Surprising Survivors Of the Computer Age

To find the survivors of an era, look at those who mastered its technology.

In today's corporate environment, where work force slimming is the rule, it is the ''secretaries'' who are surviving - and thriving, with more responsibilities than ever before under such titles as ''administrative assistant'' and ''executive assistant.'' They're the office workers who mastered the era's all-important technology: the computer.

It's striking when you think about it. Ten years ago, middle managers had more seniority than their secretaries, better pay, more recognition, and a better handle on the internal workings of their company. Back then, the technology seemed threatening to secretaries, because their bosses could type their own letters on computers, and voicemail would answer the phone.

But look who's still employed. Chief executives decided to keep the secretaries and lay off middle managers in droves.

Why? It's the difference between using a technology and mastering it.

Sure, assistant vice president Smith could hunt-and-peck his way through a ''Dear Gentleman'' form letter on a personal computer. But it was his secretary who spell-checked it, formatted it, printed it out, and got it in the mail.

Like their predecessors, who quickly mastered the typewriter, the adding machine, and the copier, today's generation of secretaries were quick to latch onto the personal computer. Just six years after IBM introduced its first PC, 71 percent of secretaries used word-processing software, according to a 1987 survey by Professional Secretaries International (PSI), a membership group based in Kansas City, Mo. By 1992, it was up to 95 percent.

''It's not enough anymore for someone to answer a telephone and type out what you give them on a sheet of legal paper,'' says Theresa Dolbert, vice president of implementation and business services at Kelly Services Inc., the giant temp agency. ''You need to be comfortable with a computer.''

And not just for word-processing. Nearly three-quarters of secretaries work with spreadsheets, according to PSI's latest survey. And four out of 10 use graphics programs. ''What we used to think of as a traditional secretary has expanded,'' Ms. Dolbert says. They are taking over some of the functions that middle managers used to do, such as checking spreadsheets and creating presentations.

Having mastered basic office software, secretaries are now setting their sights on more complicated programs, such as desktop publishing. In June, Kelly rolled out a new training system. Called PinPoint, it tests potential temps on their software skills and allows current temps to bone up on specific software programs. The program is an important jump for Kelly, because its previous training and testing package didn't account for the myriad ways a user can accomplish a particular task. The new training program is far more flexible and accurate.

Kelly is a bellwether. If companies are demanding that even temporary office help be proficient in specific programs, then computer literacy is no longer icing on the cake of someone's resume. It's a minimum requirement.

For secretaries, the battle isn't over. Just because they're mastering the technology doesn't mean their ranks are burgeoning. The Labor Department expects slower growth for secretaries than for office-workers in general. In fact, managers and top executives could stage a comeback if the department's projections for 2005 are accurate.

On the other hand, secretaries have managed to fool the naysayers before. If they continue to adopt the latest technology, they may well make themselves as indispensable in the 21st century as they have been in the 20th.

* Send comments via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

Secretaries are taking over some of the functions that middle managers used to do, such as checking spreadsheets and creating presentations.

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