How to Become a Power Plant Operator

Don Two boiler plant mechanics check the boiler physical pressure and flame pattern during operations at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base power plant in Ohio.
Don Stewart, left, and Bill Hattery, 88th Air Base Wing Civil Engineer Group boiler plant mechanics, check the boiler physical pressure and flame pattern during operations at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base power plant in Ohio, Aug. 8, 2017. (Al Bright/U.S. Air Force photo)

Working as a power plant operator requires diligence, technical savvy and attention to detail. Power plants can be dangerous environments, and it's important to ensure that every part of the plant is running as efficiently as possible.

The gauges and controls of a plant can be complex, so it's necessary to have a high aptitude when working with machinery. If any problems arise, it's important that operators can identify the problem and formulate a solution as quickly as possible.

Related: Learn about opportunities in the energy industry.


Power plant operators 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.

Power plant operators 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.

Marketable Skills

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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission 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.

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