Would you be interested in an occupation with excellent job security, a very competitive wage, and one where you can always be up to date on the latest energy technologies?
If so, then a Power Plant Operator would be perfect for you.
This occupation might be one of the most specialized jobs ever created. The average person doesn’t even know what a power plant operator’s true responsibilities are outside of movies or maybe The Simpsons tv show. Yet it is one of the most important jobs in the world, and they are the reason we can live in reasonable comfort in our everyday life.
In this article, we will dive deep into what it takes to become a power plant operator and explore if it’s the perfect job for you.
What Exactly do Power Plant Operators Do?
The responsibilities of this position include monitoring the systems and controlling the instruments that generate energy at a power plant. One of their most important duties is observing how much power is generated and adjusting output to ensure it remains at safe levels. They may also have to perform repairs on the equipment as needed and make certain that everyone in the plant is following the proper safety and environmental regulations.
Energy from the power plant inevitably flows to substations, then is distributed to factories, businesses, and residential buildings.
As you can imagine, the job of a power plant operator is one that many of us take for granted. When we walk through a supermarket, a department store, or even our own homes, we don’t think about the people responsible for keeping our lights on or allowing gas to flow through our homes, so we stay warm at night.
This involves handling and maintaining different types of energy. There are several types of power plants worldwide, and the most common ones utilize coal, nuclear power, hydroelectricity, or natural gas. It is important to point out that nuclear power plants are very different from the others, and their operators have different duties. More on that later.
If energy usage in a particular area is too high, they might have to perform certain tasks to preserve it. For example, they may perform a rotating outage (or rolling blackout), which involves shutting off the power in a particular neighborhood for a limited time before turning on the power again and then doing the same to a different neighborhood.
As stated before, there are several types of power plants where you could potentially work. These are the different responsibilities of their respective operators:
- Coal-fired power plant operators generate electricity by burning coal. They monitor and control equipment such as boilers and turbines.
- Hydroelectric power plant operators generate electricity from the energy of falling water. They maintain the systems used to control the water, such as dams and spillways.
- Natural gas power plant operators use natural gas as the fuel necessary to generate electricity. The systems they monitor that burn the gas also include turbines, boilers, and generators.
- Nuclear power plant operators use the energy from nuclear reactions to generate electricity and are responsible for controlling and maintaining nuclear reactors, radiation monitoring equipment, and coolant systems.
- Geothermal power plant operators use the heat from an underground geothermal well to spin turbines to generate electricity.
Where Do They Work?
While a typical day working as a power plant operator might not be particularly active, the job is incredibly important and requires constant attention. For long stretches of the day, you will either be sitting or standing inside a control room monitoring equipment.
During these shifts, you will use different computers and instruments to keep track of how much energy is produced and to adjust the levels as necessary. You will also be responsible for inspecting the equipment for eventual wear or malfunction.
One of the most pertinent parts of the job will be constant communication with other workers at the plant, such as maintenance workers or engineers. Whenever a problem or something needs troubleshooting, it is the power plant operator’s responsibility to communicate the situation thoroughly so that the plant can continue to operate at optimal levels.
Other tasks for a power plant operator might include:
- Reading charts and meters to account for the voltage being used.
- Conducting safety drills and inspections to make sure the plant is running smoothly
- (For nuclear power plant operators only) Adjusting the control rods within nuclear reactors and then documenting the energy output
- Keeping meticulous records of energy produced in the plant, maintenance performance and malfunctions, and various other types of data
- Participating in training as new technologies arise so they can remain up-to-date.
Is it the Right Job for You?
If job security is very important to you, you should consider a career as a power plant operator. This occupation ranks very high in terms of job security because there must ALWAYS be power plants as well as the operators that control them.
Because of its technical and technological focus, the job of the power plant operator is best suited for people with a strong math and/or science background. You must have a deep understanding of how electricity works and be well-versed in subjects such as algebra and trigonometry.
Power plants must be running 24/7, so their operators must work around the clock performing rotating shifts of 8 or 12 hours. This could disrupt your lifestyle and sleeping patterns, so please keep this in mind when deciding if it is right for you.
Other traits that would benefit you if you decide to become a power plant operator include the following:
Excellent technical and mechanical skills: You must have experience working with machines and tools. You should also be able to repair, maintain and operate various types of equipment.
Exceptional attention to detail: You must be able to notice small changes in dials, readings, and equipment that indicate if there is a problem or if everything is working properly
Strong communication skills: As a power plant operator, you will be in constant communication with other workers (such as engineers, managers, and maintenance workers) where clear instructions and updates will be vital to the plant running smoothly
Ability to adapt: Because things such as new technologies or safety regulations will constantly be changing, an ability to adapt to change is necessary for this position
Problem-solving skills: This position will require you to solve problems as soon as they arise and to think critically about solutions while under pressure
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What Kind of Education Should I Get?
Here we will discuss the type of education and training you will need to become a power plant operator. It typically consists of classroom education, on-the-job training, and then finally obtaining a license if required by your jurisdiction.
You will need at least a high school diploma or its equivalent to become a power plant operator. Many people pursue higher education to expand their knowledge of electricity, energy, and power plant technology before applying for a job. It is technically possible to become an operator without a formal education. Still, you will increase your odds in the hiring pool by taking classes at a vocational school or technical college.
