The indispensable secretary: recession-proof

Despite the recession, secretaries like Grace Urbaitis are more firmly ensconced in their offices than ever. In some cases, they've proved more indispensable than their white-collar employers, who have joined the unemployment rolls.

While overall unemployment reached 9 percent in March, secretarial unemployment was well behind at 6.9 percent, and many secretarial positions remain unfilled.

Ms. Urbaitis doesn't like to use the word ''secretary'' to describe herself. The old gum-snapping, nail-filing stereotype she associates with the word may still exist, but it's an image that just doesn't fit the secretarial profession's new profile.

National Secretaries' Day (April 21), may still mean roses and lunch with the boss. But more, she says, it calls attention to the changing complexion of the secretarial field by ''honoring all those people who are really doing the work.'' She proposes a new name for the day: National Assistants' Appreciation Day.

Ms. Urbaitis is a prime example of this new image. Three years out of secretarial school, she has parlayed her secretarial responsibilities from a $10 ,000-a-year post to a $20,000 position assisting the station manager at Boston's WCOZ radio--overtaking many of her college-educated contemporaries in the process.

Women's advocates have traditionally used Secretaries' Day to promote unionization of working women, better pay, benefits, and working conditions, and to point up the issues of discrimination and sexual harassment. But the day also it may be more remarkable to note the bargaining leverage secretaries gain as their economic resilience becomes apparent.

Employers clamor for qualified secretaries. A $25,000 salary for a top-notch secretary is not unusual, says Geri Parsons, vice-president of John Leonard Personnel Associates, a Boston employment agency.

''We have on the average, six to 10 (secretarial) openings at any one time,'' says Jay Glasthall, personnel counselor at New England Merchant's National Bank where base salary for a secretary without experience is $228 a week.

Two Boston employment agencies told the Monitor that a person with basic typing skills could be guaranteed placement within a few days.

''This isn't surprising in the sense that businesses have to keep paper work going even in a recession when they're laying off production workers,'' explains Larry Drake, a labor economist with the Department of Labor. ''It's not good to say this though with the implication that anyone can get a job.''

He explains that most employers want ''qualified'' secretaries, and many of the women who might have been the best secretaries have been channeled into professions not traditionally taken up by women. This, he says, explains part of the reason many secretarial positions remain unfilled.

''Qualified,'' though, can mean anything from having basic typing skills to bookkeeping and administrative experience. However, with automation, strictly clerical responsibilities are increasingly giving way to administrative responsibilities for secretaries, explains Diane Gallagher, placement counselor with the Katharine Gibbs School in Boston. This has given secretarial work a better reputation, bringing ambitious women back to the profession.

She cites Ms. Urbaitis as an example of the woman who sees the secretarial route as the best way to get a foot in the door of the business she wants to get into. She says the Gibbs school, which has a 95 percent placement rate among students using the placement office, is attracting increasing numbers of college educated women seeking secretarial skills for just this purpose.

One observer, Jack Nilles, a research associate at the University of Southern California's Center for Futures Research, suggests that the combination of automation, the shift from clerical to administrative work, and women's increased ambitions may mean that the secretarial profession, as we know it, will be outdated within the next decade. As Ms. Urbaitis suggests, National Secretaries' Day may indeed become National Assistants' Day.

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