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Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers - What They Do


How to Advance (Advancement)
After finishing work in the classroom, most entry-level workers start as helpers or laborers and advance to more responsible positions as they become comfortable in the plant. Workers are generally classified into 3–5 levels based on experience. For each level, there are training requirements, mandatory waiting times, and exams. With sufficient training and experience, workers can become shift supervisors, trainers, or consultants.

Because power plants have different systems and safety mechanisms, it can sometimes be difficult to advance by moving to a different company, although this is not always the case. Most power companies promote from within and most workers advance within a particular plant or by moving to another plant owned by the same utility.

Employment
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about 50,400 jobs in 2008, of which 5,000 were nuclear power reactor operators, 10,000 were power distributors and dispatchers, and 35,400 were power plant operators. Jobs were located throughout the country.

Job Outlook
Overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to experience little or no change, but job opportunities are expected to be excellent because of the large number of retiring workers who must be replaced, an increased demand for energy, and recent legislation that paves the way for a number of new plants.

Job Growth
Between 2008 and 2018, overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is expected to experience little or no change. Although Americans’ energy use continues to grow annually, the intense competition among generators resulting from deregulation will temper that growth.

Power plant operators in non-nuclear power plants are expected to decline by 2 percent between 2008 and 2018, representing little or no change as energy companies continue to promote efficiency and build more efficient plants. While most of the major employment effects of deregulation have already occurred, generators continue to focus on cost cutting. As older, less efficient plants are retired, they are being replaced with new plants that have higher capacities and require fewer workers. Because the capacity of the new plants is higher, fewer are needed to produce the same amount of electricity.

Employment of nuclear power reactor operators is expected to grow by 19 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations, because of plant construction and new rules on operator fatigue. Although no new plants have been licensed since the 1990s, many sites have applied for permits which will need to be staffed before the end of the projections decade. Further, newly enacted NRC regulations on fatigue limit the length of shifts, meaning that nuclear facilities may need more operators.

On the other hand, power distributor and dispatcher employment is expected to experience little or no change, declining by 2 percent between 2008 and 2018, reflecting further industry consolidation.

Job opportunities are expected to be excellent for well-qualified applicants because of a large number of retirements in the electric power industry. During the 1990s, the emphasis on cost cutting among utilities led to hiring freezes and the laying off of younger workers. The result is that many power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers are nearing retirement age. Utilities have responded by setting up new education programs at community colleges and high schools throughout the country. While many individuals are showing interest in these high-paying jobs, prospects will be best for workers with strong technical and mechanical skills and an understanding of science and mathematics.

Earnings
Median annual wages of power plant operators were $58,470 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,850 and $68,250. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,390.

Median annual wages of nuclear power reactor operators were $73,320 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $63,440 and $82,540. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $55,730, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $96,480.

Median annual wages of power distributors and dispatchers were $65,890 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $55,520 and $77,780. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,010, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $88,500.

About 40 percent of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers were members of unions in 2008.

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