Male and female public utilities engineer in uniform with helmet safety using laptop discussing inspection and maintenance of wind turbine in wind farm to generate electrical energy.

Public utilities provide resources we use every day, like electricity, water, and internet service. For the vast majority of the population, these services are essential to daily life, and the people who work for public utility companies do the important job of making sure they’re up and running when we need them without us having to give it a second thought. 

A job in public utilities could entail working with energy sources like natural gas and renewable energy, public infrastructure like waste removal and water treatment, transportation like air and rail service, and more. If you have the right skill set and experience or are willing to work up to that point, these jobs can be highly lucrative. 

Here, we’ll explore some of the pros and cons of working for a public utility and reveal ten of the highest-paying jobs in the field.

Is public utilities a good career path?

To understand the role of public utilities careers, simply consider how you started your day. 

Your morning may have gone something like this: turn on your bedside lamp, check your email from your smartphone, scramble some eggs on the stove, brush your teeth with water from the faucet, and hop on the train to work. Every step we described makes use of a public utility. Hence, public utility careers are incredibly important to the function of our society. 

As long as we have public infrastructure, we’ll have public utility jobs, which offer strong job security and usually come with competitive benefits. And, since fields like energy and telecommunications are constantly evolving, there will be a continuous need for workers with cutting-edge skill sets. 

These factors make public utilities an enticing and well-paying career path. 

Advantages of a career in public utilities

1. Strong job security

We’ve seen many negative labor market headlines recently, with news of layoffs and hiring freezes creating a challenging environment for some job seekers. However, because public utilities provide essential services, they’re largely unaffected by economic downturns. 

While people may cut their spending on things like clothing and vacations when money gets tight, they’re unlikely to eliminate things like their cell phone service or electricity. This makes for very strong job security for workers in the utility field. 

2. Robust benefits

Public utility companies offer excellent benefits, like employer-sponsored health insurance and 401(k) matching. For instance, in a survey of the portion of medical care premiums covered by employers, the industry outranked all others by a sizable amount.

Other benefits like disability insurance and life insurance are also widely available in the field. 

3. Advancement opportunities

While many jobs in the public utilities industry are highly skilled technical roles, ample entry-level positions are available, many of which offer on-the-job training. 

The staffing charts at utility companies tend to follow a distinct hierarchy, which means you’ll have a clear path to advancement if you’re looking to start at the bottom and work your way up. 

4. High earning potential

Public utility jobs come with great salaries, with dozens of roles averaging over $100,000 annually. In some positions, like engineering, it’s possible to earn six figures even in the first few years of your career. 

5. Stability

The round-the-clock nature of utility service requires companies in the field to have constant, consistent staffing. This means you’ll likely work a predictable schedule that remains steady from week to week. 

6. Intrinsic rewards

Public utility workers keep our communities running. It can be a rewarding feeling knowing your work helps provide an essential service to tens of thousands or even millions of people.

Challenges of a career in public utilities

1. Heavily regulated

Because utility services are so crucial to public infrastructure, it makes sense that the field is heavily regulated by both the government and governing bodies in each industry. However, this means jobs in the field require doing things by the book. There’s not a lot of room for creativity, which may be a downside for people who want a job that allows them to think outside the box.

2. Bureaucracy

On a similar note, the public utilities sector comes with a lot of red tape. Internal and external politics are at play and tedious administrative requirements can make some aspects of the job frustrating. 

3. Nonstandard hours

Utilities like power and water are ‘on’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This means someone always needs to be manning the ship, which could result in working night, overnight, and weekend shifts. 

Even employees in traditional 9-to-5 roles may be required to take on-call shifts periodically, so someone in each department is always available in case of an emergency. 

4. Physically demanding

Utility professionals working in the field may be required to perform physical activities like lifting, climbing and crawling into tight spaces. They can also work out in the elements, completing maintenance and repairs in unfavorable conditions like snow and rain. 

5. Potential hazards

Some utility jobs are inherently risky. Linemen, for example, work high off the ground on high-voltage power lines, making this one of the most dangerous positions in any field. 

The best-paying public utilities jobs

1. Public utility attorney

Average salary for a public utility attorney:  $163,770 

Growth projection: 10% over the next decade

Education: Law degree plus state license

Experience: Several years of experience in the legal field

Attorneys in the public utility field represent public and private utility companies in criminal and civil legal matters. They’re well-versed in the utility industry laws and advise their clients on dealing with regulatory agencies, obtaining permits, selling and acquiring assets, structuring business deals, and more. 

2. Engineering manager

Average salary for an engineering manager: $154,620

Growth projection: 2% over the next decade

Education: Minimum of a bachelor’s degree

Experience: Several years of experience in engineering

An engineering manager plans, organizes and oversees the construction and maintenance of a public utility’s facilities, equipment, and other infrastructure. 

