|98-99 Handbook Contents...||UMSL Govt. Docs...||UMSL Libraries...||UMSL Home...|
Nature of the Work
(D.O.T. 820.662-010; 951.685-010; 952.167-014, .362, .367-014, and .382)
* Little increase is expected in the employment of operators, distributors, and dispatchers as the electric utility industry restructures in response to deregulation and increasing competition.
* Construction of new power plants is expected to be curtailed due to the present overcapacity of electric power generators, creating few additional jobs.
* Helpers and laborers will have fewer opportunities to advance to operator positions due to shrinking employment and low turnover.
Electricity is vital for most of our everyday activities. From the moment you flip the first switch each morning, you are connecting to a huge network of people, electric lines, and generating equipment. Power plant operators control the machinery that generates electricity. Power distributors and dispatchers control the flow of electricity from the power plant over a network of transmission lines to industrial plants and substations, and finally over distribution lines to residential 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, ventilation equipment, electrical breakers, and switching gear. Operators distribute power demands among generators, combine the current from several generators, and monitor instruments to maintain voltage and regulate electricity flows from the plant. When power requirements change, they start or stop generators and connect or disconnect them from circuits. They increasingly use computers to keep records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers; and prepare reports of unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance performed 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). They 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 industrial plants and substations that supply residential electric needs. 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 industrial plants.
Dispatchers also 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. Shift assignments are changed 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, as are most workers at nuclear power plants.
Electric power generating plant operators and power distributors and dispatchers held about 47,000 jobs in 1996. Jobs are located throughout the country. About 93 percent worked for utility companies and government agencies that produced electricity. Others worked for manufacturing establishments that produce electricity for their own use.
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. Computer proficiency is increasingly being required by employers, as computers are used to keep records, generate reports, and track maintenance. Most entry level positions are in helper or laborer jobs in power plants or in other areas of the utility such as powerline construction. Depending on the results of aptitude tests, worker preferences, and availability of openings, workers may be assigned to train for any one of many utility positions in operations, maintenance, or other areas.
Workers selected for training as a power distributor or power plant operator at a fossil-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. This training is usually taken on plant simulators designed specifically to replicate the procedures and situations they might expect to encounter working at their plant.
People who want to become power plant operators and power distributors and dispatchers are expected to encounter keen competition for these high-paying jobs, as slow growth in employment and low turnover in this occupation result in few job opportunities for the large number of eligible candidates.
Little increase in employment of electric power generating plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is expected through the year 2006 as the industry restructures in response to deregulation and increasing competition. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 has had a tremendous impact on the organization of the utilities industry. This legislation enabled greater competition in power generating utilities by allowing independent power producers to sell their power directly to industrial and other wholesale customers. Utilities, historically operated as regulated local monopolies, are restructuring their operations to reduce costs and compete effectively, resulting in fewer jobs at all levels and reducing job security.
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 2006 is expected to be moderate because capacity was overbuilt in the past and growth in the demand for electricity is expected to continue to slow down. 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 2006.
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 $869 in 1996. According to information from union surveys, wages for fossil fuel power plant operators ranged from $498 to $1,100 weekly, averaging $837 in 1995. Nuclear power plant operators earned from about $862 to $1216 weekly, averaging $1,006 in 1995. Senior or chief operators in both nuclear and conventional power plants earned 10-15 percent more than operators. Over half of these workers are union members.
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.
|98-99 Handbook Contents...||UMSL Govt. Docs...||UMSL Libraries...||UMSL Home...|