Secretaries seek new career paths

For enterprising secretaries, office automation offers the opportunity for jobs with increased responsibility, technical expertise, and higher pay. At the other end of the scale, secretaries may be relegated to word-processing centers reminiscent of the typing pools of yesteryear.

While technology will not render their skills obsolete, secretaries are finding they need to understand the capabilities of office automation to progress in their field. Speakers and participants at the Secretary Speakout '83 sponsored by Professional Secretaries International (PSI), held last month in Boston, revealed these key concerns:

* The need for continued training and education in the use and applications of new equipment.

* The need for secretaries to participate in the selection, installation, and evaluation of office electronic systems.

* The need to reclassify jobs and upgrade pay scales as secretaries assume new responsibilities and technical skills.

Recently, the Minolta Corporation, in cooperation with PSI, sponsored a study to evaluate the impact of office technology on the secretary's role. The study was based on responses from more than 2,000 PSI members and 1,000 executives nationwide.

Over 75 percent of both the secretaries and executives surveyed expect office automation to open up new career opportunities for secretaries.

''The majority of secretaries I know are looking forward to the change. They're excited about it,'' says Eleanor Fusoni, secretary to the president of a small company in Hingham, Mass.

Kathleen Sulek, a secretary for a law office in Wheeling, W.Va., sees automated office systems as great timesavers and plans to take part in choosing her own equipment. ''Whether they consult me or not they're going to hear from me,'' she says.

According to a survey by Kelly Services of more than 600 support personnel in Fortune 1300 companies in the United States and Canada, once the adjustment to the use of electronic equipment has taken place, 73 percent of the workers surveyed said they were able to exercise greater responsibility and decisionmaking authority. New skills meant higher salaries for 48 percent of those involved in the transition to electronic equipment.

The advent in office technology has also affected newcomers in the secretarial profession. Young people are coming into the field better equipped for the automated workplace, and more men are attracted to the profession as it becomes increasingly technical in nature.

Ironically, Bill Landeaux, a secretary at Mobil Oil Corporation in Denver, believes the influx of men will bring added status to the field. In the meantime , he finds it difficult at times to be a male in a predominantly female occupation. ''You've got to have tough skin,'' he says.

While technology has increased productivity and eliminated some of the more tedious secretarial tasks, Ina Simpson, president of PSI, poses the question: ''Now that technology has saved time, what are secretaries going to do with that time?''

According to the Minolta-PSI study, secretaries see themselves taking on more administrative and decisionmaking tasks, whereas executives see them moving into specialized word processing or technical positions.

Both these scenarios often exist side by side in ''automated'' companies, according to Dr. Mary Murphree of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

In earlier years when systems were more expensive, computer equipment vendors pushed for centralized work areas, emphasizing increased efficiency and tighter supervision. Now, with the price per unit coming down, there is a trend toward decentralization and individual work stations.

According to Dr. Murphree, the difference between word-processing centers and individual work stations has a profound effect on the secretary in terms of status, variety of tasks, career mobility, and pay.

In many word-processing centers, operators are required to work at the terminals full time except for regulated breaks, Dr. Murphree says. Some workers must meet quotas or work on computers that tally individual keystrokes or introduce a new task as soon as one is completed.

In addition to the problem of low morale, Dr. Murphree says these ''job ghettos'' isolate secretaries from the mainstream. This often makes it difficult to move up in the organization, because the workers generally have little or no professional contact with managers and executives.

In workplaces with a decentralized setup, the personal computers and word processors are dispersed throughout the organization, with secretary-executive teams grouped around departments or projects. This arrangement tends to foster loyalty and work accountability. It also allows the secretary to devise ways to use the computer more efficiently, and increases the opportunities for advancement.

Dr. Murphree notes that executives who avoid learning to work on computers often become extremely dependent on their secretaries who have technical expertise. They may also have unrealistic expectations about how fast computer-aided work can be completed.

''There is a lot of hype out there about what these computers can do,'' says Russell Sprague, director of information consulting services and office technology at the Monsanto Company in St. Louis.

Computers can facilitate more efficient operations, but they cannot substitute for diplomatic and social skills. ''There is a limitation to the new technology. We must keep that person-to-person contact,'' says a secretary for a multinational corporation.

Another secretary adds: ''Electronic expertise is only as good as the secretary.''

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