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Secretary as a career and its misconceptions!

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Secretaries always have and continue to make a difference in today's business world. Changes that affect the office environment are moving at speeds of lightning. To enjoy the career you select, you need to move with the times. You need to develop your skills not only to include the mastery of computer software and the latest technology, but also to develop leadership, organizational, interpersonal, problem-solving, and communication competencies. You need to be flexible, able to adjust to constant change, and understand and enjoy a diverse workforce and the culture employees bring to the workplace. Take advantage of all opportunities to enhance your skills, to gain knowledge, and to make yourself a valuable member of the firm. Keep in mind that secretaries are now assuming many of the responsibilities that were previously in the realm of managers. Since 262,000 positions as clerical supervisors and managers are fore casted to be added between 1996 and 2006, this might be the direction you would like to take for advancement and challenging responsibilities.

When making decisions about a career, you undoubtedly should select one that is satisfying, enjoyable, and at which you can perform well. Some of the factors you should evaluate in selecting a career are your likes and dislikes for certain kinds of work, the opportunities within the field, promotional paths for upward mobility, earning power, socialization, and employment opportunities that exist now as well as in the future.

Probably the single most important advantage in planning a secretarial career knows that a great need exists for this category of office work. Even during periods of recession, the demand for secretaries is high because of the tremendous amounts of paperwork that companies must process. As stated in the previous chapter, the job outlook is very good. Another advantage of secretarial work is the diversity of options that are available in selecting executive and administrative work or specialties, such as legal, educational, or medical. Another option is become self-employed and a successful entrepreneur. You can open your own secretarial services establishment or become a freelance transcriptionist.

In addition, alternative schedules to the traditional workday from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. are now operative in firms across the country. If you are a busy homemaker, you may choose to work part-time, or if you enjoy learning about many companies, you can work as a temporary employee. Still more interesting is flextime for individuals who want to work around family responsibilities. Another advantage is to choose an alternative location for your workplace, a direction in which many firms are now going, rather than the office setting where you normally carried out the responsibilities of the job. See Chapter 4 for more information.

On the bleaker side of the job is the frequent need to work on the weekend. According to the Steelcase Workplace Index, a semiannual survey that measures workplace trends in the United States, 73 percent of office employees work on the weekend. Sixty percent work on weekends once a month or more; 42 percent work six to ten hours; 8 percent spend eleven to fifteen hours; 10 percent work sixteen to twenty hours; and 5 percent spend twenty-one or more hours. An employee cannot count on the nine-to-five hours daily. The survey also revealed that 49 percent of office employees work more hours than they did five years ago. This was not graciously accepted by 38 percent who "did it because it was expected of them." "Thirty-seven percent of the respondents indicated they work more because they enjoy it."

Trends In Office Environments

Dramatic advances in office automation have provided a new world of opportunities for secretarial careers. No longer are jobs necessarily dead-end clerical positions. New avenues of career progression have opened up for individuals who keep updated in skills and knowledge. Secretarial workstations now contain the hardware and software for multi functional responsibilities such as word processing, data processing, telecommunications, presentation graphics, and spreadsheets. Workstations are integrated through local area networks, and secretaries have access to the Internet and communicate through the use of e-mail. Secretarial job responsibilities are growing and expanding in direct relation to the sophistication of the equipment secretaries are operating.

The rate of growth is good and is opening up more diversified career opportunities that require different attitudes and skills, higher-level decision making and problem-solving abilities, and new knowledge qualifications. A question pertaining to these new designs is: Who will manage these systems? Undoubtedly, the person who will qualify will have to understand the broad concepts of office systems, management, productivity, and personnel administration.

Another trend in office environments that has implications for those who want more meaningful work experiences is the growth of departments of human resources. Management has seen fit to shift its emphasis from the sole use of technology to increase productivity to more efficient use of people. This presupposes good human relationships among staff hierarchy, which ultimately results in greater job satisfaction, a feeling of belonging, and the surfacing of creativity skills that were previously dormant. Organizations have converted their personnel departments into departments of human resources that focus on management of people rather than administration of policies and procedures. In these companies there is an organized effort to match people with jobs. There is an assessment of skills, knowledge, and abilities of personnel; and personal growth is encouraged. Some firms incorporate career counseling and training in their program.

This new direction in organizational management supports the theory that even though office processes are automated, it is human intelligence and motivated, competent personnel that are needed to communicate and expand on that information.

