Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

Career, Salary and Education Information

Following is everything you need to know about a career as a power plant operator with lots of details. As a first step, take a look at some of the following jobs, which are real jobs with real employers. You will be able to see the very real job career requirements for employers who are actively hiring. The link will open in a new tab so that you can come back to this page to continue reading about the career:

Top 3 Power Plant Operator Jobs

See all Power Plant Operator jobs

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

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers hold about 54,700 jobs. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was distributed as follows:

Power plant operators 36,100
Power distributors and dispatchers 11,600
Nuclear power reactor operators 7,000

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

Utilities 72%
Government 17

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.

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. 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 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 for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

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.

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 for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

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 for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

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 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.

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 is $78,370. 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 $48,200, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $105,730.

Median annual wages for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers are as follows:

Nuclear power reactor operators $91,170
Power distributors and dispatchers 81,900
Power plant operators 74,690

The median annual wages for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Utilities $79,150
Government 78,340

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.

Union Membership for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

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

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

Overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to show little or no change over the next ten years. Although electricity usage is expected to grow, technological advances and greater efficiency may dampen employment growth.

Employment of power plant operators in nonnuclear power plants is projected to show little or no change over the next ten years. Power plants are becoming more efficient and, in many cases, have higher electricity-generating capacities. Modernized control rooms in power plants will also provide workers with more information and automate some tasks. As a result, workers are able to work more effectively, which limits the number of new job opportunities.

Employment of power distributors and dispatchers is projected to decline 3 percent over the next ten years. Due to advances in smart grid technology, some tasks that dispatchers perform can be automated, such as rerouting power during an outage. However, some distributors and dispatchers will still be needed to manage the complex electrical grid.

Employment of nuclear power reactor operators is projected to decline 10 percent over the next ten years. No new nuclear plants have opened since the 1990s, and although some are in the application process, opening a new one can take many years. The existing nuclear power plants are also becoming more efficient.

Job Prospects for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

Job prospects may be limited as technology advances and these jobs become more automated. Many people will seek these high-paying jobs, so those with strong technical and mechanical skills will have better job prospects.

Employment projections data for Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers, 2016-26
Occupational Title Employment, 2016 Projected Employment, 2026 Change, 2016-26
Percent Numeric
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers 54,700 54,200 -1 -600
  Nuclear power reactor operators 7,000 6,300 -10 -700
  Power distributors and dispatchers 11,600 11,300 -3 -300
  Power plant operators 36,100 36,500 1 500


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

Explore more careers: View all Careers or Browse Careers by Category

Search for jobs: