Telephone Operators Career Information
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Significant Points· Switchboard operators constitute 3 out of 4 of these workers.
· Workers train on the job.
· Employment is expected to decline due to new laborsaving communications technologies and consolidation of jobs.
Nature of the WorkMost communications equipment operators work
as switchboard operators for a wide variety of businesses, such as hospitals,
hotels, and personnel supply services. Switchboard operators operate private
branch exchange (PBX) switchboards to relay incoming, outgoing, and interoffice
calls, usually for a single organization. They also may handle other clerical
duties, such as supplying information, taking messages, and announcing visitors.
Technological improvements have automated many of the tasks handled by switchboard
operators. New systems automatically connect outside calls to the correct destination,
and voice mail systems take messages without the assistance of an operator.
Some communications equipment operators work as telephone operators, assisting customers in making telephone calls. Although most calls are connected automatically, callers sometimes require the assistance of an operator. Central office operators help customers complete local and long-distance calls. Directory assistance operators provide customers with information such as phone numbers or area codes.
When callers dial "0," they usually reach a central office operator, also known as a local, long distance, or call completion operator. Most of these operators work for telephone companies, and many of their responsibilities have been automated. For example, callers can make international, collect, and credit card calls without the assistance of a central office operator. Other tasks previously handled by these operators, such as billing calls to third parties or monitoring the cost of a call, also have been automated.
Callers still need a central office operator for a limited number of tasks. These include placing person-to-person calls or interrupting busy lines if an emergency warrants the disruption. When natural disasters occur, such as storms or earthquakes, central office operators provide callers with emergency phone contacts. They also assist callers having difficulty with automated phone systems. An operator monitoring an automated system for placing collect calls, for example, may intervene if a caller needs assistance with the system.
Directory assistance operators provide callers with information such as telephone numbers or area codes. Most directory assistance operators work for telephone companies; increasingly, they also work for companies that provide business services. Automated systems now handle many of the responsibilities once performed by directory assistance operators. The systems prompt callers for a listing, and may even connect the call after providing the phone number. However, directory assistance operators monitor many of the calls received by automated systems. The operators listen to recordings of the customer's request, and then key information into electronic directories to access the correct phone numbers. Directory assistance operators also provide personal assistance to customers having difficulty using the automated system.
Other communications equipment operators include workers who operate telegraphic typewriter, telegraph key, facsimile machine, and related equipment to transmit and receive signals and messages. They prepare messages according to prescribed formats, and verify and correct errors in messages. As part of their job, they also may adjust equipment for proper operation.
Working ConditionsMost communications equipment operators work
in pleasant, well-lighted surroundings. Because telephone operators spend much
time seated at keyboards and video monitors, employers often provide workstations
designed to decrease glare and other physical discomforts. Such improvements
reduce the incidence of eyestrain, back discomfort, and injury due to repetitive
Switchboard operators generally work the same hours as other clerical employees at their company. In most organizations, full-time operators work regular business hours over a 5-day workweek. Work schedules are more irregular in hotels, hospitals, and other organizations that require round-the-clock operator services. In these companies, switchboard operators may work in the evenings and on holidays and weekends.
Central office and directory assistance operators must be accessible to customers 24 hours a day and, therefore, work a variety of shifts. Some operators work split shifts; that is, they are on duty during peak calling periods in the late morning and early evening and off duty during the intervening hours. Telephone companies normally assign shifts by seniority, allowing the most experienced operators first choice of schedules. As a result, entry-level operators may have less desirable schedules, including late evening, split-shift, and weekend work. Telephone company operators may work overtime during emergencies.
Approximately 1 in 5 communications equipment operators works part time. Because of the irregular nature of telephone operator schedules, many employers seek part-time workers for those shifts that are difficult to fill.
An operator's work may be quite repetitive and the pace hectic during peak calling periods. To maintain operator efficiency, supervisors at telephone companies often monitor operator performance, including the amount of time spent on each call. The rapid pace of the job and frequent monitoring may cause stress. To reduce job-related stress, some workplaces attempt to create a more stimulating and less rigid work environment.
Communications equipment operators held about 256,000 jobs in 2009. About 4 out of 5 worked as switchboard operators. Employment was distributed as follows:
|Switchboard operators, including answering service||213,000|
|All other communications equipment operators||4,200|
Switchboard operators work in almost all industries, but are concentrated in telephone call centers, hospitals, and hotels. Many work as temporary employees in the employment services industry.
