Telephone operators help people using phone company services, as well as other telephone operators, to place calls and to make connections. There are approximately 213,000 switchboard operators, 29,000 telephone operators, and 4,200 other communications equipment operators employed in the United States.
History of Telephone Operator Career
In the years since Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for his invention in 1876, the telephone has evolved from being a novelty gadget to an indispensable part of our daily lives. It is now possible to talk to someone in virtually any corner of the world on the telephone. Technological breakthroughs have allowed us to replace inefficient telephone cables with fiber optic lines and satellites for transmitting signals. Some phone features that we take for granted, such as conference calls, call waiting, and automatic call forwarding, have been developed only in the past few years.
Technology has also changed the job of the telephone operator. In the past, operators had to connect every phone call by hand, wrestling with hundreds of different cables and phone jacks and trying to match the person making the call to the number being dialed. Today, telephone switchboards are electronic, and the operator can connect many more calls by merely pushing buttons or dialing the proper code or number. Computers have replaced many of the old duties of telephone switchboard operators, such as directory assistance and the “automatic intercept” of nonoperating numbers. Still, telephone operators are needed to perform special duties and add a human touch to telecommunications.
The Job of Telephone Operators
If you’ve recently made a collect call, checked your bank account balance over the phone, or left a message for someone in a large company, you may have done so without the assistance of an operator. With automation, computers, and voice synthesizers, you can now place a call directly and get all the information you need yourself, saving phone companies, and other businesses, time and money. The demand for telephone operators has dropped considerably from the days when operators were needed to physically connect and disconnect lines at a switchboard. AT&T has laid off thousands of operators in the last 20 years, but people can still find work with telecommunications companies and in corporations that handle a number of calls. Rynn Lemieux, an operator for the Hilton San Francisco, can remember the old “cord boards” from when she worked for an answering service more than 18 years ago. “I have to say,” she says, “when you disconnected a call from one of those boards, you really knew you disconnected a call. Pushing a button just does not have the oomph of yanking a cord.” Though Lemieux still works at a switchboard, she also uses a computer to find room numbers and in-house extensions. “I answer calls, connect to extensions and rooms, put in wake-up calls, as well as answer the TDD for the hearing impaired, page beepers, and answer questions concerning the city, the hotel, and pretty much anything else the caller can think of.”
When a call comes into the phone company, a signal lights up on the switchboard, and the telephone operator makes the connection for it by pressing the proper buttons and dialing the proper numbers. If the person is calling from a pay phone, the operator may consult charts to determine the charges and ask the caller to deposit the correct amount to complete the call. If the customer requests a long-distance connection, the operator calculates and quotes the charges and then makes the connection.
Directory assistance operators, also called information operators, answer customer inquiries for local telephone numbers by using computerized alphabetical and geographical directories. The directory assistance operator types the spelling of the name requested and the possible location on a keyboard, then scans a directory to find the number. If the number can’t be found, the operator may suggest alternate spellings of the name and look for those. When the name is located, the operator often doesn’t need to read the number to the caller; instead, a computerized recording will provide the answer while the operator takes another call.
Telephone operators wear headsets that contain both an earphone and a microphone, leaving their hands free to operate the computer terminal or switchboard at which they are seated. They are supervised by central-office operator supervisors.
Other types of switchboard supervisors perform advisory services for clients to show them how to get the most out of their phone systems. Private branch exchange advisers conduct training classes to demonstrate the operation of switchboard and teletype equipment, either at the telephone company’s training school or on the customer’s premises. They may analyze a company’s telephone traffic loads and recommend the type of equipment and services that will best fit the company’s needs. Service observers monitor the conversations between telephone operators and customers to observe the operators’ behavior, technical skills, and adherence to phone company policies. Both of these types of workers may give advice on how operators can improve their handling of calls and their personal demeanor on the phone.
Telephone Operator Career Requirements
You should take speech, drama, and other classes that will help you with oral communication skills. Typing and computer fundamentals courses will prepare you for the demands of running a modern switchboard and for handling special services such as TDD for the hearing impaired.
Although a high school education is not a strict requirement for telephone operators, telephone companies prefer to hire people who are high school graduates. You’re likely to receive most of your training from your employer, which may include classes in-house or telecommunications courses at a community college.
Certification or Licensing
Though a company may have its own training program leading to certification, there is no national certification. Many operators, however, do belong to local union chapters of such organizations as Communications Workers of America (CWA). CWA assists workers in obtaining fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Manual dexterity is an asset to the telephone operator; however, the degree of dexterity needed is about the same as that required for the operation of any type of office equipment. Personal qualifications should include tact, patience, a desire to work with people and to be of service to others, a pleasing phone voice, an even-tempered disposition, and good judgment. Operators must also have legible handwriting and must be punctual and dependable in job attendance.
“A good memory for numbers helps,” Rynn Lemieux says. “It’s also good to know the city where you work.”
Exploring Telephone Operator Career
You can explore this career by arranging a visit to a local or long-distance telephone company to observe operators at work. There you may also have the chance to talk with operators about the job. You can also learn about new developments in telephone technology and services by visiting the Web site of the United States Telecom Association (http://www.ustelecom.org/).
Part-time office jobs may give students experience in working in-company phone exchanges and switchboards, in addition to general office experience. While telephone company operations are more complex, applicants with previous experience in handling phone calls may be given preference in hiring.
Operators are still needed in telephone companies, but most find jobs handling the phone lines of hotels, retail stores, and other businesses with large numbers of employees. The customer service departments of companies and stores employ telephone operators to handle transactions, make courtesy calls, and answer customers’ questions.
