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Nature of Secretarial/Office Professional Positions

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The opportunities for secretarial careers continue to grow and offer a bright future. They are the largest segment of the office workforce: 3,349,000 people are employed as secretaries and administrative specialists. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 400,000 new secretarial jobs will be added by the year 2005. Jobs will be plentiful for the generalist, especially for well-qualified and experienced secretaries who replace retired workers and those who relocate. Several new rapidly growing industries-personnel supply, management and public relations, and computer and data processing-will also generate jobs. For the specialists, with the health services industry growing at a faster than average pace, medical secretaries will be able to be selective; with the expansion of the legal services profession; legal secretaries are presently and will continue to be in demand.

The revolution in office technology and computerization has led to changing roles of secretaries. They have assumed higher-level responsibilities and have become more productive as they learned to handle computers, voice message systems, fax machines, e-mail, and scanners. Also, with corporate and workforce restructuring, administrative duties have been altered, expanded, or reassigned. If this occurs when you are a secretary, stay calm, set goals, determine what skills you need to know, and get the training needed to assume your new responsibilities. William Ayers, president of Ayers Group, recommends that you keep in mind that "restructuring can be a positive experience. It will give you a chance to explore new areas and develop new skills."1 You will find that your work will become more rewarding and challenging.

Administrative staffs frequently are the office's most knowledgeable people when using computer software to do word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets. Gerri Kozlowski, CPS, 1977-98 International President of Professional Secretaries International, stated that "Expertise in computer software is a major asset the administrative professional brings to the office. This tool has given administrative staff the capability to process and manage a broad range of information."

In the past, secretaries generally worked for one individual or in a pool. In today's workforce, managers and professionals share secretaries. However, presidents of corporations, partners of legal firms, and CEOs still require a highly skilled secretary to perform the responsibilities of the position. A recent poll by Professional Secretaries International revealed that 60 percent of secretaries said they now report to more than one boss, with

20 percent saying they report to four or more.2 The team concept has been accepted in many offices.

If you are considering a secretarial career, then you should be aware of trends that are affecting the nature of the work and the competencies required for positions in automated offices. Although our highly technological and competitive world will continue to expand bringing about further changes in the work environment, set your goals not only for mastery of the technical skills but for the personal, administrative, communicative, and interactive skills that cannot be replaced by equipment. Nancy Freeze, a marketing assistant at Hewlett-Packard and president of the San Jose chapter of Professional Secretaries International, clearly supports the previous comment when she responded "absolutely no" to the statement that secretaries could be replaced by the tools now available. For example, why should an executive have to spend time to respond to the 20 percent of voice mail and e-mail messages that are junk. How can software understand office politics and bring important information to the manager's attention? The technology could never rival the sophisticated judgment of a human secretary.

In Canada, office automation is redefining the role of the secretary into that of information worker. The growth of the service industry, technological innovation, and changing procedures are transforming both the nature of jobs and the skills required to do them. Employers are now seeking employees with the following competencies: computer expertise, knowledge of word processing software packages, ability to transcribe documents, basic academic competence, analytical and problem-solving abilities, communication and interpersonal skills, initiative, creativity, and adaptability.


The professional secretary has become a part of the management team. Secretaries no longer handle just the routine duties of keyboarding, filing, and copying but have become decision makers and provide the links between the different parts of the organization. They are increasingly handling tasks previously performed by managers and other professionals. In fact, secretaries are the first employees who are asked to assume the tasks once handled by displaced middle managers, which include everything from drafting contracts to running spreadsheets to solving customer problems. Today's secretary is a goal-oriented manager. New attitudes and expectations on the part of both secretary and management are evolving. Below are several managerial roles frequently filled by secretaries:
  • Information Manager-handles paper records and the organization's electronic files and databases; develops methods for organizing and retrieving records

  • Communications Manager-writes and edits

  • Inventory Manager- monitors inventory levels and condition of equipment and develops specifications for purchase of products

  • Planning Manager-keeps tabs on details relating to projects

  • Logistics Manager-handles travel, meeting schedules, and agendas

  • Policy Manager-maintains company manual and interprets policies and procedures to employees
  • Employee Relations Manager-interviews and hires and acts as supervisor to less-senior staff
  • Financial Manager-prepares and approves vouchers and financial correspondence
  • Community Relations Manager-solves customer needs and problems

  • Training Manager-provides guidance on workplace skills
  • Action Manager-organizes the boss's workload


Many career paths are being created for persons in office/administrative professions. For ambitious individuals, a secretarial position is a stepping-stone to a higher-level job. Advancement generally is by promotion to a secretarial position that has more responsibility. Qualified secretaries who have gained a broad knowledge of the company's operations and have enhanced their skills may be given higher positions such as senior or executive secretary, office manager, or clerical supervisor. In some instances, qualified secretaries who have business acumen can advance to training, supervisory, and managerial jobs. They may also receive a job in desktop publishing, information management and research, instructor or sales representative with manufacturers of software or computer equipment.