They supervise and manage the company’s engineering staff and are responsible for delegating work duties, creating schedules, and completing other managerial tasks. They make important operational decisions and ensure the company’s engineering activities comply with all state, federal, and industry requirements.

3. Nuclear power reactor operator

Average salary for a nuclear power reactor operator: $117,510

Growth projection: -15% over the next decade

Education: High school diploma or equivalent plus extensive on-the-job training

Experience: Several years of onsite experience. Some companies may also require candidates to pass power plant maintenance and plant operator exams, measuring reading, mathematical skills, and understanding of mechanical concepts. 

A nuclear power reactor operator handles the equipment that produces nuclear energy. They manage the control rods that dictate the plant’s energy flow. Monitoring the output and making adjustments as required.

Nuclear power reactor operators make detailed records of their activities, carefully adhering to the extensive safety protocols. In the event of a problem, they may investigate to determine the source and take steps to correct the situation. 

4. Geoscientist

Average salary for a geoscientist: $104,560

Growth projection: 5% over the next decade

Education: Bachelor’s degree, with a master’s preferred by some organizations. Some positions also require a state-issued license

Experience: Geology fieldwork and lab experience

Geoscientists study the physical aspects of the earth as they pertain to their respective utility. For example, a geoscientist working for an energy company might work to discover oil and gas sites that are appropriate for extraction. 

Geoscientists split their time between field work, conducting field studies and gathering samples, and the lab, analyzing their findings. Geoscientists are also responsible for preparing reports and presenting their findings to the relevant stakeholders. 

5. Commercial pilot

Average salary for a commercial pilot: $100,400

Growth projection: 6% over the next decade

Education: Bachelor’s degree and flight training at an FAA-certified flight school

Experience: Several years of flight experience for a commercial airline or the military 

A commercial pilot flies airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft carrying passengers and cargo. Depending on their employer, they may have additional non-flight duties doing things like scheduling flights and coordinating aircraft maintenance.

Commercial pilots bear a significant responsibility for the safety of the passengers on board their aircraft. They must make important decisions regarding the aircraft’s operations, for example, in inclement weather conditions. A thorough knowledge of aircraft operations and safety protocols is required. 

6. Health and safety engineer

Average salary for a health and safety engineer: $99,040

Growth projection: 4% over the next decade

Education: Bachelor’s degree in engineering or environmental health and safety

Experience: Several years of experience in engineering

Health and safety engineers develop and implement protocols that protect public utility staff and the public from hazards. They ensure that the chemicals, equipment, supplies, processes, and infrastructure a public utility company uses will not cause injury or harm. 

A health and safety engineer must have a thorough knowledge of environmental and health and safety principles and a solid understanding of public policy and industry regulations. Their duties include activities like inspecting machinery, reviewing development plans, examining control processes, implementing employee safety programs, and more. 

7. Operations research analyst 

Average salary for an operations research analyst: $95,820

Growth projection: 23% over the next decade

Education: Bachelor’s degree

Experience: Prior experience in mathematics or computer science. 

An operations research analyst uses logic and mathematical techniques to help utilities identify and solve problems. For example, in an energy company, they might help leadership better understand consumer usage patterns and optimize their power production accordingly.

They may use skills like data mining, statistical analysis, and mathematical modeling to help companies understand different challenges and explore possible routes to solve them. 

8. Chemist

Average salary for a chemist: $90,530

Growth projection: 6% over the next decade

Education: Minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Some jobs may require a master’s or PhD

Experience: Lab experience plus on-the-job training

A chemist analyzes substances to determine their suitability for commercial purposes. They also work to create new, useful compounds. They carefully perform experiments to test and improve the condition of the substances they’re working with.

Chemists play an important role in public utilities. They frequently work in water facilities and wastewater treatment plants, analyzing and optimizing the water quality for public use and consumption. 

9. Lineman

Average salary for a lineman: $88,820

Growth projection: 6% over the next decade

Education: High school diploma plus technical training in a one- or two-year program

Experience: Apprenticeship and/or extensive on-the-job training

Those professionals you see hovering high above street level in a bucket truck working on electrical lines are linemen. They’re responsible for installing and repairing electric power systems, telecommunication lines, and fiber optic cables. 

In addition to installing and regularly inspecting power lines, linemen are also the first responders in the event of a power outage. They help identify system defects and get the grid back up and running, sometimes even traveling far distances to respond to the site of a major outage. 

10. Mechanical engineer

Average salary for a mechanical engineer: $88,650

Growth projection: 2% over the next decade

Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. A professional engineering (PE) license may be required for more senior roles

Experience: Field experience via prior work experience or an internship

Mechanical engineers design, build and maintain machines that produce and transmit power, like generators, turbines, and internal combustion engines. Their work also includes power plants, pipelines, sensors, and other mechanical equipment. At a senior level, they oversee the work of other engineering staff. 

Mechanical engineers play a key role during outages, troubleshooting systems, and identifying solutions after a failure. 

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn