Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers Do[About this section] [To Top]

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

Duties of Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

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 produced. They may need to 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, operators 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 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. 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 consumer demand for electricity—demand that fluctuates throughout the day.

Work Environment for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers[About this section] [To Top]

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about 60,000 jobs in 2014.

In 2014, most power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers worked in the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution industry. About 8 in 10 nuclear power plant operators and about 7 in 10 power plant operators worked in this industry.

Power distributors and dispatchers are less concentrated in the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution industry, in which only about half worked.

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 locations that are separate from the location of 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.

Power Plant Operator, Distributor, and Dispatcher 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.

How to Become a Power Plant Operator, Distributor, or Dispatcher[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers near you!

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers 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 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.

Power Plant Operator, Distributor, and Dispatcher Education

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers need at least a high school diploma. 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.

Power Plant Operator, Distributor, and Dispatcher 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. 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 operate 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 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 System Operator Certification Program. 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 nonlicensed operators. After in-plant training and passing the NRC licensing exam, they become licensed reactor operators. Licensed 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 for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

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.


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Power Plant Operator, Distributor, and Dispatcher Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was $75,660 in May 2015. 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 $47,560, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $101,630.

Median annual wages for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers in May 2015 were as follows:

Nuclear power reactor operators $88,560
Power distributors and dispatchers 80,840
Power plant operators 71,940

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 2014.

Job Outlook for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to decline 6 percent from 2014 to 2024. Electricity usage is expected to grow more slowly because of advances in technology and increased energy efficiency. These developments will in turn dampen employment growth for the occupation.

Employment growth will vary by specialty. Employment of power plant operators in nonnuclear power plants is projected to decline 7 percent from 2014 to 2024. As old power plants close, they will be replaced with new plants that produce electricity more efficiently and, in many cases, have higher electricity-generating capacities. These new plants will have modernized control rooms that are more automated and that provide workers with more information. As a result, workers will be able to work more effectively, perhaps limiting the number of new job opportunities.

Employment of power distributors and dispatchers is projected to decline 5 percent from 2014 to 2024. 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 or no change from 2014 to 2024. 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.

Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers 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 prospects will be best for those with strong technical and mechanical skills.

Employment projections data for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers 60,000 56,700 -6 -3,300
  Nuclear power reactor operators 7,500 7,400 -1 -100
  Power distributors and dispatchers 11,400 10,800 -5 -600
  Power plant operators 41,100 38,400 -7 -2,700


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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