Secretaries see new vistas with office automation

Sandy Traughber wasn't about to trade in her electric typewriter when her company starting looking into office automation. As secretary to Monsanto Company's director of management information systems , she was one of several people asked to study the product alternatives before the firm began switching to the ''electronic office.'' She did agree, but her reasons were defensive: ''I was scared my job would be changing and I wanted to be in a position to persuade them to leave my job alone!'' But now, she says, she can't imagine doing without the new equipment.

Although not all organizations representing clerical workers are enthusiastic about the new machinery, a nationwide survey shows that 99 percent of all secretaries do not see office automation as a threat to their jobs. The survey, conducted by C. A. Pesko Associates for Minolta Corporation and Professional Secretaries International (PSI), also said that over 75 percent of secretaries expect the electronic office to open up new career opportunities in their job category.

Electronic office equipment is not only increasing productivity and reducing costs for companies, it is gradually changing the role of the secretary - for the better, most secretaries indicate. It is adding new jobs and making old ones more interesting, they say.

This is significant, since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that ''employment of secretaries is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the 1980s.''

Some groups representing office workers, however, warn that the growth could come at the expense of women who may gain technical experience but lose decisionmaking powers to men. These groups are also concerned about health problems and - since computers can keep closer track of productivity - increased regimentation.

What office automation means to most companies right now is ''word processing.'' The operator works with a keyboard, video display screen, and a printer instead of an electric typewriter. Word processing allows people to rearrange, change, and edit text on a computer. Then, when the text is mistake-free, they can have it printed on paper.

For small companies, that capability is usually found on a microcomputer, often operated by a secretary who uses the machine to do almost everything in the office short of managing the company, notes Mr. Pesko, president of the research firm that did the survey.

But for large companies, word-processing operators and secretaries serve different functions. Operators work in word-processing centers, where executive secretaries and managers go to have reports and letters typed.

And some big companies have gone beyond the word-processing center to installing more expensive ''integrated office'' systems in a portion of their work areas. Such equipment, which includes video screens and printers and can retrieve information from the company's main computer, has an added communication system that allows one office to send a memo electronically to the video display screens of other offices in the network. That so-called electronic mail capability can also be carried by phone lines, microwave, or satellite across state lines and national borders.

Office automation is creating a whole new career ladder for entry-level office workers to climb, says Ina Simpson, who is president of PSI as well as an executive secretary. The ladder in her company, South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, is still somewhat traditional. It starts with the post of clerk-typist and moves through several levels of stenographers toward the executive-secretary level.

But with a growing demand for people with word-processing skills, that kind of traditional career path is expected to sprout a new branch.

As automation becomes more prevalent, says Minnie Green, a personnel assistant at General Foods, people hired to use word-processing and other equipment will climb laterally with secretaries to the supervisor level, but in the word-processing center.

At Monsanto, where entire electronic offices have been installed in about 20 percent of the company, there are higher rungs to step on in that more technical side of office work, says Wanda Gant, a senior office systems analyst. In her company, a motivated word-processing operator moves into a supervisory position, and from there to such new jobs as systems training instructor, program designer , and systems analyst, consultant, and manager. New managerial jobs on the technical side also create the need for new secretarial positions in the traditional sense of the word.

Such a job lineup provides a whole new set of attractions for the latest arrival on the job market - someone who might have been educated to consider the traditional secretarial role less than fulfilling. But PSI's Ina Simpson says office automation, aside from merely adding new jobs, is making the traditional secretary's job much more interesting, too.

Microcomputers that have access to a company's main data base are becoming increasingly indispensable to executives. So more and more executive offices have the machines that tend to eliminate traditional secretarial tasks, Ms. Simpson reports. What's being reduced, she says, are typing, shorthand, and in-house phone answering. And what's being gained, say Ms. Simpson and Diane Capstaff, a second vice-president at John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, are responsibility, creativity, and more boss-secretary teamwork.

At one time a secretary had to spend more time in the office to answer the boss's questions on scheduling and to sort and process mail. Now, the secretary can do more research for the boss's next speech and handle some of his staff duties while he checks his electronic mail and calendar on his desktop microcomputer. With the same machine, the secretary can also design the format, shape, and color scheme of the boss's latest report - using the information he had already put into the computer.

But secretaries say there's one vital aspect of their job that machines will never replace: human interaction. Dealing with the public, fellow employees, and the boss can never be replaced by a machine, says Ms. Simpson. And, says Margaret Wood, spokeswoman for the Katharine Gibbs School, which trains secretaries: ''Executive secretaries don't spend much time typing. They make arrangements, refer messages, decide who gets what information, and so on. They tend to be people with very good interpersonal skills and often make up for a lack thereof in the people they work for.''

But the 9 to 5 National Association for Working Women expresses concern about some aspects of the move to office automation. ''The decisionmaking and intellectual work associated with clerical work is being separated out and kicked up to the next-highest position,'' says 9 to 5 spokeswoman Janice Blood. ''And I wouldn't be surprised if that (higher) job were to go to a man and be retitled.''

Office automation also is bringing renewed management tyranny, she contends. With it, ''there is a conscious management effort to keep a handle on clerical activity'' - by keeping minute-by-minute track of clerical workers' output.

The 9 to 5 association adds that not enough research has been done into office automation's potential impact on the operators and their work environments before new machinery is brought in.

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