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What Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers Do About this section

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers
Operators may have to operate or repair complex machinery.

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers 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 power, 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), 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 start and stop equipment and record the data produced. They also respond to abnormalities, determine the causes, 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. In exercising such control, they monitor and operate 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 detect and respond to emergencies, such as transformer or transmission line failures, which can cause cascading power outages over the network. They may work with plant operators to troubleshoot electricity generation issues.

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

Work Environment About this section

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers
Power plant operators must monitor plant equipment and take action if problems arise.

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about 49,000 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was distributed as follows:

Power plant operators 33,600
Power distributors and dispatchers 10,000
Nuclear power reactor operators 5,300

The largest employers of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers were as follows:

Utilities 71%
Government 16

Operators, distributors, and dispatchers who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. The work requires 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 locations that are separate 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. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and tiring because of the constant changes in living and sleeping patterns.

How to Become a Power Plant Operator, Distributor, or Dispatcher About this section

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers
Most power plant operators work at a control station.

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers typically need a high school diploma or equivalent combined with extensive on-the-job training, which may include a combination of classroom and hands-on training. Many jobs require a background check and screenings for drugs and alcohol.

Nuclear power reactor operators also need a license.

Many companies require prospective workers to take the Power Plant Maintenance and Plant Operator 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 typically need at least a high school diploma or equivalent. However, employers may prefer workers who have a college or vocational school degree.

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 for a worker 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 regarding the plant.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Nuclear power reactor operators must be licensed through the NRC. They typically begin working in nuclear power plants as unlicensed operators, where they gain the required knowledge and experience to start the licensing process. 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 renewal of their license every 6 years. Licenses cannot be transferred between plants, so an operator must get a new license to work in another facility.

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

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers who are in positions which could affect the power grid may need to be certified through the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s System Operator Certification Program. 

Advancement

With sufficient education, training and experience, power plant distributors and dispatchers can become shift supervisors, trainers, or consultants.

Licensed nuclear power plant operators can then advance to senior reactor operators, who supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. Senior reactor operators also may 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 certain length 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 About this section

Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

Median annual wages, May 2021

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers

$94,790

Plant and system operators

$61,350

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was $94,790 in May 2021. 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 $49,680, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $125,340.

Median annual wages for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers in May 2021 were as follows:

Nuclear power reactor operators $104,260
Power distributors and dispatchers 98,530
Power plant operators 80,850

In May 2021, the median annual wages for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Utilities $98,000
Government 88,460

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

Job Outlook About this section

Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Total, all occupations

8%

Plant and system operators

-2%

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers

-14%

 

Overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to decline 14 percent from 2020 to 2030.

Despite declining employment, about 3,500 openings for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. All of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Although electricity use is expected to grow, technological advances and greater efficiency are expected to reduce employment in these occupations.

Power plants are becoming more efficient and, in many cases, have higher electricity-generating capacity. Modernized control rooms in power plants will also provide workers with more information and automate some tasks. As a result, power plant operators will be more efficient, which limits the opportunity for new jobs.

Similarly, these efficiency gains are expected to affect nuclear power reactor operators’ employment, which is also projected to decline over the decade. No new nuclear plants have opened since the 1990s, and although some are in the application process, opening a new one may take many years. Moreover, nuclear power faces steep competition from renewable energy sources, making new, traditional reactors less attractive as many of the existing reactors reach the end of their lifecycles.

Employment of power distributors and dispatchers is projected to decline due to advances in smart-grid technology. Some dispatcher tasks, such as rerouting power during an outage, lend themselves to automation. However, some distributors and dispatchers will still be needed to manage the complex electrical grid.

Employment projections data for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers

51-8010 49,000 41,900 -14 -7,100 Get data

Nuclear power reactor operators

51-8011 5,300 3,600 -33 -1,800 Get data

Power distributors and dispatchers

51-8012 10,000 9,300 -7 -700 Get data

Power plant operators

51-8013 33,600 29,000 -14 -4,600 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

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

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