Education and Training: High school
Salary: Median—$28,392 per year
Employment Outlook: Poor
Definition and Nature of the Work
Although the majority of telephone calls are dialed directly, some calls require the assistance of a telephone operator. An operator may be needed to place a collect call, supply a telephone number in a distant city, or find out the cost of a call.
Two types of telephone operators provide these services. The operators who work for the telephone companies are probably the most familiar to the average phone user. However, many large businesses and organizations receive so many calls that they require operators to run their private branch exchange (PBX) switchboards. These workers are called PBX operators.
Telephone company operators may function as central office operators or as directory assistance operators. Operators who help customers with person-to-person and collect calls are called central office operators. They obtain the information needed to complete the call and record the details for billing. Many of the tasks previously performed manually are now totally computerized, leaving the central office operator free to answer a larger volume of calls more quickly. Operators who look up local or long-distance telephone numbers are called directory assistance operators. Directory assistance operators answer customer inquiries for telephone numbers by using computerized alphabetical or geographical directories. Since the 1990s many of the responsibilities of the directory assistance operators have been automated. A computerized recording provides the customer with the number requested.
Additional types of operators include overseas, mobile, and marine operators who place calls abroad and to and from ships and cars.
Education and Training Requirements
A high school diploma or its equivalent is the usual minimum requirement for telephone operators. High school courses in speech, office practices, and business math provide a helpful background for persons interested in this occupation. Patience, courtesy, and good spelling skills are also needed.
New operators are taught how to use the phone equipment, keep records of calls, and simulate the customer assistance procedure by placing practice calls. After operators have learned how to handle the most complex calls, they begin to work on their own. They also receive instruction on customer service procedures.
Getting the Job
Part-time work for operators is often available and may lead to a full-time job later. Many telephone operators who start out as young part-timers working for a company after school and on weekends end up landing full-time positions with the same company after graduating from high school. Generally their part-time work experience is counted toward benefits such as vacations, holiday pay, and seniority.
Individuals interested in this type of work should consult with state or private employment agencies, apply to private companies, and answer classified ads in local newspapers. Business firms, answering services, schools, hospitals, and public offices all need operators to run their switchboards.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
After gaining one to two years of experience, a telephone company operator may be promoted to junior service assistant or service observer, assisting the supervisor by monitoring customer service telephone conversations. Some operators advance to other clerical jobs or to telephone craft jobs such as equipment installers and repairers.
Employment of telephone operators is expected to decline through the year 2014. Technological advances in areas such as directory assistance, long distance, and PBX systems will reduce the need for operators. Also, many jobs in this field are being outsourced to foreign countries. As with most occupations in the early twenty-first century, the majority of job openings for telephone operators will result from the need to replace experienced employees who retire or transfer to other positions. Employment prospects for switchboard operator/receptionists seemed the most promising as of 2006. PBX systems with direct inside dialing leave operators free to concentrate on other clerical tasks. This flexibility appeals to employers and will stimulate a demand for these workers. The increasing demand for voice recognition systems will also affect future employment levels.
Operators who work for telephone companies, hospitals, hotels, and other locations where telephone service is needed on a twenty-four-hour basis work shifts, holidays, and weekends. Some operators work split shifts—that is, they are on duty during the peak calling periods in the late morning and early evening and have time off in between. The scheduled hours of PBX operators are usually the same as for other clerical positions in the business.
Operators usually work in pleasant, air-conditioned surroundings. The job of a telephone operator requires little physical exertion; however, during peak calling periods the work may become hectic and stressful. Job performance is monitored closely by management, so operators must be able to maintain their composure under pressure.
Where to Go for More Information
Communications Workers of America
501 3rd St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2797
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
900 7th St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
Earnings and Benefits
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, telephone operators earn a median hourly salary of $13.65, which for full-time workers translates to $28,392 per year. Other types of communication equipment operators typically earn a median salary of $15.23 per hour. Unionized telephone company operators usually receive extra pay for overtime. Benefits include paid vacations, holidays, and sick leave.