Secretaries have become invaluable to some employers who are reluctant to show approval of a promotion because they don't want to lose their secretaries who frequently are their confidantes and someone to bounce things off of. A director of a museum stated, "Just for the sheer volume of information and knowledge of the running of the museum, the history of the museum, and the thousands of people involved in making the museum go, she is invaluable."

Developments in office technology will definitely continue at an astonishing pace and will further change the secretary's work environment. New technical terms indicative of the kind of work performed in a modern office are being added to those that have been around for a while, such as integration, cyberspace, networked office, multimedia, infrastructure, web site, NT server, audio- and videoconferencing, browser, search engines, and digital communication. As new systems and modes of operation occur, new titles will emerge reflecting the higher levels of skills necessitated by the changing nature of the job. Currently, secretaries are known by different designations, too, which reflect the increased responsibilities assumed in the office.


Viewpoints from various experienced professionals in the field on the expanding, multifaceted role of the secretary are presented here to give interested individuals a better understanding of secretarial work as a career. Through their statements run a common understanding that as secretarial positions become more challenging, secretaries are taking on bigger roles; they are assuming higher-level decision-making responsibilities, which are reflected in the new titles that are evolving. Education beyond high school in computers, oral presentation, and written skills is becoming a prerequisite for advancement.

Susan Skarness, Certified Professional Secretary (CPS), executive assistant to the senior vice president and vice president in the corporate development department of Enron Corporation, one of the largest natural gas and electricity companies, states that, "The secretarial career is one of the most exciting careers in business." She believes that continuing education is most important and can be achieved by attendance at workshops and seminars, enrollment at local schools and universities, and by networking at meetings of Professional Secretaries International.

Sharon A. Stewart, administrative secretary at Sidney Rubell Co., a real estate firm, was hired seventeen years ago. She still remembers that Mr. Rubell told her she would learn many things on the job, and the most complex facet would be about people. After many years of experience, Ms. Stewart supports that statement and says, "He did not exaggerate!"

When I was hired in August 1981, I came to New York from California and was uncertain if I wanted to remain in New York. I never left. My advice to you is to work hard and develop good skills so that you will not feel threatened.

The most striking difference between then and now is the manual office. The bookkeeping, record keeping, ledgers, rent bills, invoices, etc., were all done by hand. No computers, no fax machine, no answering machine, and no backup. Just me! Looking back, I am amazed that it all got done.

If you are interested in this field and want to be successful on the job, you must be prepared and know how to manage your time. Time management is invaluable, and knowing how to prioritize is the ultimate office tool.
I have always considered myself a professional. I have always tried to conduct myself in a courteous and professional manner, whether in dealings with my boss, the tenants, or the plumber. Although I am basically a secretary, at times I also have had to be a diplomat, a referee, and even the scapegoat.

A good experience on a job will result in growth of knowledge and enhancement of capabilities. To a company, you are an asset and are contributing to its productivity. Make your job a continuous learning experience.

Barbara G. Pollack, a recently retired business education teacher, was the occupational education chairperson from 1981 to 1995 at Hendrick Hudson High School, Montrose, New York. After retirement, she decided to apply her knowledge to a career in the business world, which has given her very broad experiences with major companies such as IBM, Con Edison, and Citibank. She believes individuals interested in secretarial careers must keep up with the changing office trends, especially by learning the computer and various software programs. Another very good way to remain up to date is to work as an office temp employee in the corporate world. The statements below come from her wealth of experience in a wide range of employment activities.

If you plan to work for a temporary agency, have a resume ready to submit to them and be prepared to take tests that may be in keyboarding, grammar, math, or computer operations. Major temporary employment agencies may even have self-paced software to train you on various software programs. If you score very well on the test after training, the agency might get a trainer for you so that you can continue learning the equipment to apply for a higher-level job. In addition to the skills, the agencies will send you out frequently for a job if you dress in corporate business attire, have the common sense of maturity, and possess advanced computer skills.

In large corporations, be prepared to be approached to orient new employees to the job. Write everything down when you get your orientation. Then write a job description with how-to to share with the permanent employees so that they can carry out their duties without excessive questioning. Familiarize yourself with the organization chart of the department in which you work and have a place for important phone numbers, the code for the department, and the names of persons with whom you have contact.

When a filing system doesn't exist, assume the responsibility and set up the filing cabinets in a systematic way. Learn how to produce labels on your computer and set up a system for labeling documents with a code in a smaller font size at the bottom of the last page of the document you are producing.

