Power plant operators, dispatchers, and distributors control the systems that generate and distribute electric power.

Duties

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers typically do the following:

  • Control power-generating equipment which may use any one type of fuel, such as coal, nuclear fuel, or natural gas
  • Read charts, meters, and gauges to monitor voltage and electricity flows
  • Check equipment and indicators to detect evidence of operating problems
  • Adjust controls to regulate the flow of power
  • Start or stop generators, turbines, and other equipment as necessary

Electricity is one of our nation’s most vital resources. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers control power plants and the flow of electricity from plants to substations, which distribute electricity to businesses, homes, and factories. Electricity is generated from many sources, including coal, gas, nuclear energy, hydroelectric energy (from water sources), and wind and solar power.

Nuclear power reactor operators control nuclear reactors. They adjust control rods, which affect how much electricity a reactor generates. They monitor reactors, turbines, generators, and cooling systems, adjusting controls as necessary. Operators also start and stop equipment and record the data. They may need to respond to abnormalities, determine the cause, and take corrective action.

Power distributors and dispatchers, also known as systems operators, control the flow of electricity as it travels from generating stations to substations and users by monitoring and operating current converters, voltage transformers, and circuit breakers over a network of transmission and distribution lines. They prepare and issue switching orders to route electrical currents around areas that need maintenance or repair. They must detect and respond to emergencies, such as transformer or transmission line failures which can cause cascading power outages over the network of transmission and distribution lines they control.

Power plant operators control, operate, and maintain machinery to generate electricity. They use control boards to distribute power among generators and regulate the output from several generators. They monitor instruments to maintain voltage and electricity flows from the plant to meet consumer demand for electricity, which fluctuates throughout the day.

Work Environment

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about 60,700 jobs in 2012. About 69 percent were power plant operators, 19 percent were power distributors and dispatchers, and 12 percent were nuclear power reactor operators.

About 70 percent of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers worked in the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution industry in 2012. State and local governments employed 13 percent of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers.

Operators, distributors, and dispatchers who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. The work is not physically strenuous, but it does require constant attention. Workers also may do rounds, checking equipment and doing other work outside the control room. Transmission stations and substations where distributors and dispatchers work are typically in separate locations from the generating station where power plant operators work.

Because power transmission is both vitally important and sensitive to attack, security is a major concern for utility companies. Nuclear power plants and transmission stations have especially high security, and employees work in secure environments.

Work Schedules

Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work rotating 8- or 12-hour shifts. As a result, all operators share the less desirable shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and tiring because of the constant changes in living and sleeping patterns.

Education and Training

Power plant operators, dispatchers, and distributors need extensive on-the-job training which may include a combination of classroom and hands-on training. Nuclear power reactor operators also need a license. Many jobs require a background check, and workers are subject to drug and alcohol screenings.

Many companies require potential workers to take the Power Plant Maintenance (MASS) and Plant Operator (POSS) exams from the Edison Electrical Institute to see if they have the right aptitudes for this work. These tests measure reading comprehension, understanding of mechanical concepts, spatial ability, and mathematical ability.

Education

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers need at least a high school diploma. However, employers may prefer workers with college or vocational school degrees.

Employers generally look for people with strong math and science backgrounds for these highly technical jobs. Understanding electricity and math, especially algebra and trigonometry, is important.

Training

Power plant operators and dispatchers undergo rigorous, long-term on-the-job training and technical instruction. Several years of onsite training and experience are necessary to become fully qualified. Even fully qualified operators and dispatchers must take regular training courses to keep their skills up to date.

Nuclear power reactor operators usually start working as equipment operators or auxiliary operators, helping more experienced workers operate and maintain the equipment while learning the basics of how to operate the power plant.

Along with this extensive on-the-job training, nuclear power plant operators typically receive formal technical training to prepare for the license exam from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Once licensed, operators are authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Operators continue frequent onsite training which familiarizes them with new monitoring systems that provide operators better real time information on situations regarding the plant.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Nuclear power reactor operators must be licensed through the NRC. To become licensed, operators must meet training and experience requirements, pass a medical exam, and pass the NRC licensing exam. To keep their license, operators must pass a plant-operating exam each year, pass a medical exam every 2 years, and apply for license renewal every 6 years. Licenses cannot be transferred between plants, so an operator must get a new license to operate in another facility.

