Most communications equipment operators work as switchboard
operators for a wide variety of businesses, such as hospitals,
hotels, telephone call centers, and government agencies. Switchboard
operators use private branch exchange (PBX) or voice over Internet
protocol (VoIP) switchboards to relay incoming, outgoing, and
interoffice calls, usually for a single organization. They also
may handle other clerical duties, such as supplying information,
taking messages, and announcing visitors. Technological improvements
have automated many of the tasks handled by switchboard operators.
New systems automatically connect outside calls to the correct
destination or automated directories, and voice-mail systems take
messages without the assistance of an operator.
Some communications equipment operators work as telephone
operators, assisting customers in making telephone calls.
Although most calls are connected automatically, callers sometimes
require the assistance of an operator. Central office operators
help customers to complete local and long-distance calls,
usually under special circumstances. Directory assistance operators
provide customers with information such as telephone numbers
or area codes.
When callers dial “0,” they usually reach a central office operator,
also known as a local, long-distance,or
call completion operator. Most of these operators work
for telephone companies, and many of their responsibilities have
been automated. For example, callers can make international, collect,
and credit card calls without the assistance of a central office
operator. Other tasks previously handled by these operators, such
as billing calls to third parties and monitoring the cost of a
call, also have been automated.
Callers still need a central office operator for a limited number
of tasks, including placing person-to-person calls or interrupting
busy lines if an emergency warrants the disruption. When natural
disasters such as storms or earthquakes occur, central office
operators provide callers with emergency phone contacts. They
also assist callers who are having difficulty with automated phone
systems. An operator monitoring an automated system that aids
a caller in placing collect calls, for example, may intervene
if a caller needs assistance with the system.
Directory assistance operators provide callers with information
such as telephone numbers or area codes. Most directory assistance
operators work for telephone companies; increasingly, they also
work for companies that provide business services. Automated systems
now handle many of the responsibilities once performed by directory
assistance operators. The systems prompt callers for a listing
and may even connect the call after providing the telephone number.
However, directory assistance operators monitor many of the calls
received by automated systems. The operators listen to recordings
of the customer’s request and then key information into electronic
directories to access the correct telephone numbers. Directory
assistance operators also provide personal assistance to customers
having difficulty using the automated system.
Other communications equipment operators include workers who
operate satellite communications equipment, telegraph equipment,
and a wide variety of other communications equipment.
Most communications equipment operators work in pleasant, well-lighted
surroundings. Because telephone operators spend much time seated
at keyboards and video monitors, employers often provide workstations
designed to decrease glare and other physical discomforts. Such
improvements reduce the incidence of eyestrain, back discomfort,
and injury due to repetitive motion.
Switchboard operators generally work the same hours as other
clerical employees at their company. In most organizations, full-time
operators work regular business hours over a 5-day workweek. Work
schedules are more irregular in hotels, hospitals, and other organizations
that require round-the-clock operator services. In these companies,
switchboard operators may work in the evenings and on holidays
Central office and directory assistance operators must be accessible
to customers 24 hours a day; therefore, they work a variety of
shifts. Some operators work split shifts, coming on duty during
peak calling periods in the late morning and early evening and
going off duty during the intervening hours. Telephone companies
normally assign shifts by seniority, allowing the most experienced
operators first choice of schedules. As a result, entry-level
operators may have less desirable schedules, including late evening,
split-shift, and weekend work. Telephone company operators may
work overtime during emergencies.
Approximately 1 in 6 communications equipment operators works
part time. Because of the irregular nature of telephone operator
schedules, many employers seek part-time workers for those shifts
that are difficult to fill.
An operator’s work may be quite repetitive and the pace hectic
during peak calling periods. To maintain operators’ efficiency,
supervisors at telephone companies often monitor their performance,
including the amount of time they spend on each call. The rapid
pace of the job and frequent monitoring may cause stress.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Switchboard operators usually receive informal on-the-job training,
lasting only a few days or weeks. Because they are often the first
contact with the public or client, switchboard operators often
receive some training in customer service. Training may also vary
by place of employment—a switchboard operator in a hospital would
need training on how to handle different emergencies. Since switchboard
operators’ duties may include clerical work, basic computer skills
training may also be required.
Entry-level central office and directory assistance operators
at telecommunications companies may receive both classroom and
on-the-job instruction that can last several weeks. These operators
may be paired with experienced personnel who provide hands-on
New employees in both occupations are trained in the operation
of their equipment and in procedures designed to maximize efficiency.
They are familiarized with company policies, including the expected
level of customer service. Instructors monitor both the time and
quality of trainees’ responses to customer requests. Supervisors
may continue to monitor new employees closely after they complete
their initial training session.
Employers generally require a high school diploma. Applicants
should have clear speech, good hearing, and strong reading, spelling,
and numerical skills. Computer literacy and typing skills also
are important, and familiarity with a foreign language is helpful
for some positions because of the increasing diversity of the
population. Candidates for positions may be required to take an
examination covering basic language and math skills. Most companies
emphasize customer service and seek operators who will remain
courteous to customers while working at a fast pace.
