How to become a power plant operator (with types and skills)
Updated 1 May 2023
Electricity plays a vital role in modern life and is produced from a variety of natural resources. To help ensure businesses and individuals receive electricity to carry out their daily activities, you may consider working as an operator at a power plant. Learning about the role's responsibilities and the steps to pursue this career can help you decide if it's the right one for you.
In this article, we explain the role of a power plant operator, review how to become a power plant operator, explore the different types of operators, highlight key skills for success in this profession, and describe what it's like to work in the role.
What is a power plant operator?
A power plant operator, sometimes known as a power plant controller, is a professional working in the electric power industry who controls systems and machines that generate and distribute electricity. They're also responsible for scheduling and undertaking maintenance of those systems and equipment. On a daily basis, these operators use control boards that allow them to regulate and distribute power among powerful generators that power plants use. It's essential that they carry out responsibilities in compliance with industry and workplace regulations, including health and safety procedures. Common responsibilities in the role include:
regulating the flow of fuel and water levels to coordinate transmission flows
adjusting controls to maintain the right running speed of turbines
monitoring boiler temperature and pressure controls
recording machinery readings
carrying out necessary equipment tests
controlling start-up and shut-down of power plant equipment
How to become a power plant operator
Learning how to become a power plant operator is beneficial if you're considering pursuing a career in the electric power industry. Here are some steps to take to enter the field and secure a job as a power plant operator:
1. Meet employer's education requirements
There are no standard educational requirements for power plant operators, which means each workplace may have unique educational requirements to meet. Most plant operator jobs require that you have at least a few GCSEs, preferably in maths, technology or related subjects. Earning your A-levels in maths, further maths, electronics or a related field can also help, as it shows employers that you have a good educational background to develop new skills and professional abilities. Some employers may also require that you have a minimum of a level 3 or a higher national certificate in a mechanical craft discipline.
2. Obtain the necessary professional qualifications
To show you have the knowledge and skills necessary for working at a power plant, it's important that you invest in professional training. If you're yet to enter the field, you can complete relevant health and safety training. Some other desirable qualifications for power plant operators include:
gas systems qualifications
boiler operation qualifications
certificate in electricity generating systems
3. Gain work experience
To qualify for a fully independent role at a power plant, it's necessary that you have previous experience in process plant operations, engineering or a related field. This can be entry-level experience that shows you're capable of working on your own, which is common for power plant operators who often work shifts. Employers may also consider you a valuable addition to the team if you have previous machinery maintenance experience.
4. Consider an apprenticeship
If you don't have much professional experience and want to enter the electric power industry as soon as possible, you may consider completing a relevant apprenticeship. During a power plant operator apprenticeship, you have a chance to work around 30 hours per week in a standard role and continue your education part-time in traditional classroom settings. Being an apprentice also allows you to earn a regular salary, which is beneficial if you're not in a position to pursue full-time education.
A standard power plant operator apprenticeship programme may take up to three and a half years to complete. During this time, you develop skills and gain a strong theoretical understanding of how power plants operate. These programmes also equip you with a level 3 Technical Certificate (BTEC) or level 3 National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) extended diploma.
5. Pass a background check
A power plant operator is a responsible role that requires you to operate heavy machinery and specialised software systems. To make sure you can handle these responsibilities, a potential employer may require that you pass a background check before offering you the job. This often includes a drug and alcohol screening. If your previous employers haven't administered background checks to you in the past, it's important to know that they're a standard procedure. Essentially, they help employers learn more about your background and provide proof that the information you wrote on your CV is true.
6. Explore career advancement opportunities
Once you gain some experience as an energy plant controller, you may consider advancing your career to explore more attractive employment opportunities. Many plant operators choose to advance to senior roles that give them a chance to lead a team of controllers and even engineers. To qualify for such a position, it's critical to develop strong people management skills. You may also consider going back to school part-time to complete a specialised degree or professional training. Continuously improving your qualifications shows your determination and ambition in the field.
Types of power plant operators
Power plants are highly specialised facilities that employ professionals with various qualifications and skills. Depending on your personal preference and abilities, here are some types of power plant operator roles you may consider pursuing:
Hydroelectric power plant operator: Hydroelectric operators operate equipment in hydroelectric plants, which use water to generate power. They work with powerful turbines driven by a flow of water to turn mechanical energy into electricity.
Nuclear power plant operator: Nuclear power plants (NPP) are thermal power stations that use nuclear reactors to generate heat, turn it into steam and use that steam to produce electricity. Due to how complex nuclear reactors are, employers may require you to have at least a bachelor's degree in mechanics or nuclear engineering to pursue this specialisation.
Solar power plant operator: Solar power plants utilise renewable energy from sunlight to produce electricity. When pursuing this specialisation, you operate equipment that does the conversion using photovoltaic panels or concentrated solar power systems.
Key skills for power plant operators
Regardless of the specialisation that you choose, there are some transferrable skills to develop for success in the electric power industry. These include:
Active listening: Energy plant operators often work within larger teams. Listening to their colleagues and supervisors helps them determine when to install the necessary system updates or adjust specific machines.
Attention to detail: People working in this role are responsible for monitoring intricate machinery and complex controls. To ensure all components are working properly, strong attention to detail is vital.
Concentration: Being able to concentrate helps power plant operators avoid distractions and perform their tasks carefully. With concentration, they can avoid making errors that can leave neighbourhoods or entire cities without electricity.
Mechanical skills: It's critical that plant operators know how to operate and repair various types of equipment, machines and tools. Developing these skills typically takes place during on- and off-the-job training, such as during an apprenticeship.
Communication: The role of an operator requires you to work well both independently and in a team. Developing strong verbal and written communication skills helps you improve your own and the entire plant's performance.
What is it like to work as a power plant operator?
Power plant operators work indoors most of their time. Because they monitor and operate heavy machinery, their work environment may sometimes be noisy, hot or cold, and operators may work in bright lighting. Because of this, their employers typically require that they wear protective clothing, including gloves, hearing protection or hard hats. Full-time power plant operators work around 40 hours per week and follow regular work schedules. Shift work is an option for them, which may require working night and weekend shifts.
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