In word-processor maze, a new friend for peripatetic help

A typewriter is a typewriter, but a Wang isn't the same as a DECmate II or an IBM Displaywriter - as the nation's temporary-help firms are finding out, to their grief.

The office automation revolution represents a tremendous opportunity for them. Their customers, overwhelmed with new equipment, have often needed all the help they could get operating it. And so virtually all the temporary firms are scrambling into the training business. But it has proved difficult for temporary-help firms to certify the skills of word-processor operators. The traditional stopwatch-timed typing test just doesn't do it.

At this point, enter the Kee simulator, a machine that imitates various makes of word processors and provides instant electronic scoring for speed and accuracy, not only for basic typing functions but also for formating and other functions unique to word processors. The simulator can also be used in a training mode - the keyboard lights up to indicate which buttons should be pushed, in which order.

''It seems superior to conventional materials used for testing,'' says Calvin Pava, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, who has been a consultant to Kelly. Kelly officials report that they've had ''fan mail'' from temps who feel the system has given them confidence by certifying their skills.

But an executive at a much smaller competitor says, ''There are some drawbacks to the system.

''The word-processing training is pretty elementary, and customers don't need people with elementary training, they need people who can go in and do the job.'' The whole temporary industry is having ''a monstrous problem'' trying to meet demand, he adds.

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