Power plant operators who do not work at a nuclear power reactor may be licensed as engineers or fire fighters by state licensing boards. Requirements vary by state and depend on the specific job functions that the operator performs.

Power distributors and dispatchers who are in positions in which they could affect the power grid must be certified through the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s (NERC) System Operator Certification Program. NERC offers four types of certification, and each qualifies a worker to handle a different job function. A dispatcher’s certification is valid for 3 years, and a worker must fulfill continuing education requirements to renew the credential.

Other Experience

Previous related work experience can be helpful. Many employers prefer experience in electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, or in other occupations in the utilities industry, such as line worker or helper, or laborer in a power plant.

Some nuclear power reactor operators gain experience working with nuclear reactors in the U.S. Navy.

Advancement

After finishing work in the classroom, most entry-level workers start as helpers or laborers and advance to more responsible positions as they become comfortable in the plant. Workers are generally classified into levels on the basis of their experience. For each level, there are training requirements, mandatory waiting times, and exams. With sufficient training and experience, workers can become shift supervisors, trainers, or consultants.

Nuclear power plant operators begin working in nuclear power plants, typically as non-licensed operators. After in-plant training and passing the NRC licensing exam, they become licensed reactor operators. Licensed operators can advance to senior reactor operators, who supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. Senior reactor operators may also become plant managers or licensed operator instructors.

Important Qualities

Concentration skills. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must be careful, attentive, and persistent. They must be able to concentrate on a task, such as monitoring the temperature of reactors over a period of time without being distracted.

Detail oriented. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must monitor complex controls and intricate machinery to ensure that everything is operating properly.

Dexterity. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must use precise and repeated motions when working in a control room.

Mechanical skills. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must know how to work with machines and use tools. They must be familiar with how to operate, repair, and maintain equipment.

Problem-solving skills. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must find and quickly solve problems that arise with equipment or controls.

Pay

The median annual wage for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was $68,230 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,110, and the top 10 percent earned more than $92,570.

Median annual wages for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $74,990 for nuclear power reactor operators
  • $71,690 for power distributors and dispatchers
  • $66,130 for power plant operators

Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work rotating 8- or 12-hour shifts. As a result, all operators share the less desirable shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and tiring because of the constant changes in living and sleeping patterns.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to decline 8 percent from 2012 to 2022. Although electricity usage is expected to grow, advances in technology and increased energy efficiency will contribute to decreases in employment for the occupation. Employment growth will vary by specialty.

Employment of power plant operators in nonnuclear power plants is projected to decline 11 percent from 2012 to 2022. Energy companies are increasingly promoting energy efficiency to cut costs and comply with environmental regulations. Consequently, the demand for electricity is expected to grow much more slowly than in the past, resulting in fewer new job opportunities for workers.

In addition, as old power plants close, they will be replaced with new plants that produce electricity more efficiently and, in many cases, have higher capacities. These new plants will have modernized control rooms which are more automated and provide workers with more information. As a result, fewer workers will be needed to produce the same amount of electricity in these new plants.

Employment of power distributors and dispatchers is projected to show little to no change from 2012 to 2022. Although some distributors and dispatchers will be needed to manage an increasingly complex electrical grid, employment growth will be tempered by advances in technology and smart grid projects that automate some of the work of dispatchers.

Employment of nuclear power reactor operators is projected to show little to no change from 2012 to 2022. Although no new plants have opened since the 1990s, new sites have applied for construction and operating licenses, and they will need to be staffed before the end of the next decade.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be better for those with related training and good mechanical skills. Many people will seek these high-paying jobs, so job prospects will be best for those with strong technical and mechanical skills.

For More Information

For more information about power plant operators, nuclear power reactor operators, and power plant distributors and dispatchers, visit

American Public Power Association

Center for Energy Workforce Development

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

For more information on nuclear power reactor operators, including licensing, visit

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Nuclear Energy Institute

For information on certification for power distributors and dispatchers, visit

North American Electric Reliability Corporation

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.