Individuals may enter this occupation by applying directly to telephone companies and long-distance carriers. In some cities, telephone offices maintain an employment office, while elsewhere employment interviews are conducted by a chief operator or personnel manager. Other job openings may be discovered through state or private employment agencies, newspaper advertisements, or school placement offices.
New telephone company employees are usually given a combination of classroom work and on-the-job practice. In the various telephone companies, classroom instruction usually lasts up to three weeks. The nation’s time zones and geography are covered so that operators can understand how to calculate rates and know where major cities are located. Tapes are used to familiarize trainees with the various signals and tones of the phone system as well as give them the chance to hear their own phone voices and improve their diction and courtesy. Close supervision continues after training is completed.
Telephone operators continue to receive on-the-job training throughout their careers as phone offices install more modern and automated equipment and as the methods of working with the equipment continue to change. Service assistants are responsible for instructing the new operators in various other types of special operating services.
Telephone operators may have opportunities for advancement to positions as service assistant, and later to group or assistant chief operator. Chief operators are responsible for the planning and directing of the activities of a central office, as well as personnel functions and the performance of the employees. Service assistants may sometimes advance to become PBX service advisors, who go to individual businesses, assess their phone needs, and oversee equipment installation and employee training. Some telephone operators take other positions within a telephone company, such as a clerical position, and advance within that position.
Opportunities for advancement usually depend on the employee’s personal initiative, ability, experience, length of employment, and job performance, as well as the size of the place of employment and the number of supervisors needed. Most telephone company operators are members of a union, and the union specifies the time and steps to advance from one position to another. However, many operators can become qualified for a higher-level position but then need to wait for years for an available opening. Some telephone operators become private branch exchange or switchboard operators in corporations and large businesses.
Lemieux advises that you consider a job as a telephone operator as a stepping stone. “If the telecommunications industry is what interests you,” she says, “aim towards installation and/or repair with a large company. That’s where the real money is, and where you’ll find the most respect.”
The wages paid to telephone operators vary from state to state, from one section of the country to another, and even from city to city. The types of duties performed by the employee also affect the salary he or she earns.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median hourly earnings of switchboard operators, including answering service, were $10.61 in 2005. Wages ranged from less than $7.48 to more than $15.56 ($15,550 to $32,370 annually). Median hourly earnings of telephone operators in 2005 were $15.09, with wages ranging from less than $8.52 to more than $21.34 ($17,730 to $44,390 annually).
Operators are usually paid time-and-a-half for Sunday work and may receive an extra day’s pay for working on legal holidays. Some additional remuneration is usually paid when employees work split shifts or shifts that end after 6:00 p.m. Time-and-a-half pay is generally given if operators work more than a five-day week. Choice of work hours is usually determined on the basis of seniority. Pay increases in most instances are determined on the basis of periodic pay scales.
Fringe benefits for these employees usually include paid annual vacations and group insurance plans for sickness, accident, and death; the majority also have retirement and disability pension plans available.
The telephone industry operates around the clock giving the public 24-hour daily service. Operators may, therefore, be required to work evening hours, night shifts, and on Sundays and holidays. Some operators are asked to work split shifts to cover periods of heavy calling. Telephone company operators generally work 32.5 to 37.5 hours per week.
The telephone operator’s job demands good physical health for punctual and regular job attendance; the work, however, is not physically strenuous or demanding. While working, operators are at the switchboard and are allowed to take periodic rest breaks. General working conditions are usually in pleasant surroundings with relatively little noise or confusion. Many telephone company operators work at video display terminals, which may cause eyestrain and muscle strain if not properly designed.
The work of a telephone operator can be very repetitive and is closely supervised. Calls are monitored by supervisors to check that operators are courteous and following company policies. Some operators find this stressful. In addition, telephone companies track the number of calls handled by each operator, and there is an increasing emphasis on operators handling a greater number of calls in order to improve cost efficiencies. This need for higher productivity can also create stress for some workers. Many times the atmosphere becomes stressful and hectic during peak calling times, and operators need to manage a high volume of calls without becoming distressed.
Telephone Operator Career Outlook
Employment of telephone operators is expected to decline through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. During the past 30 years, employment of operators in telephone companies has declined sharply due to automation, which increases the productivity of these workers. Direct dialing and computerized billing have eliminated the need for many operators. Voice recognition technology, which gives computers the capacity to understand speech and to respond to callers, now offers directory assistance and helps to place collect calls. Voice response equipment, which allows callers to communicate with computers through the use of touch-tone signals, is used widely by a number of large companies. Using a combination of voice response equipment, voice mail and messaging systems, and automated call distribution, incoming phone calls can be routed to their destination without the use of an operator. People now use the Internet and email to communicate, neither of which require operators. Directory assistance services are also available on the Internet and provide phone numbers, addresses, maps, and email addresses.
Operators will find most job opportunities outside the phone companies, with customer service departments, telemarketing firms, reservation ticket agencies, hotel switchboards, and other services that field a number of calls. TDD, phone services for the deaf, also requires operators, and the Americans with Disabilities Act is allowing people better access to such services. Unions have tried to make sure that companies reduce unemployment either through attrition or through retraining and reassigning workers. Many telephone companies, however, continue to make workforce reductions by eliminating telephone operator positions or by sending jobs to foreign countries in an attempt to cut operating costs. There will be limited opportunities for employment as a telephone operator in the future.