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Nature of the Work
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Sources of Additional Information
(D.O.T. 235.222-010, .462-010, .562-014, .662-014, -018, -022, and -026)
* Employment of telephone operators is projected to continue to decline, and few job opportunities are expected.
* Limited job opportunities are expected for switchboard or PBX operators, whose employment is not expected to decline.
* Customer service is now the primary function of operators, not switching calls, so familiarity with computers is essential and fluency in a foreign language is an asset.
Although most telephone numbers are dialed directly, a few still require the assistance of a telephone operator. Telephone company central office operators help customers with person-to-person or collect calls, or with special billing requests, such as charging a call to a third number or giving customers credit or a refund for a wrong number or a bad connection. Operators are also called upon to handle emergency calls and assist children or people with physical limitations.
Technological innovations have changed the responsibilities of central office operators. Electronic switching systems have eliminated the need for manual switching, and new systems automatically record information about the length and cost of calls into a computer that processes the billing statements. Now in most places, it is also possible to call other countries, person-to-person, or collect without the help of an operator. The task of responding to "intercept" calls (vacant, changed, or disconnected numbers) also is automated, and a computerized recording explains the reason for the interception and gives the new number. The monitoring and computing of charges on calls from pay telephones also is an automated function formerly performed by operators.
Directory assistance operators answer inquiries by accessing computerized alphabetical and geographical directories. They generally no longer read numbers; numbers are read by a computerized recording.
Many organizations, such as hotels and medical centers, employ operators to run private branch exchange (PBX) switchboards. These switchboard, or PBX operators, connect interoffice or house calls, answer and relay outside calls, connect outgoing calls, supply information to callers, and record charges. Many also act as receptionists or information clerks, relaying messages or announcing visitors. (Receptionists are described elsewhere in this section of the Handbook.)
Operators also work in other settings. Telephone-answering-service operators manage switchboards to provide answering service for clients. Communication-center operators handle airport authority communication systems. For example, they use the public address system to page passengers or visitors. They also monitor electronic equipment alarms.
Private-branch-exchange service advisors, sometimes called customer instructors or telephone usage counselors, train switchboard operators. Service advisors monitor conversations between operators and customers to observe the operator's behavior, technical accuracy, and adherence to company policies.
The hours of PBX or switchboard operators are generally the same as those of other clerical workers in the firm. In some organizations, they work 40 hours a week during regular business hours. Operators in hotels, hospitals, and other places in which telephone service is needed on a 24-hour basis, even work shifts on holidays and weekends. Telephone company operators generally work 32 1/2 to 37 1/2 hours a week. They also may work day, evening, or night shifts, including weekends and holidays.
Some operators work split shifts. That is, they are on duty during the peak calling periods in the late morning and early evening and have time off in between. Telephone companies normally assign shifts by seniority, allowing the most experienced workers to choose when they will work. These operators, like all telephone company employees, may be on call 24-hours a day. In general, though, they work overtime only during emergencies.
Telephone company operators work at video display terminals in pleasant, well-lighted, air-conditioned surroundings. But if the work site is not well designed, these operators may experience eyestrain and back discomfort.
The job of a telephone operator requires little physical exertion; during peak calling periods, however, the pace at the switchboard may be hectic. Telephone companies continually strive to increase operator efficiency, and this can create a tense work environment. An operator's work is generally quite repetitive and, in telephone companies, closely supervised. Computerized pacing and monitoring by supervisors, combined with the rapid pace, may cause stress. Operators must sit for long periods and usually need supervisory approval to leave their work stations.
Telephone operators held about 319,000 jobs in 1996. About 3 out of 4 worked as PBX operators in hotels, hospitals, department stores, or other organizations. The remainder worked in telephone companies. Roughly one-fifth of all operators worked part time, although relatively few of those employed by telephone companies were part-timers.