Keep your workstation neat; put things away each evening; learn how your manager wants work returned for signature; learn how to pick up documents after your superior has looked at them and marked them for distribution, filing, or calendaring. Mark each change as you learn of it with a colored pen; then correct the calendar on the computer at the end of the day. Print a copy of each calendar for yourself as well as the manager.

Become familiar with the phone system in your company, particularly transferring calls. Find out from your manager whether he/she prefers that you send them on or screen them first. Remember to learn the names of all your superiors, get coverage for your phone when you step away, or program it for your "voice mailbox." Smile before picking up the receiver to sound pleasant.

Take advantage of all in-service training. If your company pays for college courses, take them. Join the local professional organizations to network with others. That way, you will be on the cutting edge and are more valuable to your organization. On the job, you need to score as close as possible to 100 percent accuracy for everything you do. It is a good idea to team up with a co-worker, if possible. Be friendly to everyone, and learn about your community to be prepared for setting up an outside luncheon or to direct a visitor to your office from the train, plane, or highway.

These statements reflect the need for secretaries who are challenged and who will be able to cope with the higher-level responsibilities that require thinking individuals who can make decisions, manage and exe-cute projects, manipulate and manage information, and enhance office operations. Undoubtedly, secretaries with the appropriate background, skills, knowledge, and motivation to learn will have many career opportunities in the years ahead.

The scope of this book is to give you a comprehensive overview of the secretarial profession so that you will have a greater understanding of this career and the labor market.


To understand the modern role of the professional secretary, it is necessary to trace the evolution of the office. An understanding of the past coupled with the present will give you a better grasp of what is yet to come.

The earliest civilizations of Greece had need for secretaries (also known as confidants) to handle the correspondence and to record historical, business, private, and public information. Shorthand was mastered by such Roman leaders as Julius Caesar and the Emperor Augustus. In Italy and in France, it was used until the seventh century A.D., when it became mistrusted and disappeared into the cloisters during the middle Ages. During the period of the Renaissance, from 1400 to 1500, several shorthand systems were developed in England, initially with religious terms, to be followed by legal, political, and finally commercial words. In the early days in the United States, in contrast to the current female-dominated secretarial positions, men dominated the office, performing stenographic and bookkeeping tasks. This was considered a position with distinction and status and from which these men could be elevated to higher positions. "Personal" or "private" preceded the word secretary to reflect this status. In the United States, John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams, John Hay, and Lyndon Johnson were some of our great leaders who began their careers as secretaries to important political persons.

It was not until Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter in 1867 and perfected it in 1873 that shorthand increased in use. Together, they became communication tools. About this time, women very slowly began to enter the office in stenographic positions, and private business schools began to flourish. Contrary to current statistics, which indicate a large enrollment of women, originally men and boys were students. It wasn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that the majority of trainees were women.

Another item of interest is that when men were working as private secretaries, the position was a prestigious one, but as soon as women began to assume this role, a reversal in image occurred. There was obvious discrimination against women, for they received much less pay than men for the same long hours. They were expected to conduct themselves properly and with loyalty. Women filled the void created by the expansion of industry and the growth of paperwork. They adapted to the technology of the time and learned how to operate the typewriter, telephone, transcribing machines, and calculation machines.

By the 1930s, women dominated the office workforce and once again kept pace with technology by learning the electric typewriter. A small group of women who had foresight and vision recognized the importance of continuing education and became the charter members of the Professional Secretaries International (originally the National Secretaries Association), organized in 1942. In Chapter 5, you will read about the Institute for Certifying Secretaries, a group responsible for a certifying examination for secretaries, which was designed in 1951.

The next major breakthrough occurred in the mid-1960s with the introduction by IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) of the Magnetic Tape Electric Typewriter (MT/ST). Automatic deletion and insertion of words, storage, and flawless and random access printing became a reality. This was the beginning of our modern concept of word processing. Some subsequent inventions that impacted secretarial positions were the IBM Mag Card in 1973, memory typewriters, stand-alone word processors, video display terminals, micro-processing and telecommunications technology, desktop computers, modems, optical character readers, networked systems, and integrated information systems. The introduction of advanced technology led to transformations in the office-structures, organization, position responsibilities, and working environments.

In the information era of the 1990s, office environments were changing very rapidly, and secretaries, once again, had to meet the challenges of the new explosion of technology. Personal computers were appearing on desks of executives, secretaries, and other office support staff in both large and small offices.

The new generation of computer technology enhanced the flow of information and processed data at much faster speeds. Greater responsibilities imposed on secretaries were the maintenance of databases, development of spreadsheets, integration of text and graphics to produce professional-looking   documents,   and   preparation of presentation graphics, including charts, that were attractive and dramatic. Software has become more sophisticated. In the last half of the 1990s, the Inter-net, World Wide Web, and videoconferencing became important business and household tools. Tremendous numbers of people are in front of a keyboard-some for extended periods of time, particularly when they go into chat rooms or do research. This factor certainly supports the need to be efficient at the keyboard.

