Communications Equipment Operators

Significant Points

  • About 9 out of 10 communications equipment operators work as telephone operators.

  • Workers are trained on the job.

  • Employment is expected to decline due to new laborsaving communications technologies and consolidations in the telecommunications industry.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Most communications equipment operators work as telephone operators, assisting customers 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. Switchboard operators usually provide telephone assistance for a single organization; they relay incoming, outgoing, and interoffice calls.

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, have also 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.

Switchboard operators work for a wide variety of organizations, such as hospitals, hotels, and other businesses. They often operate private branch exchange (PBX) switchboards to relay incoming, outgoing, and interoffice calls. Switchboard operators may also 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.

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 may also adjust equipment for proper operation.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Most 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 motion.

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.

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.

Approximately 1 in 5 communications equipment operator 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 working environment.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Communications equipment operators held about 297,000 jobs in 1998. About 9 out of 10 worked as telephone operators. Employment was distributed as follows:

Switchboard operators  214,000
Directory assistance operators  23,000
Central office operators  23,000
All other communications equipment operators  36,000

Most switchboard operators worked for services establishments, such as personnel supply services, hospitals, and hotels and motels. The majority of central office and directory assistance operators worked in telephone companies.

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

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 may also receive short-term, informal training, sometimes provided by the manufacturer of their switchboard equipment.

New employees receive training on equipment operation and procedures for maximizing efficiency. They are familiarized with company policies, including the level of customer service performance they are expected to deliver. 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, and applicants should have strong reading, spelling, and numerical skills. Operators must have clear speech and good hearing. Computer literacy and typing skills are also important, and familiarity with a foreign language is helpful. Most companies place an emphasis on customer service skills; employers seek operators who will remain courteous to customers while working in a fast-paced environment.

After 1 or 2 years on the job, telephone operators may advance to other positions within a company. Many enter clerical occupations where their operator experience is valuable; these include positions as customer service agents, dispatchers, and receptionists. Operators with a more technical background and an interest in telecommunications may advance into positions installing and repairing equipment. Promotion to supervisory positions is also possible.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of communications equipment operators is projected to decline through 2008, largely due to new laborsaving communications technologies and consolidations in the telecommunications industry. Virtually all job openings will result from the need to replace communications equipment operators who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Developments in communications technologies, specifically the ease and accessibility of voice recognition systems, will continue to have a significant impact on the demand for telephone operators. The decline in employment will be sharpest among directory assistance operators; smaller decreases will occur for central office and 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, and are accessible to rotary phone customers. The systems are also increasingly sophisticated in terms of the vocabulary and grammatical structures they can understand. However, many companies will continue to employ operators so those callers having problems can access a "live" employee if desired.

Electronic communications, such as the Internet and e-mail, provide alternatives to telephone communications and require no operators. Internet directory assistance services are expected to reduce 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, eliminating 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 consolidate their operator functions. Operators will be employed at fewer locations and will serve larger customer populations.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median hourly earnings of switchboard operators in 1998 were $8.76. The middle 50 percent earned between $7.20 and $10.63. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $6.21 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $12.86. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of switchboard operators in 1997 are shown below:

Telephone communications  $10.90
Offices and clinics of medical doctors  8.60
Hospitals  8.40
Hotels and motels  8.30
Personnel supply services  8.30
Miscellaneous business services  7.40

Median hourly earnings of central office operators in 1998 were $12.61. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.73 and $15.97. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.12 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $18.33.

Median hourly earnings of directory assistance operators in 1998 were $14.68. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.94 and $16.32. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.61 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $18.42.

Many central office and directory assistance operators working at telephone companies are members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). According to the CWA, telephone operators started at an average of $235 a week in 1998, and after 4 years on the job averaged $654 a week. According to the IBEW, hourly wages for most telephone operators ranged from a minimum of about $10.50 to a maximum of about $17.30 in 1999. 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 also 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 a pay differential for night work and split shifts. Many contracts provide for a 1-week vacation with 6 months of service; 2 weeks for 1 to 6 years; 3 weeks for 7 to 14 years; 4 weeks for 15 to 24 years; and 5 weeks for 25 years and over. Holidays range from 9 to 11 days a year.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other workers who provide information to the general public includedispatchers; hotel, motel, and resort desk clerks; information clerks; receptionists; reservation and transportation ticket agents; and travel clerks.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For more details about employment opportunities, contact your telephone company or write to:

  • Communications Workers of America, 501 3rd St. NW., Washington, DC 20001. Internet:http://www.cwa-union.org
  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Telecommunications Department, 1125 15th. St. NW., Room 807, Washington, DC 20005.

For more information on the telephone industry, contact:

  • United States Telephone Association, 1401 H St. NW., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005-2164. Internet: http://www.usta.org

An industry employing communications equipment operators that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Telecommunications

O*NET Codes: 57102, 57105, 57108, 57111, & 57199 About the O*NET codes

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