Power plant operators usually pursue an Associate of Applied Science Degree or a Bachelor of Science Degree in a field related to electrical engineering or power generation technology. The AAS program usually takes about two years, while the BS program will take four.
While schools provide a practical foundation, most of the training a power plant operator receives will occur outside the classroom. It will focus on how to operate, maintain, and repair the power plant’s equipment successfully. You will also learn how to monitor systems and troubleshoot any problems that might occur.
This type of training usually takes several years. Even after you become fully qualified, you may have to continue your education by attending workshops or obtaining additional certifications to keep your knowledge and skills up-to-date.
**If you decide to become a nuclear power plant operator, you will be required to receive even more formal training so that you can take the license exam from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or NRC).
Licenses and Certifications
Licensing requirements vary greatly and are based on the state or jurisdiction where you work and the specific position that you have. In some jurisdictions, licensing is not required. However, it might be a good idea to pursue certain certifications to increase your earning potential.
One group where you can acquire them is called NIULPE, or the National Institute for Uniform Licensing of Power Engineers. The NIULPE is a non-profit organization that offers certification to power and energy-related professions, including power plant operators.
As stated before, if you decide to become a nuclear power plant operator, you MUST become certified through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When you start your job, you will be responsible for helping more experienced operators with certain tasks helping you to gain the necessary experience. Eventually, you will have to pass the NRC licensing exam as well as a medical exam before you can receive your license.
Schools, Location, and Tuition
Below is a list of colleges that offer Associate of Applied Science (AAS) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree programs that would benefit your education.
This list is not exhaustive, so be sure to do your due diligence and perform your research before choosing the right school for you.
Oklahoma State University- Okmulgee, OK $5,774 in-state
Bismarck State College- Bismarck, ND $4,926 in-state
Flint Hills Technical College- Emporia, KS $6,520
Southeast Community College- Lincoln, NE $2,736 in-state
Estrella Mountain Community College- Avondale, AZ $2,070 in-state
Lone Star College- Houston, TX $1,692 in-state
Youngstown State University- Youngstown, OH $10,021
Fox Valley Technical College- Appleton, WI $4,746 in-state
Rochester Institute of Technology- Monroe County, NY $52,756
Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology- Boston, MA $16.950
- Technical Math
- Fundamentals of Electricity
- Blueprint Reading
- Power Plant Fundamentals
- Turbines and Generators
- Heat Exchangers and Condensers
- Quality and Process Control
- Laboratory Safety and Hazardous Materials
- Power Plant Accident Prevention
- Fundamentals of Fire Prevention
Source: Power Plant Operator Curriculum Planning Guide (made for the Electric Power Research Institute)
Career Overview for a Power Plant Operator
There is good and bad news regarding the career overview of a power plant operator.
The bad news is that for the next few years, the demand for this occupation will be on the decline.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
“Power plants are becoming more efficient and, in many cases, have higher electricity-generating capacity. Modernized control rooms in power plants also will provide workers with more information and will automate some tasks. As a result, power plant operators will be more efficient, which limits the opportunity for new jobs.”
The same thing can go for nuclear power plant operators. As the world creates more renewable energy sources, existing nuclear reactors become less attractive, especially as they reach the end of their lifecycle.
The good news is that the power plant operator has a very high level of job security. This is because they have acquired specific skills and knowledge that took several years to master. Power plant operators are difficult to replace, so you don’t have to worry about losing your job once you have it.
How Much Will I Get Paid?
The other good news is that power plant operators command a very high salary. Per the BLS, the median annual wage for power plant operators was $80,850.
If you decide to become a nuclear power plant operator, the median annual wage is $104,260.
Benefits for power plant operators also include several opportunities for overtime, retirement savings, and paid vacations. You will also receive health, vision, and dental insurance.
Again, this is because the skills acquired from this occupation are difficult to reproduce.
The five best states with the highest demand for power plant operators are California, New York, Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.
Below is a list of the same five states as well as the average hourly and annual wages (keep in mind that if you decide to work at a nuclear power plant, your wage will be even higher):
California: $47.53 $98,860
New York: $44.92 $93,430
Michigan: $42.13 $87,630
Indiana: $40.39 $84,010
Pennsylvania: $38.37 $79,820
The Power Plant Operator: Job Summary
Job security isn’t what it used to be. Several decades ago, staying at one job for 10+ years was the norm. That is not the case anymore. It is nice to know that there are some jobs where keeping your job is all but guaranteed. The power plant operator is one of those jobs.
Just so you know, the power plant has been dubbed a critical infrastructure by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, meaning it is an essential component of our society. Without it, our lives would change drastically. So you can feel much better knowing that your dedication to this profession is vital to keeping our country going.
- A much higher than the average salary
- Excellent job security due to specialized skill set
- A chance to learn of the latest energy technologies and advancements
- The ability to make a great contribution to society
- A constantly changing work schedule with possibly long shifts
- Decrease in demand for the job in the next ten years
If you have already graduated from high school or have your GED, you can apply to become a power plant operator right away! If you would like to get your education first, begin looking at colleges that have an AAS in Electrical Engineering or a related field.
We also have other related occupations you might be interested in on our website. Look at our articles on how to become an airplane mechanic or a civil engineering technician. Check back in the coming days for other articles on excellent careers.
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