Most interesting is the research occurring presently to develop sophisticated voice output devices that would enable the computer to recognize the user's voice. Many systems are being used but need more sophistication in understanding dialects and pronunciation. The system must be highly responsive to different voices. Several speech recognition systems are now available that "know" 30,000 words. Hundreds of thousands of people use voice recognition when they place a call and respond to the recorded voice!

Research is still being done on discrete speech input, which requires the user to pause between words, and the natural speech input, which allows the person to talk in any manner.

Can you imagine what tomorrow will bring? Secretaries will continue to forge ahead and meet the challenge that they have in the past.


Professional Secretaries Week was originated in 1952 by Professional Secretaries International with a proclamation by Charles Sawyer, Secretary of Commerce. The purpose of this forward-looking group was to uplift the image of the secretary from one of servitude to recognition of "the American secretary upon whose skills, loyalty, and efficiency the functions of business and government offices depend." Currently, the purpose of Professional Secretaries Week, which is observed annually the last full week in April, is twofold: "to increase public awareness of the vital role played by secretaries in business, industry, education, government, and the professions; and to reaffirm the dedication of secretaries to professional performance of their responsibilities." During this week, local chapters sponsor seminars and workshops while some members speak to educational, professional, and civic groups. Noted governmental officials have acknowledged the valuable contributions of professional secretaries.

In 1997, President Clinton wrote: "...Secretaries and administrative assistants play a vital role in the success of our nation.... The ongoing revolution in technology offers your profession both new challenges and new opportunities. I commend secretaries and administrative professionals across America and around the world for mastering the latest equipment and information technology to carry out your many and varied responsibilities more effectively." The prime minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, stated, "...Professional Secretaries International, by encouraging personal fulfillment and promoting career development in a global context, shows us the success of a collective effort for a common good. As you reflect on the achievements of the past year and set new objectives for the future, I am sure that you will enjoy this opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to excellence in administrative support."

In observance of Professional Secretaries Week, Elnar G. Hickman, past president of Professional Secretaries International, believed this was an appropriate time to "rededicate ourselves to proclaiming the tremendous potential a secretarial career offers." She believes that "...the secretarial profession is a way to make a living, a way to make a life, and a way to make a difference." Yes, Professional Secretaries Week is a time to show respect and recognition. Secretaries would like to see this week of recognition change from an occasion for lunch with the boss or a bouquet of flowers to an increase in responsibilities and activities as part of the management team.


Quality improvement, a concept always related to the production process, is now becoming important in white-collar work throughout the nation. The application of this concept to knowledge jobs, such as that of the secretary, was practiced by the Japanese for several decades before it was finally adopted by the United States to maintain its competitive edge against the foreign markets. Companies that are adopting such programs are involving all office employees in their search for ways to improve quality of process. Knowledge workers become aware that the task they perform is part of a total process that serves the customer. They are becoming involved in quality circles where they dis-cuss problems, brainstorm for innovative techniques that benefit both the company and themselves, make decisions, and interrelate with their peers.


Men were the first secretaries. They were highly regarded and often promoted to prestigious positions as private and personal secretaries. Women began to make inroads with the invention of the typewriter and the era of the Industrial Revolution. Gradually, the majority of men retired from this field. Women, the new entrants as secretaries, realized they weren't accorded the same status as the men were given. As stated in the previous section, the women collaborated and organized the National Secretaries Association in 1942. This organization was the initial feminist's voice of secretaries reaching out to business and industry. However, it was not until the women's liberation movement started in the 1960s as well as other publicized provocative activities, such as The Secretarial Ghetto written by Mary Kathleen Benet and the film 9 to 5, that a new breed of secretary evolved and consciousness raising among secretaries was activated.

Those secretaries who have assumed managerial responsibilities such as budget management or who perform the higher-level tasks associated with spreadsheet, database management, graphics design, and presentation visuals want to be recognized, rewarded, and viewed as a vital part of the team. These "high-tech" skills, sometimes in combination with "high-touch" skills, are often unnoticed. One interviewer of ward secretaries at a university teaching hospital revealed that although the responsibilities for "coordinating and organizing patient-care information through the use of a computerized record system" were recognized in job evaluations, the equally important human relations skills involving the use of diplomacy in "coordinating and organizing people, patients, and medical personnel" went unrecognized.

Secretaries are clearly making their voices heard to be recognized, to be given increased responsibilities, and to be challenged with higher-level projects that would lead to upward mobility. Other secretaries are no longer content to work with somebody else's ideas and want to have greater decision-making powers as part of management.

Generally, secretaries now have more education than in previous decades, are more aware and have a greater understanding of organizational policy, and know what it means to be a professional. This has led to political activism among many women, and professional organizations help support and publicize their causes.
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