With the realization by management that personnel is one of the key areas in reaching the goals of office automation also comes the need to improve work environments. Work space, equipment, and furniture are now designed to accommodate the needs of people as well as the task. This has resulted in attractive, landscaped surroundings that serve the psychological and physiological needs of the workers. You need no longer work in a dull, stress-producing environment due to isolation, high noise levels, poor lighting, and hard floors. This whole new area of study in the office, known as ergonomics, is concerned with people's needs.

Steelcase Inc., the world's leading designer and manufacturer of office furniture, was commissioned to work for Owens Corning on a new work culture based on 1. Advanced use of technology; 2. Enhanced exchange of information; 3. New levels of interaction. The vision for this new work culture would include self-directed networks of employees who would work collaboratively, using the company's advanced technology. The design developed included open work spaces, private enclosed areas to supplement open spaces, and fully equipped teaming rooms. When finished, the physical environment would allow for more interaction, enhanced communication, better use of technology, and a workplace that stimulates its staff. A survey of more than four hundred of Owens Corning employees found that 60 percent stated productivity had improved, 80 percent are more customer focused, and 75 percent indicated that meetings are more efficient. Another good outcome as noted in the survey was that 88 percent of the employees reported a high level of teaming with departmental coworkers, and 66 percent across departmental boundaries.

Another factor that has impacted the office is the fact that information is now a corporate resource, similar to plant and equipment. Information and communication are becoming almost synonymous terms as we witness the interconnection of machines. Of what value is information unless it is communicated from person to person and from location to location? Therefore, office administration now occupies an area of importance in company goals equal to marketing, finance, and personnel.

Advancement Opportunities

The number of traditional secretaries began to decrease from the time word processing was first introduced. Secretaries who primarily worked in automated offices began to support more than one principal. With downsizing, they also began to assume many responsibilities formerly performed by managers. Advancement comes with these added responsibilities. According to Professional Secretaries International, "companies are creating a multitude of career paths for persons in office/ administrative professions. Secretaries have moved into training, supervision, desktop publishing, information management, and research." They should have technical and conception knowledge of the field and an understanding of the business operations of the organization.

Interestingly, secretaries were the ones initially trained to become man-agers of word processing centers.

Women in management are an extremely broad group. They are most likely to be managers in the same field in which there were proportionately more of them employed below the managerial level. Women held three-fourths (75 percent) of all managerial positions in medicine and health. The May 1998 issue on Facts on Working Women from the Women's Bureau indicates that secretaries and cashiers are still the occupations where the largest numbers of women are employed. The supply of women qualified for management positions continues to increase as they assume more office management responsibilities, accumulate work experience, and continue their professional education to achieve an appropriate college degree in business, personnel administration, or accounting. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 262,000 positions as clerical supervisors/managers are predicted to be added between 1996 and 2006. For more information, read From Secretaries to Managers and Mobility in Chapter 2.

Besides supervisory and managerial opportunities, you also have a lateral career option, which is to switch from jobs with one type of responsibility to another, such as from computer operator to trainer. However, if your main goal is to aspire to a managerial position, you would be wise to concentrate on developing the following qualifications: interpersonal relations skills; flexibility in dealing with others and in making efficient changes in operations and procedures; willingness to delegate; ability to direct, guide, and motivate employees; a pleasant, yet assertive personality and enthusiastic attitude; and an understanding of the company, including its goals, its policies, and its philosophies.

Through secretarial work, employees can demonstrate a potential for management responsibilities. This experience in combination with continuing education will open up channels for promotion. Continue to update your knowledge and skills and keep abreast of technological advances by joining professional organizations, by attending seminars and workshops, and by reading current literature in the field. Finally, sometimes even adhering to all of these suggestions will not be promising for you unless you take a positive attitude and view your job as a career rather than a job. This means you must do more than just what is expected of you, and you must plan strategies for reaching certain goals. Opportunity may strike, but some people also make it happen. Accept the challenges that are offered to you, make your desires to advance known to your supervisors and management, and maintain this visibility.

Teamwork Is In!

Autocratic management styles from top-down are beginning to be replaced by self-managed work teams. This type of management enables employees at all levels in an organization to participate and share responsibility for implementing organizational goals. Group work settings support a more participative culture, an enhanced exchange of information, and greater levels of team interaction. Surveys indicate that increased productivity is an offshoot of teamwork. If you are part of an office professional team, you, as well as the other members of your team, must understand what is expected of you-your roles and responsibilities-and how you can make a contribution to the department or firm. Teams are usually involved in the administrative functions of planning, organizing, and complex problem solving; and each member of the team develops the collaborative skills needed to work with the group. As employees gain empowerment as they work in these teams, they learn to manage themselves.

