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Power Plant Operator: A Great Career Worthy of the Challenge

Job opportunities for power plant operators are on the decline, and competition is stiff for the jobs that remain. But someone still has to make sure the lights stay on.

Electricity is always available -- or so we think -- until it suddenly isn't there. When the electricity goes out, the lights go out, we can't recharge our mobile devices and the refrigerator is strangely silent.

Fortunately for us, this scenario doesn't happen often. That's because there are operators working around the clock at power plants to make certain that all of our electrical requirements are met.

What They Do

There are three main types of plants: hydroelectric (powered by flowing water), coal-powered and nuclear. There are other types of plants, too, such as wind farms, biomass and solar power plants.

Power plant operators perform a variety of tasks. They may handle tours of the facility. They check gauges to ensure pressures are consistent. And they report technical information to other companies. In essence, the operator is responsible for doing whatever needs to be done to safely and efficiently deliver electricity on a 24-hour basis.

Rob Littell is the operations supervisor at the Shasta Dam in California, which produces hydropower. "If an alarm comes in, or a unit trips or someone notices something unusual, operators respond to 'fix the problem' if they can," he says.

"There are basically two classifications of our operators here," adds Littell. "We have control operators who are a roving type of operator. The roving operator is responsible for inspections of all project facilities and equipment that delivers water or power and supply craft (electricians, mechanics, electronics technicians) and engineering support. They make the equipment safe for the crafts to work on. They are also responsible for the manual operation of the project equipment that delivers water or power."

Senior control operators at the dam are responsible for the remote operation of all the facilities via a computer system, adds Littell. These operators are responsible for the entire project during normal working hours.

They respond to alarms and emergencies, and deal with the public. They are also responsible for ensuring the delivery of power and water. They coordinate outages and cooperate with other agencies.

Jesse Hilderbrand is the site/office manager for PaTu Wind Farm in Wasco, Oregon. He says his duties take many forms. Primarily, he keeps track of energy generation forecasting. That means he lets the utility companies know how much energy the wind farm is going to generate on an hourly basis.

In addition, Hilderbrand repairs and maintains the site office, takes inventory of spare parts and does some public relations. "I offer tours and there are weekly substation check-ups -- checking battery fluid levels, nitrogen gas psi and a few other things," he says.

"I assist the contracted company that performs maintenance on the turbines by watching the [computer system] and relaying any important information."

Learning the Ropes

Training to become a power plant operator is ongoing. Darrel Aulbrook is the field crew leader for a hydro power plant. He says the industry is always changing, and requirements and duties of power plant operators change regularly.

"An employee should have a minimum 12th grade education, five years related experience or educational degrees in electrical theory/engineering, ability to read and understand blueprints and operation manuals for generators, and experience in a machinist field/tool and die," he says.

"In addition, computer use, [vehicle licenses], first aid/CPR and good physical health are other attributes a person could have that can be assets."

Several years of on-site training and experience are required before operators are fully qualified. Even fully qualified operators and dispatchers must take regular training courses to keep up their skills.

Employers are interested in people with strong math and science backgrounds. Students interested in the field should consider taking classes such as physics, algebra, pre-calculus, geometry, computer science and English.

A power plant operator must be able to deal with unforeseen situations in a safe and timely manner. Strong communication skills and the ability to work well with the public are important traits.

Life of An Operator

The work of power plant operators is demanding. Rotating shift work can be tiring, and the ability to respond to emergencies means that operators must live close to the generation station.

Exposure to hazards is another downside of the job. Hazards include harsh outdoor conditions, chemicals, contamination, falls, burns and electrical shock. At the same time, operators must be prepared to work in a high-security environment because power plants are vulnerable to attack.


The path to becoming a power plant operator is not easy. It requires determination and the right combination of skills. Be prepared to spend your working life training and re-training as the industry changes.

Aulbrook has been in the industry for 10 years. "All of the variances in work duties make this position interesting... as opposed to day-to-day duties being repetitive," he says. "This, in my thoughts, makes this a great [job]."


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