COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Telephone Operators

Nature of the Work

Although most telephone numbers are dialed directly, some still require the assistance of a telephone operator. Telephone company central office operators help customers with person-to-person or collect calls or with special billing requests, such as charging a call to a third number or giving customers credit or a refund for a wrong number or a bad connection. Operators also are called upon to handle emergency calls and assist children or people with physical limitations.

Technological innovations have also changed the responsibilities of central office operators. Electronic switching systems have eliminated the need for manual switching, and new systems automatically record information about the length and cost of calls into a computer that processes the billing statements. It is also now possible in most places to call other countries, person-to-person, or collect without the help of an operator. The task of responding to intercept calls (vacant, changed, or disconnected numbers) also is automated, and a computerized recording explains the reason for the interception and gives the new number. The monitoring and computing of charges on calls from pay telephones also have an automated function formerly performed by operators.

Directory assistance operators answer inquiries by accessing computerized alphabetical and geographical directories. They generally no longer read numbers; this is done by a computerized recording.

Many organizations like hotels and medical centers employ operators to run private branch exchange (PBX) switchboards. These switchboard, or PBX operators, connect interoffice or house calls, answer and relay outside calls, connect outgoing calls, supply information to callers, and record charges. Many also act as receptionists or information clerks, relaying messages or announcing visitors. (Receptionists are described elsewhere in this section of the Handbook.)

Operators also work in other settings. Telephone-answering-service operators manage switchboards to provide answering service for clients. Communication-center operators handle airport authority communication systems. For example, they use the public address system to page passengers or visitors. They also monitor electronic equipment alarms.

Private-branch-exchange service advisors, sometimes called customer instructors or telephone usage counselors, train switchboard operators. Service advisors monitor conversations between operators and customers to observe the operator's behavior, technical accuracy, and adherence to company policies.

Many telephone operators are also receptionists.

Working Conditions

The hours of PBX or switchboard operators generally are the same as those of other clerical workers in the firm. In some organizations, they work 40 hours a week during regular business hours. Operators in hotels, hospitals, and other places where telephone service is needed on a 24-hour basis, work shifts, even on holidays and weekends. Telephone company operators generally work 32 1/2 to 37 1/2 hours a week. They also may work day, evening, or night shifts, which include weekends and holidays.

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. Telephone companies normally assign shifts by seniority, allowing the most experienced workers to choose when they will work. These operators, like all telephone company employees, may be subject to 24-hour call. In general, though, they work overtime only during emergencies.

Many telephone company operators work at video display terminals in pleasant, well-lighted, air-conditioned surroundings. But if the work site is not well designed, these operators may experience eyestrain and back discomfort.

The job of a telephone operator requires little physical exertion; during peak calling periods, however, the pace at the switchboard may be hectic. Telephone companies continually strive to increase operator efficiency, and this can create a tense work environment. An operator's work generally is quite repetitive and, in telephone companies, is closely supervised. Computerized pacing and monitoring by supervisors, combined with the rapid pace, may cause stress. Operators must sit for long periods and usually need supervisory approval to leave their work stations.


Telephone operators held about 314,000 jobs in 1992. About 3 out of 4 worked as PBX operators in hotels, hospitals, department stores, or other organizations. The remainder worked in telephone companies. Roughly one-fifth of all operators worked part time, although relatively few of those employed by telephone companies were part-timers.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Telephone operators should be pleasant, courteous, and patient. A clear, pleasing voice and good hearing are important. In addition to being a good listener, prospective operators should have good reading, spelling, and arithmetic skills. Good eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity are useful, as is an ability to work well under pressure. Many employers require operators to pass a physical examination. Some employers require a high school diploma. High school courses in speech, office practices, and business math provide a helpful background. Fluency in a foreign language is also looked upon favorably.

New operators are taught how to use the equipment and keep records of calls. In larger companies, this may include familiarization with computer terminals and recordkeeping programs. In telephone companies, classroom instruction lasts up to 3 weeks and is followed by on-the-job training. Classroom instruction covers time zones and geography so that central office operators understand rates and know where major cities are located. Tapes are used to familiarize trainees with the dial tone, busy signal, and other telephone sounds and to improve diction and courtesy by giving them an opportunity to hear their own voices. Close supervision continues after training is completed.

PBX operators who handle routine calls usually have a somewhat shorter training period than telephone company operators. These workers usually are trained informally by experienced personnel, although, in some organizations, it may be done by a telephone company instructor.

After 1 or 2 years of experience, telephone company operators may be promoted to service assistant, aiding the supervisor by monitoring telephone conversations. Direct promotion to supervisor may also be possible in some companies. Some operators advance to other clerical jobs or to telephone craft jobs such as installer or repairer. Large firms may promote PBX operators to more responsible clerical positions; however, many small businesses have limited advancement opportunities.

Job Outlook


of operators in telephone companies is expected to decline sharply through the year 2005 as automation continues to increase these workers' productivity. Many telephone companies do not plan to replace operators who leave and many are laying off operators. The number of switchboard or PBX operators will also decline, but not as fast. As older switchboards that require operators to make connections are replaced by ones that route calls automatically, fewer operators will be needed. In addition, voice message systems are expected to proliferate as computers become smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. These systems record, store, play, and forward telephone messages work currently performed by PBX operators. In those cases when callers need to speak to an operator, they may be helped by receptionists who have been trained to make telephone connections. However many firms may still keep switchboard operators for the personal touch, which would somewhat limit the effects of new technology.

Voice recognition technology, which gives computers the capacity to understand speech and to talk back, is now being introduced. This equipment will replace some directory assistance operators and central office operators.


Telephone operators who worked year round full time earned a median weekly salary of $385 in 1992. The middle 50 percent earned between $284 and $490. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $232; the top 10 percent earned more than $561 a week.

According to a survey of workplaces in 160 metropolitan areas, switchboard operators had median weekly earnings of $353 in 1992. The middle half earned between $300 and $400 a week.

Telephone company operators generally earn more than switchboard operators. Operators employed by AT&T and the Bell Operating Companies and represented by the Communications Workers of America earned between $550 and $567 a week in 1992.

Most telephone company operators 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 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 nightwork 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

Other workers who provide information to the general public include customer service representatives, dispatchers, hotel clerks, information clerks, police aides, receptionists, reservation agents, and travel clerks.

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Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor

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