How to Become a Power Plant Operator: Career Guide

Learn how to become a power plant operator. Research the job duties and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in the energy production field. View article »

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  • 0:00 Become a Power Plant Operator
  • 1:18 Career Requirements
  • 1:55 Steps to Work in this Field

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Power Plant Operator?

Power plant operators usually work at plants that produce electricity through such means as generators, water turbines or nuclear reactors. They monitor pieces of equipment, document energy production rates and check gauge readings periodically. Throughout the course of a shift, these operators may make adjustments or repairs on equipment to make sure that everything runs safely and efficiently. Operators often work on rotating shifts as a way of taking turns with less desirable shifts. Constant attention is vital because of the high security requirements of power plants.

At a bare minimum, power plant operators require the equivalent of high school diplomas to find entry-level positions. Some employers prefer applicants who have vocational certificates or undergraduate degrees related to power plant technology fields. Many employers favor related work experience, including military and civilian experience at power plants or power stations. Background checks and drug screenings may be necessary for employment. The median annual salary, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), was $71,940 in May 2015.

Career Requirements

You'll need at least a high school diploma to work as a power plant operator, but an undergraduate degree or certificate in power plant technology is recommended. You'll have to be licensed if you're going to work as a nuclear reactor power plant operator. For all positions, you'll need 2-5 years experience operating equipment, supervising personnel, checking readouts and documenting plant activities. You'll need to be attentive, have advanced understanding of mechanics, strong problem solving skills and communication skills, be able to multitask and work with others, and be knowledgeable about computerized equipment diagnosis systems, monitoring and repairing power plant equipment.

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Steps to Become a Power Plant Operator

Let's go over the steps you'll want to take to become a power plant operator.

Step 1: Get Vocational or Undergraduate Training

Technically, power plant operators may not need anything beyond high school diplomas to find employment. Nevertheless, employers preferred applicants with extensive knowledge or experience in the power generating industry. One way to gain such knowledge and training includes completing either vocational or undergraduate programs related to power plant technology.

Schools offer certificate and associate degree programs in power plant technology, and many of these programs prepare students for careers at several different types of power plants, including water treatment facilities, thermal power, nuclear power and fossil fuel power plants. Typical coursework in these programs includes electrical equipment, power plant systems, heat transfers, material properties, energy technology, power generation and safety protocols. Students may also take several courses in mathematics, physics and computer sciences.

Complete a power plant internship. Several associate degree programs offer students internship opportunities at various types of power plants. Most interns shadow professional power plant operators to learn about the daily tasks of the job. Interns may also have to write reports to document what they learned during their internships.

Step 2: Take Aptitude Tests

According to the BLS, some employers may have potential workers take the Plant Operator (POSS) and Power Plant Maintenance (MASS) exams, and both exams are offered by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Each exam includes questions concerning reading comprehension skills, mechanical assembly, mathematics and mechanical concepts. The POSS exam also includes questions that verify an individual's ability to interpret tables and graphs.

Sign up for preparation programs. The EEI often works with colleges and technical schools to provide programs that may help individuals prepare for aptitude tests. For example, EEI's Career Assessment Diagnostic Instrument (CADI) program helps students figure out which technical areas they excel at and in which technical fields they require more study.

Step 3: Begin on-the-Job Power Plant Training

Applicants who pass aptitude tests are often hired to start on-the-job training at power plants. The initial training process can involve years of study and hands-on learning before professionals are deemed truly competent. During the training period, operators often learn about each piece of technology at the facility. Professionals who hold degrees or certificates in power plant technology may complete shorter training programs, but each facility uses different equipment and has different goals, so new employees must be willing to listen and comply with all training protocols.

Step 4: Build Experience

Employers often favor applicants with 2-5 years of experience in the field, which implies that these particular employers were looking for candidates who had already completed the initial training mentioned. Most of these same employers also stated that they wanted professionals with several years' experience on particular pieces of equipment. For example, thermal power plant employers would probably prefer applicants with extensive knowledge of thermal energy generating equipment.

Step 5: Obtain Necessary Licenses

The BLS indicated that only nuclear reactor power plant operators need licenses, and these professionals must pass exams to become licensed through the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Power plant operators at other types of power generating facilities do not usually require any type of licensing. The BLS points out that some operators may elect to become licensed as firefighters for safety reasons. Other operators may choose to become licensed engineers, especially if required by employers.

Step 6: Keep Licenses Current

NRC's license renewal process for nuclear reactor power plant operators included renewing licenses every six years (bls.gov). However, the NRC required licensed professionals to pass updated exams on a yearly basis. Licensed professionals were also expected to submit to medical exams every two years. Licensing and license renewals through the NRC are only valid at one site. So, if a worker wanted to be an operator at multiple locations, he or she would have to be licensed at each facility and maintain said licensing. License renewal requirements for firefighters and engineers vary by state and may include completing continuing education credits.

To become a power plant operator, you'll have to decide what education, if any, you wish to pursue, complete on-the-job training and obtain and maintain any required licenses.

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