Since their invention in the 1940's, computers have become steadily more important in our society. At first used only for military and scientific research, today computers are essential to the operation of stores, banks, colleges and universities, government agencies, hospitals, factories, and many other organizations. Like all machines, the usefulness of computers is dependent upon the skill of the people who run them.
The duties of computer and peripheral equipment operators vary with the size of the installation, the type of equipment used, and the policies of the employer. In organizations with small computer systems, for example, computer operators may run both the computer and all the peripheral equipment such as printers, disk drives, and tape readers. In large computer installations, computer operators specialize in console operation while peripheral equipment operators run the related devices. Generally, the duties of computer operators and peripheral equipment operators involve the following tasks.
Working from operating instructions prepared by programmers or operations managers, computer operators set controls on the computer and on peripheral devices required to run a particular job. Computer operators or, in large installations, peripheral equipment operators load the 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 computer console and respond to operating and computer messages. If an error message occurs, for example, operators must locate the problem and solve it or terminate the program.
Peripheral equipment operators may have to prepare printouts and other outputs for distribution to computer users. Operators also maintain log books listing events such as machine malfunctions that occurred during their shift. Computer operators also may supervise and train peripheral equipment operators and computer operator trainees. They also may help programmers and systems analysts test and debug new programs.
Computer operating personnel work in well-lighted, well-ventilated, and generally comfortable rooms. When the equipment is operating, however, the computer room can be noisy. Computer and peripheral equipment operators may be required to work evening or night shifts and weekends because many organizations use their computers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
In 1990, computer operators and peripheral equipment operators held 292,000 and 46,000 jobs, respectively. Although some jobs for computer and peripheral equipment operators are found in almost every industry, most are in government agencies, data processing service firms, banks, insurance firms, colleges and universities, and hospitals. These organizations have data processing needs that require large computer installations.
About 1 out of 10 computer and peripheral equipment operators works part time.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
In many firms, clerical workers such as secretaries, typists, bookkeeping clerks, and computer tape librarians may be transferred to jobs as peripheral equipment or computer operators and trained on the job. Employers who recruit from outside their firms look for workers who already have experience or training in operating the brand and type of equipment they use. Many high schools, public and private vocational schools, career schools, and community colleges offer training in computer operations. The military services also offer training.
Employers usually require a high school education, and many prefer computer operators with some trade school or junior college training in data processing. Employers who select operators from within their organization may pay for training at such schools. Many employers test applicants to determine their aptitude for computer work, particularly their ability to reason logically.
Workers usually receive some on-the-job training to become acquainted with their employer's equipment and routines. The length of training varies with the job and the experience of the worker. New peripheral equipment operators are expected to learn their jobs in a few weeks. New computer operators, however, may require several months of training because they must become sufficiently familiar with the computer equipment to handle all problems. Operators with prior experience or training are expected to learn their employer's system within a few weeks.
Because computer technology changes often, operators must be adaptable and willing to learn. Computer and peripheral equipment operators must be able to communicate well in order to work effectively with programmers and each other. Computer operators also must be able to work independently because they may have little or no supervision on evening, night, or weekend shifts.
A few computer operators may advance to supervisory jobs. Peripheral equipment operators may become computer operators. Through on-the-job experience and additional training, some computer and peripheral equipment operators advance to jobs as programmers.
Employment of computer and peripheral equipment operators is expected to rise faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. In addition to jobs resulting from growth in demand for operators, many openings will arise from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Advances in technology have reduced both the size and the cost of computer equipment while at the same time increasing their capacity for data storage and processing. These improvements in technology have fueled an expansion in the use of computers in such areas as factory and office automation, telecommunications, medicine, and education. As computer usage grows, so will the need for computer operators and peripheral equipment operators. Because computer and peripheral equipment operators work mainly with large computer systems--the part of the overall computer market that has slowed down--employment of operators is not expected to rise as rapidly as in the previous years.
In 1990, full-time computer operators earned an average annual salary of $18,875. The middle 50 percent earned between $14,300 and $25,350. The lowest 10 percent of computer operators earned $11,225 and the top 10 percent earned more than $32,350.
Computer operators and peripheral equipment operators had higher earnings in the North and West than in the South. Operators employed in manufacturing, transportation and public utilities had higher earnings than those employed finance and retail trade.
Other occupations involving work with computers include systems analysts, programmers, and computer service technicians. Other occupations in which workers operate electronic office equipment include data entry keyers, secretaries, typists, and printing typesetters and compositors.
Sources of Additional Information
People who want further information about work opportunities in computer operations should 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 is another source of information about employment and training opportunities.