Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers
Keen competition for jobs is expected; opportunities will
be best for operators with training in computers and automated
Employment is projected to decline.
Most entry-level workers start as helpers or laborers, and
several years of training and experience are required to become
Nature of the Work
Electricity is vital for most everyday activities. From the moment
you flip the first switch each morning, you are connecting to
a huge network of people, electric lines, and generating equipment.
Power plant operators control the machinery that generates electricity.
Power plant distributors and dispatchers control the flow of electricity
from the power plant, over a network of transmission lines, to
industrial plants and substations, and, finally, over distribution
lines to residential users.
Power plant operators control and monitor boilers, turbines,
generators, and auxiliary equipment in power-generating plants.
Operators distribute power demands among generators, combine the
current from several generators, and monitor instruments to maintain
voltage and regulate electricity flows from the plant. When power
requirements change, these workers start or stop generators and
connect or disconnect them from circuits. They often use computers
to keep records of switching operations and loads on generators,
lines, and transformers. Operators also may use computers to prepare
reports of unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance
performed during their shift.
Operators in plants with automated control systems work mainly
in a central control room and usually are called control room
operators or control room operator trainees or assistants.
In older plants, the controls for the equipment are not centralized,
and switchboard operators control the flow of electricity
from a central point, whereas auxiliary equipment operators
work throughout the plant, operating and monitoring valves, switches,
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses operators of
nuclear power plants. Reactor operators are authorized
to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in
a nuclear power plant. In addition, an NRC-licensed senior
reactor operator must be on duty during each shift to act
as the plant supervisor and supervise the operation of all controls
in the control room.
Power distributors and dispatchers, also called load
dispatchers or systems operators, control the flow
of electricity through transmission lines to industrial plants
and substations that supply residential needs for electricity.
They monitor and operate current converters, voltage transformers,
and circuit breakers. Dispatchers also monitor other distribution
equipment and record readings at a pilot board—a map of the transmission
grid system showing the status of transmission circuits and connections
with substations and industrial plants.
Dispatchers also anticipate power needs, such as those caused
by changes in the weather. They call control room operators to
start or stop boilers and generators, in order to bring production
into balance with needs. Dispatchers handle emergencies such as
transformer or transmission line failures and route current around
affected areas. In substations, they also operate and monitor
equipment that increases or decreases voltage, and they operate
switchboard levers to control the flow of electricity in and out
of the substations.
Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators,
distributors, and dispatchers usually work one of three daily
8-hour shifts or one of two 12-hour shifts on a rotating basis.
Shift assignments may change periodically, so that all operators
can share duty on less desirable shifts. Work on rotating shifts
can be stressful and fatiguing, because of the constant change
in living and sleeping patterns. Operators, distributors, and
dispatchers who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at
a control station. This work is not physically strenuous, but
it does require constant attention. Operators who work outside
the control room may be exposed to danger from electric shock,
falls, and burns.
Nuclear power plant operators are subject to random drug and
alcohol tests, as are most workers at such plants.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Employers often seek high school graduates for entry-level operator,
distributor, and dispatcher positions. Candidates with strong
mathematics and science skills are preferred. College-level courses
and prior experience in a mechanical or technical job are becoming
increasingly helpful in a competitive job market. With computers
now used to keep records, generate reports, and track maintenance,
employers are increasingly requiring computer proficiency. Most
entry-level workers start as helpers or laborers. Depending on
the results of aptitude tests, their own preferences, and the
availability of openings, workers may be assigned to train for
one of many utility positions.
Workers selected for training as a fossil-fueled power plant
operator or distributor undergo extensive on-the-job and classroom
instruction. Several years of training and experience are required
for a worker to become a fully qualified control room operator
or power plant distributor. With further training and experience,
workers may advance to shift supervisor. Utilities generally promote
from within; therefore, opportunities to advance by moving to
another employer are limited.
Extensive training and experience are necessary to pass the NRC
examinations for reactor operators and senior reactor operators.
To maintain their license, licensed reactor operators must pass
an annual practical plant operation exam and a biennial written
exam administered by their employers. Training may include simulator
and on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and individual
study. Entrants to nuclear power plant operator trainee jobs must
have strong mathematics and science skills. Experience in other
power plants or with Navy nuclear propulsion plants also is helpful.
With further training and experience, reactor operators may advance
to senior reactor operator positions.
In addition to receiving preliminary training as a power plant
operator, distributor, or dispatcher, most workers are given periodic
refresher training—frequently in the case of nuclear power plant
operators. Refresher training usually is taken on plant simulators
designed specifically to replicate procedures and situations that
might be encountered at the trainee’s plant.
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about
47,000 jobs in 2004. Jobs were located throughout the country.
About 64 percent of jobs were in electric power generation, transmission,
and distribution. About 20 percent worked in government, mainly
in local government. Others worked for manufacturing establishments
that produced electricity for their own use.
People who want to become power plant operators, distributors,
and dispatchers are expected to encounter keen competition for
these relatively high-paying jobs. While demand for electricity
will increase, the slow pace of construction of new plants will
limit opportunities for these workers. In addition, the increasing
use of automatic controls and more computerized equipment should
boost productivity and decrease the demand for operators. As a
result, individuals with training in computers and automated equipment
will have the best job prospects. Some job opportunities will
arise from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the
occupation. However, cost considerations may restrict the number
of workers who are replaced, with the job duties instead being
given to other workers.
A decline in employment of power plant operators, distributors,
and dispatchers is projected through the year 2014, as the utilities
industry continues to restructure in response to deregulation
and increasing competition. Independent producers are now allowed
to sell power directly to industrial and other wholesale customers.
Consequently, some utilities that historically operated as regulated
local monopolies have restructured their operations in order to
reduce costs and compete effectively. While much of this restructuring
is complete, the focus on reducing costs persists. This new focus
is present in regulated utilities, as well as those that have
been deregulated. As a result, the number of jobs is expected
Median annual earnings of power plant operators were $52,530
in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $43,310 and
$62,030. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,550, and the
highest 10 percent earned more than $70,330. Median annual earnings
of power plant operators in May 2004 were $53,820 in electric
power generation, transmission and distribution.
Median annual earnings of nuclear power reactor operators were
$64,090 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $56,890
and $71,160. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,690, and
the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,220.
Median annual earnings of power distributors and dispatchers
were $57,330 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$48,010 and $69,100. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,220,
and the highest 10 percent earned more than $83,030.
Other workers who monitor and operate plant and system equipment
include chemical plant and system operators; petroleum pump system
operators, refinery operators, and gaugers; stationary engineers
and boiler operators; and water and liquid waste treatment plant
and system operators.
>Sources of Additional Information
For information about employment opportunities, contact local
electric utility companies, locals of unions, and State employment
For general information about power plant operators, nuclear
power reactor operators, and power plant distributors and dispatchers,