What does an Operating Engineer do?

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  • Written By: Carol Francois
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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An operating engineer has three areas of responsibility: performing routine maintenance, completing work orders, and responding to emergency calls. An operating engineer is a licensed trades professional who is responsible for managing power, heat exchanges, air conditioning systems, and refrigeration equipment. This type of engineer operates steam boilers, gas compressors, motors, steam turbines and other equipment that generate light, heat and power.

Most operating engineers work for the electrical company or large chemical plants, oil refineries, or other firms that generate their own power. They are full-time staff members, hired to maintain the power generating systems. Each employer has a team of operating engineers, with the number of operating engineers per shift depending on the size of the power generation equipment. These positions are shift based, as someone needs to be available to monitor and maintain the power generation system around the clock.

People who enjoy working with their hands, are mechanically inclined and naturally outgoing report the greatest satisfaction as an operating engineer. In this career, you will meet with other trades professionals, parts suppliers, and clients, or people impacted by the system. The ability to interact with others while communicating clearly and effectively is very important.


Equipment maintenance is the top priority for an operating engineer. While the power generating system is typically installed by an outside firm, it is the responsibility of the operating engineer to keep all the parts working, perform routine maintenance and ensure that downtime is minimized. Monitoring the different systems is an important aspect of daily maintenance. Any interruption in service results in increased demand on other aspects of the system.

Work orders typically involve repairs or changes to the power generating system. The work can be a complex operation, requiring several staff members and a period of months, or can be a simple job requiring two or three hours of work. All utility generating equipment must be tested to ensure that all building and safety codes are met.

Responding to emergency and service calls forms part of the daily routine for an operating engineer. Users will call if there is a power outage, intermittent power supply problems, or an issue with the equipment. All of these issues reflect a problem with the power generating equipment. In addition to these service calls, emergencies can occur. This may include system failure, reduced power, or accidents.

Career advancement opportunities for an operating engineer are limited only by the size of the facility. Most operating engineers advance their career by specializing in a certain size of system, or even a specific manufacturer. Technology is always changing and the impact on utilities systems is focused on monitoring and balancing tools, which are central to efficient management and maintenance of the utility.


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