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Educational Preparation For Secretarial/Office Professional Positions

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Between 1996 and 2006, the projections of the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that there will be about 250,000 more college graduates entering the labor force each year than there will be college-level jobs. This means that 18 percent of new college graduates may not be able to find college-level jobs. The logical question to ask then is why are so many high school graduates enrolling in college to earn a degree? Mark Mittelhauser, an economist in the Office of Employment projects believes that college graduates are favored in the labor market. They earn more money and experience lower unemployment rates than workers without a degree. The unemployment rate of college graduates in 1996, which was 2.4 percent, was less than half of the absenteeism rate for high school graduates, 5.4 percent.

Approximately thirty-three million college graduates were employed in 1996 in the United States. Two groups, the professional specialty occupation and the executive, administrative, and managerial occupations accounted for two-thirds of the college-level employment, 14 million jobs and 8.4 million, respectively. The administrative support occupations, including secretaries, clerical supervisors, and managers, accounted for an additional 2.6 million workers.

Many new openings created by growth reflect a related phenomenon - educational upgrading. With restructuring and change, many workers assume new responsibilities. Statistics support this statement. Of the 750,000 college-level job openings that were due to projected growth, 40 percent of these openings are due to upgrading between 1996 and 2006.

Today, as well as in the past, the minimum educational requirement for an entry-level secretarial position is graduation from high school. However, with the impact that technology has had on office procedures, systems, and responsibilities now assumed by secretaries, employers generally prefer hiring those candidates who have a solid foundation in secretarial and computer skills and are proficient in the use of the English language-spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary. In addition, flexibility, attitude and willingness to accept change in all facets of the work environment, pleasing personality, poise, good interpersonal skills, and use of diplomacy in human relations are qualities that give the prospective employee a competitive edge over others. For supervisory and managerial positions, postsecondary education is desirable. The use of initiative, discretion, and good judgment, as well as the ability to organize daily activities, prioritize, manage time effectively, and be a wise decision maker are traits sought in candidates.

Although you read in the previous paragraph that the minimum requirement for a secretarial position is graduation from high school, you need to know the background of individuals who are already working in these positions. You need to prepare yourself to compete with the population looking for employment.

In jobs where a degree is not required, college graduates who either do not find employment in their field or who choose to make a career switch will be a source of employment for these jobs. Therefore, the competition will be keener; employers may look upon these college graduates more favorably, particularly as skills needed in secretarial positions become more complex. Some employers actually inflate the educational requirement for some jobs because of the abundance of college graduates looking for work and because they anticipate grooming graduates for administrative and managerial positions.

Specific hiring requirements for secretaries vary from firm to firm; however, many companies require a keying speed of sixty-five words per minute (wpm) and above seventy wpm for individuals in word processing areas. Knowledge of shorthand is an asset in being offered a well-paying secretarial job, particularly during periods when competition is keen and in large firms where higher-level executives and senior partners request it. Some employers may still use shorthand testing as a screening device for a better-qualified applicant. More will be said about the need for shorthand in the following section titled Is Shorthand Obsolete?

A continuous need has existed for specialized secretaries in legal, medical, and technical organizations. In these specialties, you need a firm grounding in terminology, an understanding of the field, and knowledge of office procedures used in the specific kind of environment.

In addition to the general secretarial and specialized skills and knowledge already mentioned, good organizational ability and knowledge of software applications, such as word processing, spreadsheet, database management, scanners, and information storage systems, will give you the leading edge in a competitive job market. The continuing changes occurring in office environments because of technology affect equipment and procedures as well as skill and knowledge requirements. Concomitantly, new career paths and positions continue to be created that call for different combinations of skills, attitudes, and knowledge. Alert individuals who consider education as an ongoing process and as an integral part of the job will become prime candidates for these openings.

Is Shorthand Obsolete?

Opinions vary about the need for shorthand. Some believe it is necessary for secretarial employment; and since it is no longer used extensively, others believe it is becoming an archaic skill. Shorthand dictation is still used in some offices, particularly by executives who became accustomed to working routinely with a specific individual. Shorthand is used on a pretty steady basis by secretaries and office professionals for telephone messages, recording instructions, and taking minutes of meetings. Having a good shorthand skill is really a plus. When checking the help-wanted ads in The New York Times under the general categories of "executive secretary" and "secretary," a small percentage of the ads specify shorthand. However, a good number of higher-level executives and senior partners in law firms require shorthand. Individuals who are proponents of shorthand state that those individuals with shorthand skills average approximately an 18 percent higher salary than those without it. Job seekers with shorthand skills have a competitive edge over those lacking this skill in being hired in the better salaried jobs.

The above statements attest to the fact that the demand for shorthand has decreased considerably for general secretarial work; however, it is not yet obsolete. It is still a requirement in some higher-level administrative executive secretarial positions and in legal positions with partners. Shorthand skill is a plus and will open doors to positions in the executive suite.

Secretarial/Administrative Assistant Programs Of Study

Secretarial education continues to be offered; however, the curriculum or program designation varies in each school. Courses of study are offered in high school vocational training centers and one- and two-year programs in business schools, vocational-technical institutions, and community colleges. In degree-granting institutions, students need to complete liberal arts as well as specialized courses. Review the curricular from the different schools and districts that are included in the text that follows.

High School Programs

In the past, schools in a particular district would offer similar programs for the secretarial major. However, there is no consistency now in New York State, and requirements for liberal arts and business courses vary from school to school because of the added state requirements in the academic areas. This has affected the number of electives that can be selected from the field of business. Each school district is now tailoring these electives to meet its local needs.

In schools equipped with personal computers, students generally learn to keyboard on this equipment. In Nanuet High School in Nanuet, New York, which has the latest technology, students learn the computer key-board in the first semester. The students who are majoring in the secretarial field take a second semester of keyboarding, where in addition to developing their keyboarding skills; they do production work that includes correspondence and reports. Some Basic English is also taught. In the third semester, business computer applications are presented and students learn to do word processing, set up a database, and learn a spreadsheet.

Included in the instructions are rough drafts, endnotes, superscripts, and other types of notations. Advanced computer work is presented in the fourth semester, in which software packages are introduced: for example, Word, Power point, Excel, Desktop Publishing, and Print Shop.

The Business Education Department in Ramapo Senior High School, Spring Valley, New York, which serves a large population, offers a Three-Unit Sequence and Model Five-Unit Sequences. Overall, the department offers thirty courses from which students have certain choices, based on the sequence they elect to follow. Some of them are computer courses, including keyboarding, word processing, spreadsheets, and desktop publishing; finance and law courses; marketing-management courses; mathematics courses; speed writing; Retail Store Academy; Work Experience Program; and Career Exploration Internship Program (CEIP). As you review the curriculum below, note that "s" stands for semester.

Alternatives to the traditional 40-minute class period have been implemented in various high schools. Some now have block programs of two or three periods so that business situations can be simulated. Under this reorganization, students can complete tasks originated within the time frame, rather than having to stop a project that is only partially completed. Some innovations also include simulated experiences in advanced keyboarding and office procedures classes. The advantage to this arrangement is that students see the interrelationships between different office jobs being performed. One of the benefits students derive in these simulated experiences is training in human relations, an aspect frequently neglected in more traditional classrooms.

Community College Programs

You should determine your long-range goals when you choose your career so that you are aware of the levels of education you should attain for positions with increasing responsibilities. With greater numbers of adults going on to college to earn degrees, you should think seriously about attending at least a two-year institution for post high school education. Employers are beginning to seek college graduates to fill jobs.

Since the early 1960s, two-year community colleges have expanded educational opportunities to provide the professions, business, and industry with qualified personnel.

Practically all these institutions offer secretarial programs, even if designated by another name, for which an Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree can be earned. One such program for students that prepares them for secretarial/administrative assistant positions is given in the Secretarial and Office Information Systems program of the Business Department at Bronx Community College of The City University of New York. It is shown below in detail so that you can see, if passed successfully, that students have the qualifications that will enable them to handle jobs with increasing responsibilities that were formerly done by managers.

An Associate of Science degree program in Computer Information Technology is offered at Draughons Junior College, an accredited independent college in Nashville, Tennessee. This curriculum will prepare students with the skills and knowledge necessary for a position as an office assistant and computer information technician. In addition to the general education and specialized courses such as micro-computing, office procedures, computer programs, and desktop publishing, students also take Option 1, Emphasis on Information Processing. This enhances their knowledge of software programs, operating systems, accounting, and database. The curriculum requirements are shown below.

A rather unique Associate of Arts Degree in Business, a two-year program, was developed at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is part of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education to confer doctoral degrees. The objectives in designing such a program were to provide business occupational education with the opportunity for specialization in computer and office information systems, to enable students to accept positions in this field, to upgrade knowledge and skills, and to provide the foundation for continuance in a four-year degree program. The A.A. program consists of the following courses:

A medical curriculum in the Secretarial/Office Information Systems program of the Business Department is offered at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. These students may work in a variety of physicians' offices, hospitals, clinics, and laboratories. Students learn to transcribe medical documents from recorded dictation, complete medical forms, maintain office records, and manage a medical office. They learn how to use several software programs and become familiar with medical terminology and clinical techniques. Emphasis is also placed on secretarial, communications, and human relations skills, as recommended by the American Association of Medical Assistants. The curriculum follows:

For students who wish to enroll in a one-year program only, particularly adults who either wish to reenter the labor market or update their skills, several institutions have developed certificate programs in word processing. These curricula provide training in procedures, concepts, and electronic equipment needed for positions in organizations that use word processing and information systems. Machine transcription skills and reinforcement of English skills-spelling, grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary-also receive emphasis. Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York, also offers such a program.

The Office Technology Department also offers the ENCORE program, which consists of a sequence of courses that is designed for mature students who want to upgrade their office skills. Students earn fifteen credits that may be applied toward another program in the department.

Private Colleges and Business Schools

In addition to the public community colleges, private two-year colleges as well as private business schools offer one- and two-year secretarial programs. You may wish to check on the accreditation of these schools before enrolling. Private business schools are also a primary source for business training. In many of them, students may enroll at any time, not necessarily at the beginning of the term, and may progress at their own rate.

Continuing Education Programs

In addition to the schools already mentioned, secretarial courses are offered in almost all continuing education programs-in colleges, in evening high schools, at the YMCAs, and wherever self-development is a major objective.
Other learning experiences are through internship programs or cooperative work experience. This experience helps bridge the gap between college and the real world. Generally, classroom study is combined with supervised on-the-job work. Students may be placed in internships for one semester, but they also attend weekly seminars at the college with sharing of job experiences and features of the work environment. In cooperative work experience programs, arrangements vary. Sometimes students work part-time while attending college, or they may work for a certain block of time and then return to the college. The coordinator usually identifies job openings, arranges interviews, and supervises students. Well-run programs match student skills and interests to employer needs.

Company-Sponsored Programs

Company-sponsored programs are also conducted to provide opportunities for additional learning or reinforcement of skills that are relevant to company activities. Frequently, when a considerable number of employees are deficient in certain kinds of knowledge or skills, as perceived by supervisors or by employee’s them-selves, courses are designed to meet these needs.

Once you are established in a job and sense new needs that are shared by others in your department or skill area, it is sometimes possible to initiate training programs in your company. If you have a good idea that would benefit the company as well as the workers, write a brief proposal and talk it over with your immediate superior. Give that person a chance to discuss it with the personnel department or with her or his supervisor. It is much more likely to receive a favorable response if you follow channels and are polite and businesslike about making the proposal. Some examples of times that such a proposal might be appropriate are when the company would benefit from using new types of equipment such as computers or printers. Keep in mind that the important factor is whether or not the company will be benefited by the proposed training program. More information on company training programs is given in Chapter 8.


The nature and level of skills required in the labor market has changed in Canada, as in the United States. In the office, it is commonplace to use computer technology for word processing, spreadsheets, database management, desktop publishing, and information storage. Secretaries need to have excellent keyboarding, communications, English, organizational, and analytical skills. The technological innovations have changed the way work is done, who does it, and the skills required. To prepare youth for employment, the government's long-term goal is "to make cooperative education programs available in every high school in Canada."

In Canada, secretarial jobs are the largest group of information-based jobs in the economy. If employed in a specialized area such as medicine, law, or commerce, it is necessary to understand the technical language. Similar to the United States, the basic requirement for entry-level secretarial positions is high school graduation. Some employers are looking for individuals who have earned a secretarial career certificate or have completed a college-level office program. The demand is growing for individuals with college education. Those graduates from related fields of business, commerce, management, and administration, including university graduates, compete for secretarial jobs when they cannot find employment in their field of study.

Some of the programs offered at the Open Learning Agency and most colleges are secretarial, word processing, computer application, legal, and medical secretarial preparation. For those interested in supervisory and administrative positions, administrative programs are available. The prerequisites for admission into the secretarial career field in the community colleges vary from institution to institution. Generally, candidates must pass an English proficiency test and must have completed advanced English courses at the high school level, must meet established typing and shorthand standards, and frequently are required to pass an interview. The two-year program is offered in all community colleges in all of the provinces, with the exception of one or two depending on the course of study.

Statistics show that in 1994, 2,740 students graduated from the two-year community college secretarial career program. According to Job Futures, Occupational Outlooks, a government publication, in the Secretarial-General program, the majority found work as secretaries, and the others in clerical occupations. Six out of seven graduates found full-time employment. However, there didn't appear to be much mobility in the secretarial position. In contrast, there was greater mobility among clerical employees who, after three to five years, were employed as secretaries.

Secretaries, recorders, and transcriptionists work in government and throughout the private sector including law offices, company legal departments, real estate companies, land titles offices, courts, doctors' offices, hospitals, clinics, and other medical organizations. This occupational group also includes executive, private, and technical secretaries; estate, medical, legal, litigation, and real estate secretaries; court reporters; and stenographers. There were 421,000 workers employed in this group in 1994, which was 3 percent of the total workforce. In this group, 80 percent were secretaries. The number of women employed in these occupations ranged from 92 percent to 100 percent. Most of the employees in these occupations were 99 percent women.

The Annual Report on Employment Equity, which covers the fiscal year from April 1, 1996, to March 31, 1997, reveals that approximately one-half of the federal public service workforce were women, 49.5 per-cent; almost a quarter of all employees in the executive category were women, 23 percent; just over seven out of ten women entered the federal public service via the administrative support category; and women continued to receive more than half of all promotions, 56.5 percent.

The speed at which technology is moving and the impact it has on the office environment and office occupations stresses the importance of lifetime learning.
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