What are the skills and personal qualities that secretaries need to demonstrate as part of a successful team? First and most important is a commitment to company goals. Other skills and qualities are the following:
  • Communicating frequently with all members of the team and appropriate managers; listening effectively, considering contributions of others, and separating fact from emotions

  • Identifying and solving problems

  • Keeping up to date

  • Suggesting ideas and procedures for implementing them
A secretary and manager can also constitute a team. Gloria Foster, an executive secretary, states that those who take the initiative make things happen: "They recognize opportunities to improve, change, create, and contribute to their work environment." You can use these various means to: familiarize yourself with all aspects of the organization, volunteer for jobs other than what is expected of you in your position, keep learning and add to your storehouse of knowledge, and contribute to a productive and harmonious working environment. Effective teamwork leads to improvement in a company's productive operations and to more satisfied employees who have gained a professional identity within the organization.

Is There A Place For Older Workers In The Job Market?

Some personnel experts believe that workers beyond the age of fifty have a competitive edge in the job market. They usually have had previous experience with several employers and are looked up to as role models by younger workers. The older employee conveys an image of stability. Until recently, mature individuals had been returning to the job market for several reasons: an inflationary economy bringing about a need for additional family income; self-fulfillment; boredom after children grow up; changing social values; and the women's liberation movement.

Some statements made by employers about older workers who are their employees are very complimentary and highlight the positive qualities they possess, such as motivation, care of equipment, and belief that coming to work is a high priority. A survey by the Commonwealth Fund in New York stated in the December 28, 1997, New York Times that "...workers over 55 were better than younger workers when it came to work attitude, turnover, and absenteeism."

Despite age, mature individuals have many opportunities to find employment. Many of them, when they first return to the job market, look forward to full-time employment with trepidation, not certain that they will be able to cope with the demands of the job as well as with their personal and family responsibilities. Therefore, some of these mature individuals may opt for temporary or part-time jobs-an expanding mode of employment. Before long, this worker usually adjusts to the workday routine, begins to gain self-confidence, and is ready for a full-time position. With the dearth of qualified secretaries and the thirst for qualified help to fill the positions that go unfilled each year, the returning adult who has a sense of responsibility and loyalty and who possesses good skills should have no difficulty finding and keeping a job. These adults should enlist in continuing education courses to update their skills, abilities, and knowledge.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicates that older workers will account for an increasing share of the labor force, and they will be the fastest-growing segment of the labor force. Over the 1996-2006 periods, the fifty-five to sixty-four age groups is projected to grow 48 percent by 2006. This rate is one-fourth lower than the forty-five to fifty-four age group. During this same period, the labor force aged forty-five to fifty-four ads the most workers, 8.8 million. Another 6.6 million workers are added from those aged fifty-five to sixty-four. In Canada, the proportion of women in the federal public service aged forty-five or older rose in 1997 to 35 percent from 32.5 percent in March 1996. The proportion was lower, however, than that for men aged forty-five or older, which rose to 47.4 percent from 45.6 percent last year.

Many adult training centers, public schools, private business institutions, and colleges have developed one-year certificate programs for the adult who wants to return to school. These adults may enroll in refresher courses or may wish to learn specialized skills needed in offices with modern technology. Some schools even have cooperative work programs where students work in industry for a stipulated period of time each week. This experience enables the mature adult who has been a homemaker for many years to become accustomed to the working environment and to get a broad view of the changes that have occurred.

Misconceptions About Secretarial Work

There have been many misconceptions about secretarial work that need clarification. These perceptions pertain to poor image, low salaries, women's work concept, and replacement by automation.

Low Esteem of Secretaries

Technological innovations have brought many changes to the secretarial profession and will continue to impact the work secretaries do. In the past, "She is 'only' a secretary" or she is "my gal Friday" were images of a secretary attacked by the women's liberation movement. Because of this image, many qualified individuals shied away from entering the field. However, through the hard work of professional secretarial organizations and changes brought about in business with the advent of word processing environments, which created secretarial specialists as well as supervisory and managerial positions for secretaries, this image, began to fade.

As you read in previous chapters, new areas of responsibility have developed for secretaries that involve the mastery of word processing, spreadsheet, and database management software. Some are even using desktop publishing to design brochures, manuals, and fliers. Also, with downsizing, many secretaries began to perform managerial duties. With the emphasis on human resources, some are also becoming organizational team members. Those individuals who are actively involved need to demonstrate the ability to analyze problems and make decisions, to exhibit professional behaviors, and to use good oral and written communication skills.

