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Power Plant Worker Job Description, Career as a Power Plant Worker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training High school plus on-the-job training

Salary Median—$52,530 per year

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Power plants produce electricity by drawing energy from such natural resources as oil, coal, falling water, and radioactive ore. They are located throughout the country, usually near population centers where energy needs are highest.

The jobs of power plant workers vary from plant to plant, depending on the type of fuel used and the age of the equipment. However, some jobs are central to nearly all power plants. Boiler operators, for instance, heat water until it becomes steam, which moves the turbines that generate electricity. They read gauges, meters, and thermometers to determine the right amount of steam. In large power plants they sometimes operate more than one boiler. Turbine operators monitor the speed and temperature at which the turbines are spinning. They also shut down the turbines when less electricity is needed and start them again when demand increases. Turbine operators often have helpers and junior operators working with them. Switchboard operators regulate the voltage and amount of electricity that flows out of the power plant. They take orders over the telephone from load dispatchers, who monitor the needs of customers in the system. The switchboard operators tell turbine operators when to start or shut down the turbines. In some modern plants, all the meters, dials, and gauges are centralized so that one operator, working with assistants, can do the work of boiler, turbine, and switchboard operators.

Nuclear power plants have their own technology and require several specialized workers. However, some jobs in nuclear power plants are much like jobs in conventional plants. For instance, nuclear reactor operators do a job similar to that of boiler operators.

Whether plants are new or old, operators are supervised by watch engineers, who ensure that each worker does what is necessary to keep the electricity flowing. Watch engineers report to superintendents, who take final responsibility for all work done in their plants.

Power plant workers are employed by plants that produce electricity by burning oil or coal, by using falling water, or by drawing on radioactive ores. (© Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis.)

Education and Training Requirements

Many employers prefer applicants with high school diplomas or the equivalent. High school classes that may be useful include algebra, science, and shop. Experience in other power plants or with the navy's nuclear propulsion plants can be a plus in getting hired. Most operators start as cleanup workers or helpers and move up to positions as junior or assistant operators. Four to eight years of on the-job training may be required before workers are considered fully qualified as boiler, turbine, or switchboard operators.

Nuclear reactor operators must pass Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) exams. Once they get their licenses, they are required to pass annual practical plant-operation exams and biennial written exams administered by their employers.

Getting the Job

Job seekers can apply directly to power plants. Openings are rarely advertised because companies get more applications than they have positions available.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Boiler operators or turbine operators may be promoted to assistant switchboard operators and then to switchboard operators. Switchboard operators must have five to ten years of experience before becoming watch engineers.

Employment in this field is expected to decline through 2014. In response to deregulation and increasing competition, the industry has restructured its companies, eliminating many jobs.

Working Conditions

Most power plants are clean, safe places to work, although controversy lingers over the danger and effects of radiation leaks at nuclear power plants. The equipment can be noisy. Boiler and turbine operators spend most of their time on their feet, while switchboard operators usually sit in front of monitoring equipment.

Eight-hour days and forty-hour weeks are standard, but because electricity is produced around the clock, rotating shifts are required. Plant operators usually receive extra pay for night, weekend, and holiday work. Overtime may be necessary in emergencies. Many operators belong to labor unions.

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries for operators depend on seniority, which jobs they do, and where they work. In 2004 the median salary of all power plant workers was $52,530 per year. Median salaries at nuclear power plants were higher, with reactor operators earning $64,090 per year.

Where to Go for More Information

Edison Electric Institute
701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20004-2696
(202) 508-5000

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
900 Seventh St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 833-7000

National Association of Power Engineers
1 Springfield St.
Chicopee, MA 01013
(413) 592-6273

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555
(800) 368-5642

Benefits generally include paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and retirement plans.

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