Power plant operators, dispatchers, and distributors need a combination of education and extensive on-the-job training. Nuclear power reactor operators also need a license. Many jobs require a background check, and workers are subject to drug and alcohol screenings.
Many companies require potential workers to take the Power Plant Maintenance (MASS) and Plant Operator (POSS) exams from the Edison Electrical Institute to see if they have the right aptitudes for this work. These tests measure reading comprehension, understanding of mechanical concepts, spatial ability, and mathematical ability.
Power plant operators and dispatchers undergo rigorous, long-term on-the-job training and technical instruction. Several years of onsite training and experience are necessary to become fully qualified. Even fully qualified operators and dispatchers must take regular training courses to keep their skills current.
Nuclear power reactor operators usually start working as equipment operators or auxiliary operators, helping more experienced workers operate and maintain the equipment while learning the basics of how to operate the power plant.
Along with this extensive on-the-job training, nuclear power plant operators typically receive formal technical training to prepare for the license exam from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Once licensed, operators are authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Operators continue frequent onsite training.
Nuclear power reactor operators must be licensed through the NRC. To become licensed, operators must meet training and experience requirements, pass a medical exam, and pass the NRC licensing exam. To keep their license, operators must pass a plant-operating exam each year, pass a medical exam every 2 years, and apply for license renewal every 6 years. Licenses cannot be transferred between plants, so an operator must get a new license to operate in another facility.
Power plant operators who do not work at a nuclear power reactor may be licensed as engineers or fire fighters by state licensing boards. Requirements vary by state and depend on the specific job functions that the operator performs.
Power distributors and dispatchers who are in positions in which they could affect the power grid must be certified through the North American Energy Reliability Corporation’s (NERC) System Operator Certification Program. NERC offers four types of certification, and each qualifies a worker to handle a different job function. A dispatcher’s certification is valid for 3 years, and a worker must fulfill continuing education requirements to renew the credential.
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers need at least a high school diploma. However, employers may prefer workers with college or vocational school degrees.
Employers generally look for people with strong math and science backgrounds for these highly technical jobs. Understanding electricity and math, especially algebra and trigonometry, is important.
Previous related work experience can be helpful. Many employers prefer experience in electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, or in other occupations in the utilities industry, such as line worker or helper, or laborer in a power plant.
Some nuclear power reactor operators gain experience working with nuclear reactors in the Navy.
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 levels on the basis of their 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.
Nuclear power plant operators begin working in nuclear power plants, typically as non-licensed operators. After in-plant training and passing the NRC licensing exam, they become licensed reactor operators. Licensed operators can advance to senior reactor operators, who supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. Senior reactor operators may also become plant managers or licensed operator instructors.
Detail oriented. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must monitor complex controls and intricate machinery to ensure that everything is operating properly.
Diligence. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must be careful, attentive, and persistent.
Mechanical skills. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must know how to work with machines and use tools. They must be familiar with how to operate, repair, and maintain equipment.
Problem-solving skills. Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers must find and quickly solve problems that arise with equipment or controls.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition