Computer Operators

Significant Points

  • Employment is expected to decline sharply, due to advances in technology.
  • Opportunities will be best for operators who are familiar with a variety of operating systems and who keep up to date with the latest technology.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Computer operators oversee the operation of computer hardware systems, ensuring that these machines are used as efficiently as possible. They may work with mainframes, minicomputers, or networks of personal computers. Computer operators must anticipate problems and take preventive action, as well as solve problems that occur during operations.

The duties of computer operators vary with the size of the installation, the type of equipment used, and the policies of the employer. Generally, operators control the console of either a mainframe digital computer or a group of minicomputers. Working from operating instructions prepared by programmers, users, or operations managers, computer operators set controls on the computer and on peripheral devices required to run a particular job.

Computer operators load equipment with tapes, disks, and paper, as needed. While the computer is running—which may be 24 hours a day for large computers—computer operators monitor the control console and respond to operating and computer messages. Messages indicate the individual specifications of each job being run. If an error message occurs, operators must locate and solve the problem or terminate the program. Operators also maintain logbooks or operating records, listing each job that is run and events such as machine malfunctions that occur during their shift. In addition, computer operators may help programmers and systems analysts test and debug new programs. (See the statements on computer programmers and computer systems analysts, engineers, and scientists elsewhere in the Handbook.)

As the trend toward networking computers accelerates, a growing number of computer operators are working on personal computers (PCs) and minicomputers. In many offices, factories, and other work settings, PCs and minicomputers are connected in networks, often referred to as local area networks (LANs) or multi-user systems. Whereas users in the area operate some of these computers, many require the services of full-time operators. The tasks performed are very similar to those performed on large computers.

As organizations continue to look for opportunities to increase productivity, automation is expanding into additional areas of computer operations. Sophisticated software coupled with robotics, enable a computer to perform many routine tasks formerly done by computer operators. Scheduling, loading and downloading programs, mounting tapes, rerouting messages, and running periodic reports can be done without the intervention of an operator. Consequently, these improvements will change what computer operators do in the future. As technology advances, the responsibilities of many computer operators are shifting to areas such as network operations, user support, and database maintenance.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Computer operating personnel generally work in well-lighted, well-ventilated, comfortable rooms. Because many organizations use their computers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, computer operators may be required to work evening or night shifts and weekends. Shift assignments usually are made based on seniority. However, increasingly automated operations will lessen the need for shift work, because many companies let the computer take over operations during less desirable working hours. In addition, advances in telecommuting technologies—such as faxes, modems, and e-mail—and data center automation, such as automated tape libraries, enable some operators to monitor batch processes, check systems performance, and record problems for the next shift.

Since computer operators generally spend a lot of time in front of a computer monitor, as well as performing repetitive tasks such as loading and unloading printers, they may be susceptible to eyestrain, back discomfort, and hand and wrist problems.

Employment [About this section]  Index

In 1998, computer operators held about 251,000 jobs. The majority of jobs for computer operators are found in organizations such as wholesale trade establishments, manufacturing companies, data processing service firms, financial institutions, and government agencies that have data processing needs requiring large computer installations. A large number of computer operators are employed by service firms in the computer and data processing services industry, as more companies contract out the operation of their data processing centers.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Workers usually receive on-the-job training in order to become acquainted with their employer’s equipment and routines. The length of training varies with the job and the experience of the worker. However, previous work experience is the key to obtaining an operator job in many large establishments. Employers generally look for specific, hands-on experience with the type of equipment and related operating systems they use. Additionally, formal computer-related training, perhaps through a community college or technical school, is recommended. Related training can also be obtained through the Armed Forces and from some computer manufacturers. As computer technology changes and data processing centers become more automated, increasingly more employers will require candidates to have formal training and experience for operator jobs.

Because computer technology changes so rapidly, operators must be adaptable and willing to learn. Analytical and technical expertise are also needed, particularly by operators who work in automated data centers, to deal with the unique or high-level problems a computer is not programmed to handle. Operators must be able to communicate well, to work effectively with programmers or users, as well as with other operators. Additionally, computer operators must be able to work independently, because they may have little or no direct supervision.

A few computer operators may advance to supervisory jobs, although most management positions within data processing or computer operations centers require advanced formal education, such as a bachelor’s (or higher) degree. Through on-the-job experience and additional formal education, some computer operators may advance to jobs in areas such as network operations or support. As they gain experience in programming, some operators may advance to jobs as programmers or analysts. A move into these types of jobs is becoming much more difficult, as employers increasingly require candidates for more skilled computer jobs to possess at least a bachelor’s degree.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of computer operators is expected to decline sharply through the year 2008. Experienced operators are expected to compete for the small number of openings that will arise each year to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Opportunities will be best for operators who are familiar with a variety of operating systems and who keep up to date with the latest technology.

Advances in technology have reduced both the size and cost of computer equipment, while increasing the capacity for data storage and processing automation. These improvements in technology have fueled an expansion in the use of sophisticated computer hardware and software in practically every industry in such areas as factory and office automation, telecommunications, medicine, education, and administration. The expanding use of software that automates computer operations gives companies the option of making systems user-friendly, greatly reducing the need for operators. These new technologies will require operators to monitor a greater number of operations at the same time and be capable of solving a broader range of problems that may arise. The result is that fewer and fewer operators will be needed to perform more highly skilled work.

Computer operators who are displaced by automation may be reassigned to support staffs that maintain personal computer networks or assist other members of the organization. Operators who keep up with changing technology, by updating their skills and enhancing their training, should have the best prospects of moving into other areas such as network administration and technical support. Others may be retrained to perform different job duties, such as supervising an operations center, maintaining automation packages, or analyzing computer operations to recommend ways to increase productivity. In the future, operators who wish to work in the computer field will need to know more about programming, automation software, graphics interface, client/server environments, and open systems, in order to take advantage of changing opportunities.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of computer operators, except peripheral equipment operators were $25,030 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between about $20,410 and $31,610 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $16,260; the highest 10 percent earned more than $39,130. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of computer operators, except peripheral equipment operators in 1997 are shown below:

Computer and data processing services  $24,300
Hospitals  23,600
Personnel supply services  22,600
Federal government  22,500
Commercial banks  20,200

In the Federal Government, computer operators with a high school diploma started at about $21,600 a year in 1999; those with 1 year of college started at $23,000. Applicants with operations experience started at higher salaries.

Median annual earnings of peripheral equipment operators were $22,860 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $18,240 and $29,370 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,870; the highest 10 percent earned more than $37,220.

According to Robert Half International, the average starting salaries for console operators ranged from $26,000 to $35,500 in 1999. Salaries generally are higher in large organizations than in small ones.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other occupations involving work with computers include computer scientists, engineers, and systems analysts; computer programmers, and computer service technicians. Other occupations in which workers operate electronic office equipment include data entry keyers, secretaries, typists and word processors, and typesetters and compositors.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

For information about work opportunities in computer operations, contact firms that use computers such as banks, manufacturing and insurance firms, colleges and universities, and data processing service organizations. The local office of the State employment service can supply information about employment and training opportunities.

An industry employing computer operators that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Computer and data processing services

O*NET Codes: 56011 & 56014 About the O*NET codes

Alphabetical Indexes