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Computer and peripheral equipment operators oversee the operation of computer hardware systems, ensuring that these machines are used as efficiently as possible. This means that operators must anticipate problems before they occur and take preventive action as well as solve problems that do occur.
The duties of computer and peripheral equipment operators vary with the size of the installation, the type of equipment used, and the policies of the employer. Working from operating instructions prepared by programmers, users, or operations managers, computer operators set controls on the computer and on peripheral devices required to run a particular job. Computer operators or, in some large installations peripheral equipment operators, load the equipment with tapes, disks, and paper as needed. While the computer is running-which may be 24 hours a day for large computers-computer operators monitor the computer console and respond to operating and computer messages. Messages indicate the individual specifications of each job being run. If an error message occurs, operators must locate and solve the problem or terminate the program.
Traditionally, peripheral equipment operators have to prepare printouts and other output for distribution to computer users. Operators also maintain log books listing each job that is run and events such as machine malfunctions that occurred during their shift. In addition, computer operators may supervise and train peripheral equipment operators and computer operator trainees. They also may help programmers and systems analysts test and debug new programs. (Detailed descriptions of these occupations are presented elsewhere in the Handbook.)
As the trend toward networking computers accelerates, a growing number of these workers are operating personal computers (PCs) and minicomputers. More and more establishments are realizing the need to connect all their computers in order to enhance productivity. In many offices, factories, and other work settings, PCs and minicomputers serve as the center of such networks, often referred to as local area networks or multi-user systems. While some of these computers are operated by users in the area, many require the services of full-time operators. The tasks performed are very similar to those performed on the larger computers.
As organizations continue to use computers in more areas of operation, they are also realizing opportunities to increase the productivity of computer operations. Automation, which traditionally has been the application of computer technology to other functional areas of an organization, is now reaching the computer room. Sophisticated software coupled with robotics now exist, enabling the computer to perform many routine tasks formerly done by computer and peripheral equipment operators. Scheduling, loading and downloading programs, mounting tapes, rerouting messages, and running periodic reports can be done without the intervention of an operator. These improvements will change what computer operators do in the future. However, in the computer centers that lack this level of automation, some computer operators still may be responsible for tasks traditionally done by peripheral equipment operators. As technology advances, many computer operators will essentially monitor an automated system. As the role of operators changes due to new technology, their responsibilities may shift to system security, troubleshooting, desk help, network problems, and maintaining large databases.
Computer operating personnel generally work in well-lighted, well-ventilated, comfortable rooms. Because many organizations use their computers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, computer and peripheral equipment operators may be required to work evening or night shifts and weekends. Shift assignments generally are made on the basis of seniority. Automated operations will lessen the need for shift work because many companies let the computer take over all operations during less desirable working hours. Because computer operators spend a lot of time in front of a computer monitor, as well as performing repetitive tasks such as loading and unloading printers, they may be susceptible to eyestrain, back discomfort, and hand and wrist problems.
In 1994, computer operators and peripheral equipment operators held about 259,000 and 30,000 jobs, respectively. Although jobs for computer and peripheral equipment operators are found in almost every industry, most are in wholesale trade establishments; manufacturing companies; data processing service firms; financial institutions; and government agencies. These organizations have data processing needs that require large computer installations. A growing number are employed by firms in the computer and data processing services industry, as more companies contract out the operation of their data processing centers.
More than 1 out of 10 computer and peripheral equipment operators works part time.
Previous work experience is the key to landing an operator job in many large establishments. Employers look for specific, hands-on experience in the type of equipment and related operating systems that they use. Additionally, computer-related formal training, perhaps through a junior college or technical school, is recommended. As computer technology changes and data processing centers become more automated, more employers will require candidates for the remaining operator jobs to have formal training as well as experience.
Workers usually receive on-the-job training in order to become acquainted with their employer's equipment and routines. The length of training varies with the job and the experience of the worker. Training is also offered by the Armed Forces and by some computer manufacturers.
Because computer technology changes so rapidly, operators must be adaptable and willing to learn. Greater analytical and technical expertise are also needed to deal with the unique or higher level problems that the computer is not programmed to handle, particularly by operators who work in automated data centers.
Computer and peripheral equipment operators must be able to communicate well in order to work effectively with programmers or users, as well as with other operators. Computer operators also must be able to work independently because they may have little or no supervision.
Peripheral equipment operators may advance to computer operator jobs. A few computer operators may advance to supervisory jobs. Through on-the-job experience and additional formal education, some computer and peripheral equipment operators may advance to jobs as programmers or analysts, although the move into these jobs is becoming more difficult as employers increasingly require candidates for more skilled computer professional jobs posses at least a bachelor's degree. Others may become specialists in areas such as network operations or support.
Employment of computer and peripheral equipment operators is expected to decline sharply through the year 2005. Many experienced operators are expected to compete for the small number of openings that will arise each year to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Advances in technology have reduced both the size and the cost of computer equipment while increasing the capacity for data storage and processing. These improvements in technology have fueled an expansion in the use of computers in such areas as factory and office automation, telecommunications, medicine, and education.
The expanding use of software that automates computer operations gives companies the option of making systems user-friendly, greatly reducing the need for operators. Even if firms continue to employ operators in some capacity-which, for many, is extremely likely in the near future-these new technologies will require operators to monitor a greater number of operations at the same time and be capable of solving a broader range of problems that may arise. The result is that fewer and fewer operators will be needed to perform more highly skilled work.
Computer operators or peripheral equipment operators who are displaced by automation may be reassigned to support staffs that maintain personal computer networks or assist other members of the organization. Operators who keep up with changing technology, by updating their skills and enhancing their training, should have the best prospects of moving into other areas such as network administration. Others may be retrained to perform different job duties, such as supervising an entire operations center, maintaining automation packages, or analyzing computer operations to recommend ways to increase productivity. In the future, operators who wish to continue in the computer field will need to know more about programming, automation software, graphics interface, and open systems in order to take advantage of changing opportunities.
In 1994, full-time computer operators had median earnings of $21,300 a year. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,200 and $29,900. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12,800 and the top 10 percent earned more than $39,500.
According to Robert Half International Inc., the average starting salaries for computer operator ranged from $20,000 to $31,500 in 1994. Salaries generally are higher in large organizations than in small ones.
In the Federal Government, computer operators with a high school diploma started at about $14,900 a year in 1995. Those with 1 year of college started at $16,700. Applicants with operations experience started at higher salaries. The average annual salary for all computer operators employed by the Federal Government in non supervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was about $28,800 in 1994.
Other occupations involving work with computers include computer scientists and systems analysts, programmers, and computer service technicians. Other occupations in which workers operate electronic office equipment include data entry keyers, secretaries, typists and word processors, and typesetters and compositors.
For information about work opportunities in computer operations, contact firms that use computers such as banks, manufacturing and insurance firms, colleges and universities, and data processing service organizations. The local office of the State employment service can supply information about employment and training opportunities.
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