Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

There are about 52,000 power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers working in the United States. Job growth projections indicate little change over the next decade. However, job prospects are excellent for well-trained workers due to the large number of retirees expected to leave these positions.
This type of work requires both classroom education and on the job training. It can take years to become fully qualified.


Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers Power plant operators inspect, maintain, repair, and operate the equipment that generates electricity, including boilers, turbines, generators, and other equipment. Operators notify distribution center dispatchers when electrical demands change and also determine when to reduce generator output.

Electricity is transmitted through a complex network that originates at the power plant, feeds into industrial plants and substations, and then is carried to residential and commercial users through distribution lines. Power plant distributors and dispatchers control this flow of electrical energy. They are also responsible for maintaining records of line and transformer loads and switching operations.

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Nuclear power reactor operators have similar obligations and tasks. Many begin as entry-level trainees who observe and support senior operators while learning simple maintenance, repair, and operation tasks. As they master basic tasks, they are assigned more and more complex work. Sufficient training and on the job experience qualifies workers for licensing as reactor operators by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This licensing permits them to operate equipment that powers nuclear reactors. Senior reactor operators are responsible for all control room operations. Every shift requires the presence of at least one senior operator.

Power or load distributors and dispatchers are employed by utility companies and non-utility generators, as well as other businesses that utilize the power grid. In addition to controlling the transference of electricity through transmission lines to substations that supply residential and commercial electricity, power or load distributors and dispatchers are responsible for current converters, voltage transformers, and circuit breakers operations. Dispatchers notate readings on the map board, which diagrams the grid system that delineates the connections between transmission circuits, substations, and industrial plants. This requires frequent communication with plant operators, energy traders, and local utilities to direct energy from generating stations to customers. Weather conditions, line failures, and other contributing factors must be anticipated by dispatchers so that they can reroute energy to lessen the negative impact.

Substation workers tend equipment that controls voltage levels, along with control switchboard levers that manage electrical flow into and out of the substation.
Control room operators, distributors, and dispatchers work at a control station with focused, uninterrupted attention. At times operators leave the control room to make rounds, inspect machinery, or check a problem. They must diligently be cautious of electric shock, falling, and getting burned. Nuclear reactor operators should minimize exposure to ionizing radiation when they leave the control room.

Since power transmission is vulnerable to attack, it is an industry that is subject to issues of national security. Nuclear and electric plants must maintain heightened security. Operators, distributors, and dispatchers work days that are divided into three eight-hour shifts, or one 12-hour shift. Workers rotate through all shifts, which can cause stress due to inconsistent sleep patterns.

Employers seek power plant operators, dispatchers, and distributors who demonstrate a combination of formal training, on the job training, and work experience. Those with technical, mechanical, and computer aptitudes are especially desirable. Random drug and alcohol tests are to be expected, and nuclear reactor operators are given full physical exams every two years.

While operator and dispatcher jobs require only a high school diploma, applicants who have attended technical or vocational school programs will receive preferential consideration. Advanced training is also required in order to advance. Some nuclear power reactor operators have earned engineering or physical science degrees. Despite classroom training, all workers will receive comprehensive on the job training that will last at least a few years before they are considered fully qualified. Annual refresher courses are required.
Certain operator, distributor, and dispatcher positions require licensing by state boards, whose requirements vary. Nuclear power reactor operators are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Power distributors and dispatchers in power grid positions earn three levels of certification by the North American Energy Reliability Corporation (NERC).

Most plants assign workers to one of five levels of competency as they become increasingly capable. With experience, advancement to supervisor, trainer, or consultant positions is possible. Most power companies prefer in-house promotion because each plant runs differently.

The median annual salary of power plant operators is roughly $60,000.
Those at the low end of the pay scale earn less than $40,000, while those in the top 10% earn more than $80,000.
The median annual salary of nuclear power reactor operators is about $74,000.
Those in the lowest 10% are paid less than $56,000, while those at the top can earn over $97,000.
The median annual pay of power distributors and dispatchers is about $66,000, with the lowest earners receiving around $45,000 and the highest paid earning nearly $90,000.
Four out of ten power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers are represented by a union.