Women are becoming more vocal and self-assertive and are demanding respect as professionals. They want responsibility and wish to advance in their careers. Today's secretary is better educated than those of previous decades and will not be relegated to low status. In fact, executives themselves are realizing that qualified secretaries are harder to replace than good executives. In essence, the secretary is a valued staff member of the office; and as positions become more responsible, secretaries will receive greater recognition.

Title changes are also being made to improve the image of the secretary, and it is becoming quite common to hear "assistant," "administrative assistant," "administrative support staff" and "executive assistant," rather than "secretary." Some companies are developing job descriptions to reflect increased responsibilities. In some firms, senior executives and partners still want secretaries with good shorthand and keyboarding skills, although performing administrative duties is a major part of the job. In effect, the "executive secretary" performs similar tasks. In information processing environments, however, the responsibilities are expanding to include knowledge of information systems. All secretaries now have terminals on their desks, and they certainly know how to retrieve information stored in the computer and how to send communications electronically. Whether known as a secretary or administrative assistant, tasks may be similar. Perhaps someday there will be more definitive titles based on levels of responsibility. Nevertheless, you, the secretary, no matter what your title, must believe in the job and in yourself.

Another misconception about secretaries is that they are paid low salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in June 1996 that the average weekly salaries ranged from $393 for Level I secretaries to $810 for Level V. Compare these earnings with those of computer operators whose compensation ranges from $387 per week for Level I to $820 for Level V. Accounting clerks averaged $321 a week for Level I to $553 for Level IV, while personnel assistants received weekly salaries from $342 for Level I to $607 for Level IV. Another look at some metropolitan districts indicates that in the Northeast area, top-level secretaries can earn as much as $828 per week and in the Midwest $822 weekly. The low average point in these cities is $426 and $418 respectively.

Secretarial salaries have been rising each year. Also be aware of the fact that the demand for secretaries is still strong, and that a dearth of qualified individuals exists for those who possess higher-level skills. All indications are that there is a bright, exciting future for this career field.

Women's Work

There has been a movement for women to leave traditionally female occupations for those that were once exclusively for males. As for males entering the secretarial profession, they are beginning to see the opportunities and satisfaction that they can derive, particularly with the invasion of technology and systems in office environments. The future may be more promising, and we may see more males entering the profession for the following reasons: as firms delete the word secretary from titles, men will not feel the "stigma" attached to the job and become candidates for available positions; jobs are available now and projected to continue in the future; automation is creating many opportunities for advancement; challenges for systems and innovation and creativity exist; and supervisory and managerial positions with varied titles and responsibilities appeal to the upwardly mobile.

Finley A. Lanier, Jr., who began his career as a secretary in a word processing department and has been in the profession for a long time, states: "The profession was intriguing since very few males sought entrance, and I wanted to secure a future with skills that would be helpful in landing a job. I have found it to be rather challenging and stressful at times. Serving others and being on top of things and networking with counterparts are only a few of the rewards achieved from this career. When one can take pride in the accomplishments in a day's work and know that as a result you have added a dimension to the situation, this really is gratifying." Some advice Lanier gives to be successful is that "a secretary must stay out of office politics, avoid arguments, and remember that you are there to serve a purpose and to get the job done. That is the only thing that matters."

Another interesting factor that might reverse this "female occupation" is the trend toward workstations where executives are now being forced to perform keyboarding functions once exclusively within the secretary's domain. Reluctantly, executives are learning to "key-in" their own requests on their terminals. This, too, should bring about a different set of attitudes about secretarial work.

Impact of Automation on Employment of Secretaries

According to the 1998-99 Occupational Outlook Handbook, job openings for secretaries should be plentiful, especially for well-qualified and experienced secretaries. Employment growth for medical secretaries will be faster than average, and for legal secretaries, average growth. Although there will be a small decline due to automation in general secretarial positions, the need exists for replacement of workers who leave or transfer to other occupations. Equally important is the generation of new job opportunities in several rapidly growing industries, such as personnel supply, computer and data processing, and management and public relations.

Neither automation nor economic factors will have an adverse impact on employment of secretaries. The demand will continue to be strong. What will happen will be changes in the role of the secretary both in traditional and automated environments? Undoubtedly, there will be demands for secretaries with different kinds of needs and personal characteristics with the trend toward telecommuting, or working at home (see Chapter 4 for more detailed information).
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