Training, Qualifications, Adv.Communications
equipment operators receive their training on the job. At large telephone companies,
entry-level central office and directory assistance operators may receive both
classroom and on-the-job instruction that can last several weeks. At small telephone
companies, operators usually receive shorter, less formal training. These operators
may be paired with experienced personnel who provide hands-on instruction. Switchboard
operators also may receive short-term, informal training, sometimes provided
by the manufacturer of their switchboard equipment.
New employees train in equipment operation and procedures designed to maximize efficiency. They are familiarized with company policies, including the expected level of customer service. Instructors monitor both the time and quality of trainees' responses to customer requests. Supervisors may continue to closely monitor new employees after their initial training session is complete.
Employers generally require a high school diploma for operator positions. Applicants should have strong reading, spelling, and numerical skills; clear speech; and good hearing. Computer literacy and typing skills also are important, and familiarity with a foreign language is helpful because of the increasing diversity of the population. Most companies emphasize customer service skills. They seek operators who will remain courteous to customers while working at a fast pace.
After 1 or 2 years on the job, communications equipment operators may advance to other positions within a company. Many enter clerical occupations in which their operator experience is valuable, such as customer service representatives, dispatchers, and receptionists. Operators with a more technical background may advance into positions installing and repairing equipment. Promotion to supervisory positions also is possible.
Job OutlookEmployment of communications equipment operators is projected to
Developments in communications technologies, specifically the ease and accessibility of voice recognition systems, will continue to have a significant impact on the demand for communications equipment operators. The decline in employment will be sharpest among directory assistance operators; smaller decreases will occur for switchboard operators. Voice recognition technology allows automated phone systems to recognize human speech. Callers speak directly to the system, which interprets the speech and then connects the call. Because voice recognition systems do not require callers to input data on a telephone keypad, they are easier to use than touch-tone systems. The systems also can understand increasingly sophisticated vocabulary and grammatical structures; however, many companies will continue to employ operators so that those callers having problems can access a "live" employee, if desired.
Electronic communications through the Internet or e-mail, for example, provides alternatives to telephone communications and requires no operators. Internet directory assistance services are reducing the need for directory assistance operators. Local phone companies currently have the most reliable phone directory data; however, Internet services provide information such as addresses and maps, in addition to phone numbers. As telephones and computers converge, the convenience of Internet directory assistance is expected to attract many customers, reducing the need for telephone operators to provide this service.
Consolidations among telephone companies also will reduce the need for operators. As communications technologies improve and long-distance prices fall, telephone companies will contract out and consolidate telephone operator jobs. Operators will be employed at fewer locations and will serve larger customer populations.
Median hourly earnings of switchboard operators, including answering service, were $10.38 in May 2009. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.69 and $12.64. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.35, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $15.13. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of switchboard operators in May 2009 are:
|Offices of physicians||$10.54|
|General medical and surgical hospitals||10.47|
|Business support services||8.91|
Median hourly earnings of telephone operators in May 2009 were $13.65. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.28 and $19.32. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.91, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $21.32.
Some telephone operators working at telephone companies are members of the Communications Workers of America or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. For these operators, union contracts govern wage rates, wage increases, and the time required to advance from one pay step to the next. It normally takes 4 years to rise from the lowest paying nonsupervisory operator position to the highest. Contracts call for extra pay for work beyond the normal 6-1/2 to 7-1/2 hours a day or 5 days a week, for Sunday and holiday work, and for bilingual positions. A pay differential also is guaranteed for night work and split shifts. Many contracts provide for a 1-week vacation after 6 months of service, 2 weeks after 1 year, 3 weeks after 7 years, 4 weeks after 15 years, and 5 weeks after 25 years. Holidays range from 9 to 11 days a year.
Median hourly earnings of communication equipment operators, all other, in May 2009 were $15.23. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.27 and $18.99. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.23, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $22.70.
Related OccupationsOther workers who provide information to the general public
Sources of Additional InformationFor more details about employment opportunities, contact a telephone company, temporary-help agency, or write to:
Communications Workers of America, 501 3rd St. NW., Washington, DC 20001. Internet:
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Telecommunications Department, 1125 15th St. NW., Room 807, Washington, DC 20005.