Job duties of a power plant operator
Power plant operators are responsible for the safe and efficient operation of power plants and hydroelectric dams. This job involves controlling, operating, and maintaining the machinery used to generate electric power, using control boards to distribute power among generators, and regulating the output from several generators, as well as the power flow between generating stations. Power plant operators also be found monitoring instruments to maintain voltage and electricity flows from the plant. Power plant operators are often classified by the source of energy their power plant uses, such as hydroelectric power operators, nuclear power reactor operators, and solar power operators. Their day-to-day operations can vary depending on the type of power plant they work at. For instance, power plant operators at a nuclear reactor may be responsible for adjusting the control rods, monitoring the turbines and cooling systems, as well as responding to abnormalities which may arise (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
Power distributors and dispatchers can also work at power plants and are responsible for controlling the flow of electricity from the power plant through the power network. They may be required to increase or decrease the amount of power produced by a power plant, as well as select which power networks to use, avoiding damaged networks or networks under repair. Power distributors and dispatchers are also responsible for responding to abnormalities and emergencies on the power grid (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
Skills, training and education for power plant operators
Power plant operators typically have at least a high school diploma and have taken courses in math, chemistry, and physics. Some have taken college courses in mechanical or technical subjects and earned a degree or vocational certificate. Power plant operators also participate in long-term training programs and technical instruction at their power plants. Some power plants may also require their operators to pass the Power Plant Maintenance (MASS) and Plant Operator (POSS) exams offered by the Edison Electrical Institute (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
Operators in nuclear power plants must learn the procedures required to comply with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which administers the licensing exam which, when successfully passed, authorizes operators to control equipment affecting the power of a nuclear power plant reactor (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). Nuclear power plant operator licenses cannot be transferred between plants and must be renewed every six years. Operators at nuclear power plants are also required by the NRC to pass a medical exam every two years and an operating exam every year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012), power plant operators may benefit from having both mechanical and problem-solving skills, as well as being detailed-oriented, careful and attentive. Power plant operators should be able to focus on small details for long periods of time and follow instructions precisely.
Power plant operator job outlook
According to the BLS, the power plant operator profession, with the exception of nuclear power plant operators, is projected to experience an employment contraction of up to 3 percent from 2010 to 2020, nationally, as a result of tepid power consumption growth – as compared to the past – and compliance with environmental standards that limit emissions (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). However, nuclear power plant operators are projected to experience an employment growth of up to 4 percent, nationally, during the same time period as a result of nuclear power plant expansion. Even though no new plants have opened since the 1990s, new sites for nuclear power plants have been applying for construction and operating licenses, and eventually they’ll need to be staffed (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
According to the BLS, as of May 2011, power plant operators (not including nuclear power plant operators) earned a national median annual wage of $65,280 with the highest and lowest 10 percent earning $41,500 and $88,770, respectively (BLS.gov/oes, 2012). Nuclear power plant operators made a national median annual wage of $76,590 during the same period, with the highest and lowest 10 percent earning $55,980 and $101,730 (BLS.gov/oes, 2012). Those power plant operators, including nuclear power plant operators, employed in electric power generation, transmission, and distribution will see the highest levels of employment. Job prospects will likely be strongest for those who possess strong technical and mechanical skills, along with those who have received related training (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012).
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/power-plant-operators-distributors-and-dispatchers.htm
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011, Power Plant Operators http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes518013.htm
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011, Nuclear Power Reactor Operators, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes518011.htm
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Operating Licensing http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operator-licensing.html