After 1 or 2 years on the job, communications equipment operators
may advance to other positions within a company. Many enter clerical
occupations in which their operator experience is valuable, such
as customer service representative, dispatcher, and receptionist.
Operators interested in more technical work may take training
classes and advance into positions having to do with installing
and repairing equipment. Promotion to supervisory positions also
Communications equipment operators held about 256,000 jobs in
2004. About 4 out of 5 worked as switchboard operators. Employment
was distributed as follows:
Switchboard operators, including answering
All other communications equipment operators
Switchboard operators work in almost all industries, but are
concentrated in telephone call centers, hospitals, and hotels.
Many work as temporary employees in the employment services industry.
Employment of communications equipment operators is projected
to decline through 2014, due largely to new labor-saving communications
technologies, the movement of jobs to foreign countries, and consolidation
of telephone operator jobs into fewer locations, often staffed
by temporary or contract workers. Virtually all job openings will
result from the need to replace communications equipment operators
who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Developments in communications technologies—in particular, voice
recognition systems that are accessible and easy to use—will continue
to have a significant impact on the demand for communications
equipment operators. Voice recognition technology allows automated
telephone systems to recognize human speech. Callers speak directly
to the system, which interprets the speech and then connects the
call. Because voice recognition systems do not require callers
to input data through a telephone keypad, they are easier to use
than touch-tone systems. Voice recognition systems are increasingly
able to understand sophisticated vocabulary and grammatical structures;
however, many companies will continue to employ operators so that
those callers who do have problems can access a “live” employee
if they desire.
The proliferation of cell phones has negatively affected both
switchboard operators and telephone operators. By allowing for
direct communication between persons, cell phones have eliminated
the need for operators to transfer calls in certain situations.
Cell phones have reduced the demand for directory assistance and
collect calls, and have resulted in decreasing use of pay phones
that often required operators to assist with the call. The increasing
use of cell phones also have reduced demand for switchboard operators
in hotels, because hotel guests now use in-room phones less frequently.
Electronic communication through the Internet or e-mail provides
alternatives to telephone communication and requires no operators.
Internet directory assistance services are reducing the need for
directory assistance operators. Local telephone companies currently
have the most reliable telephone directory data; however, Internet
services provide information such as addresses and maps, in addition
to telephone numbers. As the functions of telephones and computers
converge, the convenience of Internet directory assistance is
expected to attract many customers, reducing the need for telephone
operators to provide this service.
As communications technologies have improved and the price of
long-distance service has fallen, companies are finding other
ways to reduce costs by consolidating operator jobs in low cost
locations. Increasingly this has entailed the movement of telephone
operator jobs offshore to other lower-wage countries in order
to reduce costs.
Median hourly earnings of switchboard operators, including answering
service, were $10.38 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned
between $8.69 and $12.64. The lowest 10 percent earned less than
$7.35, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $15.13. Median
hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers
of switchboard operators in May 2004 are:
Offices of physicians
General medical and surgical hospitals
Business support services
Median hourly earnings of telephone operators in May 2004 were
$13.65. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.28 and $19.32.
The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.91, and the highest
10 percent earned more than $21.32.
Some telephone operators working at telephone companies are members
of the Communications Workers of America or the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. For these operators, union
contracts govern wage rates, wage increases, and the time required
to advance from one pay step to the next. It normally takes 4
years to rise from the lowest paying nonsupervisory operator position
to the highest. Contracts call for extra pay for work beyond the
normal 6-1/2 to 7-1/2 hours a day or 5 days a week, for Sunday
and holiday work, and for bilingual positions. A pay differential
also is guaranteed for night work and split shifts. Many contracts
provide for a 1-week vacation after 6 months of service, 2 weeks
after 1 year, 3 weeks after 7 years, 4 weeks after 15 years, and
5 weeks after 25 years. Holidays range from 9 to 11 days a year.
Median hourly earnings of communication equipment operators,
all other, in May 2004 were $15.23. The middle 50 percent earned
between $12.27 and $18.99. The lowest 10 percent earned less than
$10.23, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $22.70.
Other workers who provide information to the general public include
dispatchers; hotel, motel, and resort desk clerks; customer service
representatives; receptionists and information clerks; and reservation
and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks.
Sources of Additional Information
For more details about employment opportunities, contact a telephone
company or temporary help agency, or write to either of the following
Communications Workers of America, 501 3rd St. NW., Washington,
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Telecommunications
Department, 1125 15th St. NW., Room 807, Washington, DC 20005.
For more information on training in customer service and customer
International Association of Administrative Professionals,
10502 NW Ambassador Dr., PO Box 20404, Kansas City, MO 64195-0404.
Source: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook
Handbook, 2006-07 Edition