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* Employment is expected to decline sharply.
* A high school diploma is the minimum requirement, although previous experience and familiarity with operating systems have become increasingly important.
Computer operators oversee the operation of computer hardware systems, ensuring that these machines are used as efficiently as possible. They may work with mainframes, minicomputers, or even networks of personal computers. Computer operators must anticipate problems and take preventive action as well as solve problems that occur during operations.
The duties of computer operators vary with the size of the installation, the type of equipment used, and the policies of the employer. Generally, operators control the console of either a mainframe digital computer or a group of minicomputers. 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. In certain establishments, some operators may only operate separate peripheral equipment or prepare printouts or other output for distribution to computer users. These types of computer operators generally do not run control consoles.
Computer operators load the equipment with tapes, disks, and paper as needed. While the computer is runningwhich may be 24 hours a day for large computerscomputer operators monitor the control 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. Operators also maintain log books or operating records listing each job that is run and events such as machine malfunctions that occur during their shift. In addition, computer operators may supervise and train new employees. 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 computer operators are working on personal computers (PCs) and minicomputers. In many offices, factories, and other work settings, PCs and minicomputers are connected in 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 look for opportunities to increase productivity, automation is expanding into more areas of computer operations. Sophisticated software coupled with robotics, enable the computer to perform many routine tasks formerly done by computer 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. As technology advances, many computer operators will essentially monitor an automated system. These operators may then be responsible for ensuring that the automated equipment and operating systems perform correctly. For others, changes resulting from new technology may shift their responsibilities to areas such as network operations, user support, or database maintenance.
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 operators may be required to work evening or night shifts and weekends. Shift assignments generally are made on the basis of seniority. However, increasingly automated operations will lessen the need for shift work because many companies let the computer take over all operations during less desirable working hours. In addition, advances in telecommuting technologiessuch as faxes, modems, and e-mailand data center automationsuch as automated tape librarieseven enable some operators to monitor batch processes, check systems performance, and record problems for the next shift.
Since computer operators generally 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 1996, computer operators held about 291,000 jobs. Although jobs for computer operators are found in almost every industry, the majority are found in organizations that have data processing needs requiring large computer installations such as wholesale trade establishments, manufacturing companies, data processing service firms, financial institutions, and government agencies. A growing number are employed by service firms in the computer and data processing services industry, as more companies contract out the operation of their data processing centers.
Less than 1 out of 5 computer operators works part time.
Previous work experience is the key to obtaining an operator job in many large establishments. Employers generally look for specific, hands-on experience with the type of equipment and related operating systems they use. Additionally, formal computer-related training, perhaps through a community college or technical school, is recommended. As computer technology changes and data processing centers become more automated, more employers will require candidates to have formal training, as well as experience, for the remaining operator jobs.
In the past, a high school diploma, previous experience with an operating system, and familiarity with the latest technologies have been the minimum requirements for employment. However, employers increasingly require some post secondary education or training as technologies advance. Completion of vocational training is an asset. Related training can also be obtained through the Armed Forces and from some computer manufacturers. 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.
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 the computer is not programmed to handle, particularly by operators who work in automated data centers. 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.
Computer operators generally advance from operating peripheral equipment to responsibilities such as controlling the console. A few computer operators may advance to supervisory jobs, although most management positions within data processing or computer operations centers require more formal education such as a bachelor's degree or higher. Through on-the-job experience and additional formal education, some computer operators may advance to jobs in areas such as network operations or support. As they gain experience in programming, some operators may advance to jobs as programmers or analysts. A move into these types of jobs is becoming much more difficult as employers increasingly require candidates for more skilled computer professional jobs to possess at least a bachelor's degree.
Employment of computer operators is expected to decline sharply through the year 2006. 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. Opportunities will be best for operators who are familiar with a variety of operating systems and who keep up to date with the latest technology.
Advances in technology have reduced both the size and cost of computer equipment while increasing the capacity for data storage and processing automation. These improvements in technology have fueled an expansion in the use of sophisticated computer hardware and software in practically every industry in such areas as factory and office automation, telecommunications, medicine, education, and administration. The expanding use of software that automates computer operations gives companies the option of making systems user-friendly, greatly reducing the need for operators. 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 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 or technical support. Others may be retrained to perform different job duties, such as supervising an operations center, maintaining automation packages, or analyzing computer operations to recommend ways to increase productivity. In the future, operators who wish to work in the computer field will need to know more about programming, automation software, graphics interface, client/server environments, and open systems in order to take advantage of changing opportunities.
In 1996, full-time computer operators had median earnings of about $22,400 a year. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,600 and $30,900. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,800 and the top 10 percent earned more than $41,400.
According to Robert Half International Inc., the average starting salaries for console operators in large establishments ranged from $24,750 to $32,750 and from $22,000 to $29,000 in small ones in 1997. 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 $15,540 a year in 1997; those with 1 year of college started at $17,450. 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 $31,400 in early 1997.
Other occupations involving work with computers include computer scientists, engineers, 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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