A power plant operator monitors a screen above a control panel

A power plant operator could...

Monitor gauges and sensors to decide when to release steam from geothermal power plant valves. Two workers open a pipeline to vent steam Open extra floodgates on a hydroelectric dam to meet the demand for more electricity on a hot day. Water flows over two gates of a hydroelectric dam
Prevent blackouts by inspecting power plant equipment and ordering repairs when necessary. Skyscrapers in a city lit up at night Clean, lubricate, and maintain turbines, generators, pumps, and compressors to prevent failure and deterioration. A technician works on a large turbine
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Key Facts & Information

Overview No matter what time of the day or night, or what the weather is like, power plant operators work to ensure that homes and businesses have a reliable source of power. They switch the plant generators on and off, as needed, and monitor and maintain generators, turbines, and pumps to prevent failures.
Key Requirements Must enjoy working with and fixing machinery, as well as have sharp observational skills and an ability to communicate well with others
Minimum Degree Vocational or Associate's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Computer science, physics, algebra, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, English; if available, applied technology
Median Salary
Power Plant Operator
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Decline Slowly or Moderately (-3% to -9%)

Take a peek inside a power plant and learn what it's like to work at Colorado Springs Utilities.

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Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Power plant operators generally need a combination of education, on-the-job training, and experience. Candidates with strong computer and technical skills are generally preferred.

Education and Training

Employers often seek recent high school graduates for entry-level operator positions. Workers with college or vocational school degrees will have more advancement opportunities, especially in nuclear power plants. Although it is not a prerequisite, many senior reactor operators have a bachelor's degree in engineering or in the physical sciences.

Workers selected for training as power plant operators undergo extensive on-the-job and classroom instruction. Several years of training and experience are required for a worker to become a fully qualified control room operator.

In addition to receiving initial training to become fully qualified as a power plant operator, most workers are given periodic refresher training, especially the nuclear power plant operators. Refresher training usually is taken on plant simulators designed specifically to replicate procedures and situations that might be encountered at the trainee's plant.

Nature of the Work

Electricity is vital for most 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.

Watch this video to see the work that happens inside real power plants, so that families everywhere can have reliable power to their homes and schools every day.

Power plant operators control and monitor boilers, turbines, generators, and auxiliary equipment in power-generating plants. 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, these workers start or stop generators and connect or disconnect them from circuits. They often use computers to keep records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers. Operators also may use computers to prepare reports of unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance performed during their shift.

Operators in plants with automated control systems work mainly in a central control room and usually are called control room operators or control room operator trainees or assistants. In older plants, the controls for the equipment are not centralized—switchboard operators control the flow of electricity from a central point, while auxiliary equipment operators work throughout the plant, operating and monitoring valves, switches, and gauges.

In nuclear power plants, most operators start working as equipment operators or as auxiliary operators. They help the more senior workers with equipment maintenance and operation, while learning the basics of plant operation. With experience and training, they may be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as reactor operators and authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Senior reactor operators supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. At least one senior operator must be on duty during each shift to act as the plant supervisor.

Work Environment

Operators who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. This work is not physically strenuous, but it does require 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 such plants. Additionally, they have to pass a medical examination every two years and may be exposed to small amounts of ionizing radiation as part of their jobs.

Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work one of three 8-hour shifts or one of two 12-hour shifts on a rotating basis. Shift assignments may change periodically, so that all operators share less desirable shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and fatiguing because of the constant change in living and sleeping patterns.

On the Job

  • Monitor and inspect power plant equipment and indicators to detect evidence of operating problems.
  • Adjust controls to generate specified electrical power, or to regulate the flow of power between generating stations and substations.
  • Operate or control power-generating equipment, including boilers, turbines, generators, and reactors, using control boards or semi-automatic equipment.
  • Regulate equipment operations and conditions, such as water levels, based on data from recording and indicating instruments or from computers.
  • Take readings from charts, meters and gauges at established intervals, and take corrective steps, as necessary.
  • Start or stop generators, auxiliary pumping equipment, turbines, and other power plant equipment, and connect or disconnect equipment from circuits.
  • Inspect records and log book entries, and communicate with other plant personnel, in order to assess equipment operating status.
  • Control and maintain auxiliary equipment, such as pumps, fans, compressors, condensers, feedwater heaters, filters, and chlorinators, to supply water, fuel, lubricants, air, and auxiliary power.
  • Clean, lubricate, and maintain equipment, such as generators, turbines, pumps, and compressors in order to prevent equipment failure or deterioration.
  • Communicate with systems operators to regulate and coordinate transmission loads and frequencies, and line voltages.
  • Record and compile operational data, completing and maintaining forms, logs, and reports.
  • Open and close valves and switches in sequence upon signals from other workers, in order to start or shut down auxiliary units.
  • Collect oil, water, and electrolyte samples for laboratory analysis.
  • Make adjustments or minor repairs, such as tightening leaking gland and pipe joints; report any needs for major repairs.
  • Control generator output to match the phase, frequency, and voltage of electricity supplied to panels.
  • Place standby emergency electrical generators online in emergencies and monitor the temperature, output, and lubrication of the system.
  • Receive outage calls and call in necessary personnel during power outages and emergencies.
  • Examine and test electrical power distribution machinery and equipment, using testing devices.
  • Replenish electrolytes in batteries and oil in voltage transformers, and reset tripped electric relays.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Power Plant Operators

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