Scaling the heights to build a distinctive skyline

EDITOR’S note: Shanghai Federation of Trade Unions launched a project last year to single out 1,000 front-line workers whose expertise, professionalism and spirit are helping the city achieve its goal of becoming a hub of innovation and a center for the “Made in China 2025” campaign.

The names of the first 88 “Shanghai Standouts” include a skyscraper crane operator, a Metro operations technician, a horticulturist researching cauliflower cultivars, a peasant art painter, a star chef and a craftsman making stringed instruments.

The selected workers have an average 29 years of work experience and have shown a strong capacity for pioneering new ideas. A third of them hold invention patents. They are eligible for cash awards from a 20 million yuan (US$2.94 million) fund set up by the union.

Shanghai Daily has interviewed some of these modern-day role models.

MANY Shanghai residents still remember the cranes on Shanghai Tower three years ago, gazing in awe as the machines moved higher and higher as construction added stories to the 632-meter skyscraper.

Residents were looking up. Li Jie was looking down.

The 31-year-old from a remote village in the southwestern province of Guizhou is considered one of the best skyscraper crane operators in China.

He came to Shanghai in 2005 after a year working on cranes in his home province. He was looking for bigger opportunities and he found them.

An employee of Shanghai Mechanized Construction Group, Li has been part of the construction teams on the city’s two tallest buildings — Shanghai Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Tower, which stands 492 meters high.

Li is proud of the distinction of achieving the highest altitude of any crane operator in China — a feat that took him 18 meters above the top story of the Shanghai Tower.

“Even for me, it was a little scary,” Li says, with a timid smile. “After 300 meters, you begin to have a more real sense of height. You are not as free as when you are on the ground.”

Li’s crane cab is only about 1.5 square meters, making it difficult to move around much. His lunches were hung in the cab by colleagues.

During the Shanghai Tower project, Li had to get up at about 5:30am every day to be on the construction site by 6:30am. Once in, Li and his fellow crane operators generally stayed put in their cabs for the rest of the day.

For Li, the biggest challenge was not height but weather.

“Cloud, fog and wind — those are the conditions we worry about most,” Li says. “The clouds and fog obscure vision, and I have to rely on guidance from colleagues on the operating platform and from previous experience.”

The most dangerous element at those heights is the wind, making the placement of beams and other construction components more difficult.

“Every component was very heavy,” he says. “If it swayed too much, damage might occur to components already put in place.”

After work on the World Financial Tower and prior to the start of work on the Shanghai Tower, Li asked to work on the maintenance team, even though the pay is lower than that of a driver.

“I managed to finish the project on Shanghai World Financial Tower, but I knew I was pushing my limit, and there were still a lot of things that I didn’t know about cranes, particularly the imported ones,” Li says.

“To do better as a crane driver, I wanted to learn more about the machine’s parts and functions by doing maintenance.”

Li worked in maintenance for nearly two years until he was tapped to work on Shanghai Tower.

“Now that I am more familiar with the machinery, I can tell if something doesn’t seem quite right and can get it fixed,” he says. “That prevents small glitches from developing into major problems.”

There is no time to rest on one’s laurels. There is always something new to learn.

“You have to keep learning and updating your knowledge,” Li says. “The machinery advances, and you need to keep up with the changes. If you don’t know about the machinery, how can you really work safely and effectively?”

Li once took his girlfriend to the construction site of the looming Shanghai Tower project and told her proudly, “That’s where I work.”

Having a natural aversion to heights, she often texted him to be careful on the job.

The pair married in 2012, and a son was born a year later.

“Whenever my son sees a picture of a crane, he says, ‘Daddy’s crane’!” Li says.

This year, Li’s company has dispatched him to work in the southern city of Zhuhai in Guangdong Province.