Career advice: Should you still consider becoming a telephone operator?

It’s an iconic image from the middle of the 20th century: a telephone operator sitting at a crazily lit-up switchboard, wearing headphones and directing phone calls wherever they need to go.

Technologically, we’ve moved on and digitized—average calls don’t need that kind of human help anymore. But what about those operators? Are there still jobs out there for efficient people with great phone skills?

Short answer: yes. The job just looks much different than it used to. Today’s telephone operators are specialty agents, working directly in customer service to manage large volumes of phone calls, or in places like hotels or other hospitality facilities that may have their own internal phone systems. Instead of manually placing calls, today’s telephone operator is likely juggling multiple lines, performing triage on incoming calls in a call center or other multi-line phone operation. They’re also employed in emergency dispatch centers and other places where a human voice and expertise is needed to route calls quickly and efficiently to the right place.

Where can you find phone operator jobs?

Because the job landscape for phone operators is much different than it was just 30 years ago, you'll need to use some creativity in your job search. You might want to start by looking at particular industries instead of making general searches. Look for openings at telecommunications companies, as well as logistics companies, hotels, and other industries that still rely on phone bookings or reservations or that offer a lot of phone support (like call centers).

Phone companies also still employ live people for directory assistance calls who handle things such as questions about public phone numbers and addresses and assist people with placing international calls. Phone operators are also still needed to help people place collect calls—sure, these are not quite as prevalent as they used to be with unlimited cell phone calling plans, but they're still relevant enough to require phone operators to place them.

How many phone operator jobs are out there?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2012, there were fewer than 14,000 people specifically designated as “phone operators,” but that number expands once you include the hospitality industry, emergency dispatchers, and other support jobs that rely almost entirely on communicating by phone.

What skills do phone operators have?

Phone operators are essentially customer service personnel, and need to have a certain set of skills:

  • People skills
  • Communication skills
  • Customer service focus
  • Organizational skills
  • Problem-solving skills

Most companies will provide on-the-job training for its operators, but there’s no special training or educational program specifically for phone operators.

So should you consider becoming a phone operator?

If you have the skills and a strong sense of nostalgia, then why not? We haven’t become an entirely digital society yet, and sometimes an authoritative and knowledgeable human voice is absolutely as necessary as it ever was.

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