New operators are taught how to use the equipment on the job. Because of technological developments, telephone operators should be computer literate. In telephone companies, classroom instruction lasts up to 3 weeks and is followed by on-the-job training. Classroom instruction covers time zones and geography, so central office operators understand rates and know where major cities are located. Tapes are used to familiarize trainees with the dial tone, busy signal, and other telephone sounds, and to improve diction and courtesy by giving them an opportunity to hear their own voices. Close supervision continues after training is completed.
PBX operators who handle routine calls usually have a somewhat shorter training period than telephone company operators. These workers are usually trained informally by experienced personnel, although in some organizations they may be trained by a telephone company instructor.
Telephone operators should be pleasant, courteous, and patient. A clear, pleasing voice and good hearing are important. In addition to being a good listener, prospective operators should have good reading, spelling, and arithmetic skills. Good eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity are useful, as is an ability to work well under pressure. Many employers require operators to pass a physical examination. Some employers require a high school diploma. High school courses in speech, office practices, and business math provide a helpful background; fluency in a foreign language is also looked upon favorably.
After 1 or 2 years of experience, telephone company operators may be promoted to service assistant, aiding the supervisor by monitoring telephone conversations. Direct promotion to supervisor may also be possible in some companies. Some operators advance to other clerical jobs or to telephone craft jobs, such as installer or repairer. Large firms may promote PBX operators to more responsible clerical positions; however, many small businesses have limited advancement opportunities.
Job opportunities for telephone operators are expected to be extremely limited over the next decade. Overall employment is expected to decline, but variations in growth will occur among different groups of operators. Employment of operators in telephone companies is expected to decline sharply through the year 2006 as automation continues to increase these workers' productivity, and deregulation increases competition for phone services from other industries. Voice recognition technology, which gives computers the capacity to understand speech and to talk back, has replaced many directory assistance operators and central office operators. Many telephone companies do not plan to replace operators who leave, and many are being laid off. However, some job opportunities may become available as more independent phone companies enter the market. With the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which virtually eliminated the barriers for entering the telephone industry, it will be easier for the independent companies to enter into competition with existing companies.
In contrast, the number of switchboard or PBX operators is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all workers. As older switchboards requiring operators to make connections are replaced by those routing calls automatically, fewer operators will be needed. In addition, voice message systems have proliferated as computers became smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. These systems record, store, play, and forward telephone messageswork currently performed by PBX operators. When callers need to speak to an operator, they may be helped by receptionists who have been trained to make telephone connections. However, many firms may still keep switchboard operators for the "personal touch," which is somewhat limit the effects of new technology.
Telephone operators who worked full time, earned a median weekly salary of $371 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $288 and $516. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $220; the top 10 percent earned more than $603 a week.
According to a 1995 survey of workplaces in 160 metropolitan areas, switchboard operators had median weekly earnings of $336. The middle 50 percent earned between $292 and $390 a week.
Telephone company operators generally earn more than switchboard operators. Most telephone company operators are members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). According to the CWA, telephone operators started at an average of $244 a week in 1996, and averaged $638 a week after 5 years on the job. According to IBEW, operators averaged $12.70 an hour in 1996. For these operators, union contracts govern wage rates, wage increases, and the time required to advance from one step to the next (it normally takes 4 years to rise from the lowest paying, nonsupervisory operator position to the highest). Contracts also 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 a pay differential for nightwork and split shifts. Many contracts provide for a 1-week vacation with 6 months of service; 2 weeks for 1 to 6 years; 3 weeks for 7 to 14 years; 4 weeks for 15 to 24 years; and 5 weeks for 25 years and over. Holidays range from 9 to 11 days a year.
Other workers who provide information to the general public include customer service representatives, dispatchers, hotel clerks, information clerks, police aides, receptionists, reservation agents, and travel clerks.
For more details about employment opportunities, contact a telephone company. For general information on the telephone industry and career opportunities contact:
United States Telephone Association, 1401 H St. NW., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005-2136.
Communications Workers of America, Department of Apprenticeships, Benefits, and Employment, 501 3rd St. NW., Washington, DC 20001.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Telecommunications Department, 1125 15th. St. NW., Room 807, Washington, DC 20005.
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