boundaries are a work in progress.

I also spend most of my time living, working and organising with groups of people. By contrast, being up in a crane is wonderfully solitary.

Just as a crane lifting a heavy load would topple without its concrete counterweights, so a person focusing on just one thing/type of thing can all too easily pitch over without some balancing forces.

Big yellow tower crane with big concrete counterweights. Lifting the moon! Photo by Zeynep Sümer on Unsplash

The nonprofit digital space is a bubble

I suspect every sector or field is a bubble. Living in Brighton feels like I’ve now reinforced the walls of that bubble. I enjoy the people and conversations of this space immensely, but I’ve had an uneasy feeling that I’m losing touch with the rest of society a bit. That’s never good.

I wanted to meet some completely different people and re-ground into a reality others experience as normal.

I needed to feel constructive

I also felt a need to do something with immediate and concrete results. It’s no surprise that many metaphors for building things solidly come from the construction industry.

The nature of Catalyst, and particularly where we are right now in this review phase of it, means very few things feel concrete. They’re in a constant state of becoming, evolving, iterating, transitioning.

I have a strong instinct that we’re going in the right direction and focusing on the right things, but it can feel a bit ethereal (as Tom Watson shared last week, this is a common challenge when creating this sort of ‘loose infrastructure’ of communities and networks).

Tweet reads ‘But it’s ‘loose infrastructure’ and specifically it’s not meant to ‘own’ activity, so it’s hard to be sure and hard to evidence. In a world of outputs, loose infrastructure feels ethereal in some ways’

I love the Emergent Strategy principles as a practice for navigating this kind of work. I want to trust my instincts let things take as long as they need. To ‘move at the speed of trust’ rather than rushing them through impatience and a conditioned desire for tangible results. The real work that’s needed in our sector/society is subtle and complex, and not about shiny things — it’s a long game!

This can be draining after a while too though. Shiny things you can tick off give you a dopamine boost, after all.

I needed to be honest with myself that after a year of ‘sitting with the ambiguity’ I had a strong need for a more palpable sense of achievement. To complete something and say “I did that”.

Rather than let this need infect or bias how I approach Catalyst, I figured I should find sources of validation and solidity elsewhere. It’s unrealistic to expect one job to meet all your needs, after all — or not all the time, anyway.

Earlier this year I ran my first marathon. That came out of a similar need and desire (as well as wanting to raise funds for the fabulous Quaker Social Action), and felt bloody brilliant. I prepared, I took it seriously, I didn’t give up even when it was HARD and woop! I finished. I still can’t quite believe I did it.

Building physical things is by definition constructive. Learning how to run a concrete pour from a few meters up is also, well, concrete! So, I figured, where better to head next than up a tower crane?

Find out what I learned from the process in Part 2… :)

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Ellie Hale
Catalyst

Connecting & nurturing relationships, communities and networks at Catalyst (currently incubated by CAST). Co-organiser of several tech for good meetups.