What is a Switchboard Operator?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A switchboard operator is a telecommunications professional who manages a telephone switchboard. Historically, working on a switchboard required a great deal of mechanical knowledge, as operators had to manually process calls. Today, many switchboards are highly computerized, with the operator focusing on answering calls and routing them to the correct destination rather than having to deal with the physical wiring.

Modern switchboards are computerized.
Modern switchboards are computerized.

Switchboards are used to handle phone calls in a variety of environments. Most emergency response phone numbers route to a switchboard, where an operator will determine where the call should be sent. They are also used in large companies, hotels, and other settings where a large number of incoming phone calls need to be processed, and in situations where companies want to make it difficult for members of the public to contact people in the company directly. Movie producers, for example, like their calls routed through a switchboard so that they can decide whom they want to talk to and when.

Switchboard operators may deal with the internal and external phone calls.
Switchboard operators may deal with the internal and external phone calls.

In addition to handling external phone calls, a switchboard operator also deals with internal communications. When an analyst on the 40th floor picks up the phone to dial a banker on the 50th floor, the call may be routed through a company switchboard, and the analyst may interact with an operator along the way. Paging systems may also be handled this way, as in the case of a hospital that takes calls from the outside, manages internal communications, and uses overhead paging to alert personnel to important issues.

In some cases, an operator is solely responsible for the phones. He or she may work in an isolated setting in the depths of a building, with the location of the working environment being determined by the building's wiring. Others double as receptionists and greeters, meeting people when they enter a building and pointing them in the right direction in addition to handling phone calls.

Training for switchboard operators is often handled on the job, although students can take programs at technical schools to learn how to operate a switchboard. A good sense of hearing is required for work in this field, as are good communications skills, including crisp enunciation and verbal precision. Most people who operate a switchboard also need to be able to operate computers with confidence and to adjust to a variety of computer programs so that they can be flexible in their work.

Most emergency response phone numbers route to a switchboard, where an operator will determine where the call will be sent.
Most emergency response phone numbers route to a switchboard, where an operator will determine where the call will be sent.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have been a switchboard operator for 30 years, so I've see a lot of changes in Telephony. I now operate the most up to date computerized switchboard for a global company and I have to say my old cord and plug board was more efficient (didn't crash) and had a lot more needed features.


Technology and computers have sure changed the way switchboard operators do their job. Their purpose is still the same, but sometimes you feel as much a computer operator as anything. For some, this has been quite a big learning curve.

I don't know if these changes have made the job more efficient or not. Most would probably say that they have, but you have also lost some of the personal touch a long the way.


Depending on the size of the company, many will combine duties and hire a receptionist switchboard operator. And if it is a very small company, you can probably have many other duties as well. I have worked for both large and small companies performing duties of a switchboard operator.

When working for very large companies, it can be a bigger job than what many people realize - until you would actually have to do it for yourself. When you constantly have calls from inside and outside the company that you have to route and handle - many days can be non-stop all day long.

There are often other stressful situations that arise that you have to deal with also. It is a position where you do not ever have to worry about being bored.


Might be showing my age a little bit in this post, but my first recollection of a switchboard operator job was the lady in my hometown who processed the calls for the whole town.

We had a party line and every call had to go through her in order to be placed. You could also pick up the phone at any time and listen to any conversation that was taking place that was a part of your party line. (We weren't supposed to do this).

I think our switchboard operator probably knew more gossip and business than anybody else in the whole town. As a kid, I thought see had the most interesting job there was.

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