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Although electricity is vital for most of our everyday activities, it only takes a downed powerline for us to realize how much we take it and the people who help generate it for granted. Power plant operators control the machinery that generates electricity. Power distributors and dispatchers control the flow of electricity through substations and over a network of transmission and distribution lines to users.
Electric power generating plant operators who work in plants fueled by coal, oil, or natural gas regulate and monitor boilers, turbines, generators, auxiliary equipment, such as coal crushers, and switching gear. They operate switches to distribute power demands among generators, combine the current from several generators, and regulate the flow of electricity into powerlines. When power requirements change, they start or stop generators and connect or disconnect them from circuits. Operators monitor instruments to see that electricity flows from the plant properly and that voltage is maintained. They also keep records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers and prepare reports of unusual incidents or malfunctioning equipment during their shift.
Operators in newer plants with automated control systems work mainly in a central control room and usually are called control room operators and control room operator trainees or assistants. In older plants, the controls for the equipment are not centralized, and operators work throughout the plant, operating and monitoring valves, switches, and gauges. Job titles in older plants may be more varied than in newer plants. Auxiliary equipment operators work throughout the plant, while switchboard operators control the flow of electricity from a central point.
Operators of nuclear power plants are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). NRC-licensed reactor operators are authorized to operate equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. In addition, an NRC-licensed senior reactor operator acts as the supervisor of the plant for each shift, and supervises 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 users. They operate current converters, voltage transformers, and circuit breakers. Dispatchers monitor equipment and record readings at a pilot board, which is a map of the transmission grid system showing the status of transmission circuits and connections with substations and large industrial users. Dispatchers anticipate power needs such as those caused by changes in the weather; they call control room operators to start or stop boilers and generators to bring production into balance with needs. They handle emergencies such as transformer or transmission line failures and route current around affected areas. They also operate and monitor equipment in substations, which step up or step down voltage, and operate switchboard levers to control the flow of electricity in and out of substations.
Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work one of three daily 8-hour shifts on a rotating basis. Workers usually rotate to a different daily shift schedule periodically so that duty on less desirable shifts is shared by all operators. 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 requires 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.
Electric power generating plant operators and power distributors and dispatchers held about 43,000 jobs in 1994. Over 90 percent worked for electric utility companies and government agencies that produced electricity. Some worked for manufacturing establishments that produce electricity for their own use. Jobs are located throughout the country.
Employers seek high school graduates for entry level operator, distributor, and dispatcher positions. Those with strong math and science skills are preferred. College level courses or prior experience in a mechanical or technical job may be helpful. Most entry level positions are in helper or laborer jobs in power plants or in other areas of the utility such as powerline construction. Workers may be assigned to train for any one of many utility positions in operations, maintenance, or other areas. Assignments depend on the results of aptitude tests, worker preferences, and availability of openings.
Workers selected for training as a power distributor or power plant operator at a conventionally fueled power plant undergo extensive on-the-job and classroom training provided by the employer. Several years of training and experience are required to become a fully qualified control room operator or power distributor. With further training and experience, workers may advance to shift supervisor. Because utilities generally promote from within, opportunities to advance by moving to another employer are limited.
Entrants to nuclear power plant operator trainee jobs must have strong math and science skills. Experience in other power plants or with Navy nuclear propulsion plants also is helpful. Extensive training and experience are necessary to pass the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's examinations for licensed reactor operator and senior reactor operator, including on-the-job and simulator training, classroom instruction, and individual study. Licensed reactor operators must pass an annual practical plant operation exam and a biennial written exam administered by their employer to maintain their license. With further training and experience, reactor operators may advance to senior reactor operators, who are qualified to be shift supervisors.
In addition to preliminary training as a power plant operator or power distributor or dispatcher, most workers are given periodic refresher training. Nuclear power plant operators are given frequent refresher training on a plant simulator.
People who want to become power plant operators and power distributors and dispatchers are expected to encounter keen competition for jobs. With relatively modest qualifications for employment, good wages, and low turnover in this moderately sized occupation, job opportunities are expected to be few compared to the number of eligible candidates.
Opportunities for those interested in working as power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers will be affected by the pace of new plant construction and equipment upgrading. The pace of expansion in power generating capacity through the year 2005 is expected to be moderate because capacity was somewhat overbuilt in the past. The increasing use of automatic controls and more efficient equipment should further offset the need for new plant construction and operators. Also, few new nuclear power plants are likely to be operational before the year 2005.
A recent development in the utility industry is the Energy Policy Act of 1992. This legislation has increased competition in power generating utilities by allowing independent power producers, who generally have lower prices, to sell their power directly to industrial customers. As a result, utilities are restructuring their operations to reduce costs and compete effectively, resulting in fewer jobs at all levels and reducing job security.
Overall, employment of electric power generating plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is expected to decline through the year 2005.
Earnings in the electric utility industry are relatively high. According to the limited information available, median weekly earnings for conventional power plant operators were about $857 in 1994. According to information from union contracts, wages for power plant operators ranged from $520 to $832 weekly. Nuclear power plant operators earned weekly wages of about $990 in 1994. Senior or chief operators in both nuclear and conventional power plants earned 10-15 percent more than operators.
Other workers who monitor and operate plant and systems equipment include stationary engineers, water and sewage treatment plant operators, waterworks pumpstation operators, chemical operators, and refinery operators.
For information about employment opportunities, contact local electric utility companies, locals of unions mentioned below, or an office of the State employment service.
For general information about power plant and nuclear reactor operators and power distributors and dispatchers, contact:
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 1125 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20005.
Utility Workers Union of America, 815 16th St. NW., Washington, DC 20006.
For a copy of Careers in Electric Power and a catalog of other guidance information, send $5 to:
Edison Electric Institute, P.O. Box 2800, Kearneysville, WV 25430-2800.
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