As federal government evolves, its clerical workers edge toward extinction


Ginger Davis, who’s been with the federal government for 26 years, keeps ink pads and rubber stamps to mark correspondence as “Draft” and “Confidential” on her desk. “They remind me of how far I’ve traveled,” she said. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Ginger Davis is a survivor, one of barely five dozen clerical workers left at the Government Printing Office.

Even as her agency has been redefining its mission in an electronic age, Davis has remade herself after 26 years with the federal government, rising from the secretarial ranks to become an executive assistant. When she was offered a job in the human resources office two years ago, she was initially daunted and read every book on executive assistants she could find.

“This is my time to shine,” Davis told herself.

Across the federal government, the broad rows of desks where secretaries and clerks once typed at least 40 words a minute have vanished. While automation has been transforming the federal workforce for two generations, that change has now accelerated because of budget cuts, with the government under pressure to keep only the clerical staff it needs. Those who remain have often had to revamp the role they play in this new-look workforce.

For decades, the steno pool was the face of the modern bureaucracy. The women in polyester suits and neckerchiefs, hair coiffed and fingers flying across the keyboards, came to embody the industry of the postwar public sector.


(The Washington Post)

In 1950, clerical jobs represented three-quarters of the federal workforce. By the mid-1980s, the figure was down to a fifth. Today, these jobs are a mere 4 percent of the workforce of 2.1 million. That amounts to 87,153 people, less than a quarter of them secretaries, according to FedScope, the federal database of workplace statistics. In just the past eight years, the government has shed 40,000 clerical jobs.

At many private companies, secretaries and clerks long ago became relics as the technology revolution spread from the lean start-ups of the IT sector to the broader economy. But in government, clerks and typists held on longer, answering phones outside corner suites, shuffling paper records, and stashing personnel files in squealing metal cabinets.

Some federal staff members could ride out the changes until they retired, the job security of government work allowing them to stay put even as private industry was shedding thousands of office jobs, especially during the recent recession. Tight federal budgets and the automatic cuts of sequestration, however, have meant that very few clerical workers who leave are replaced.

Now that most Americans file their taxes electronically, the Internal Revenue Service needs fewer clerks to open paper returns. The Federal Aviation Administration has put its accident inspection reports online, so it needs fewer assistants to scan them in. In an age of teleconferencing, the front-office receptionist escorts fewer visitors to see the boss.

The downsizing is cementing the government as a bastion of white-collar, increasingly specialized professional work that demands a college degree, eliminating what was once a significant source of jobs for those with limited education.

“They’re doing away with us,” said Elizabeth Lytle, 55, an administrative program assistant for the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago. As her colleagues have retired, the EPA has looked to part-time contractors to type form letters and handle other clerical tasks, she said.

At the printing office, Davis, 58, has repositioned herself as the right-hand woman to the head of human resources. She’s an indispensable, calming presence, her colleagues say, a discreet problem-fixer. She has also learned to manage her boss’s Outlook calendar, scan personnel documents and process the department’s electronic timecards.

Next to her computer still sits an IBM Selectric 2000 Wheelwriter. “We’re never going to get rid of it,” she quipped. On a recent workday, Davis slipped in a document with a grammatical error, brushed Wite Out over it and typed a correction. Somehow that was easier than making the change in the computer.

In her desk drawer, she still keeps a pile of pencil erasers and little yellow message pads with the options “You were called by,” “You were visited by” and “is waiting to see you.” There are also ink pads and rubber stamps to mark correspondence as “Draft” and “Confidential.”

“They remind me of how far I’ve traveled,” she said.

An opening for women

The data-processing bureaucracy started to grow during the Civil War. To pay for the war, the government began printing greenbacks for the first time, and the new notes had to be cut and counted. The Treasury Department turned to an untapped labor pool that would work for less than the going wage: women.

By the 1950s, secretaries were typing, filing, taking dictation, answering phones and opening mail in just about every American business and government office. The jobs were a woman’s ticket into the workforce.

When Mary White arrived in Washington from Illinois fresh out of college in 1958, she took the civil service exam and a typing test and looked up her senator, Everett M. Dirksen, who helped her land a secretarial job in the U.S. Senate. She was so good that she soon moved to the White House, where she assisted Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter and political strategist, and later worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aide and confidant, Jack Valenti. She was paid $3,500 a year.

“We didn’t worry about finding jobs as much as people do now,” recalled White, now 80 and a Georgetown real estate broker.

But times would change, and a milestone came in 1997, when for the first time the number of higher-paid employees, GS-9 and above, outnumbered lower-paid ones such as most secretaries and clerks, GS-8 and below.

Today, almost 70 percent of these lower-ranking workers are women, government data show. One in three have been in their jobs between 10 and 24 years. Almost two out of three are 40 or older.

Not all of the remaining clerical staff members are mere vestiges. Some have kept pace with a workplace that demands more specialized tasks than ever. Instead of taking dictation with shorthand, they load presentations into PowerPoint. Instead of typing and faxing, they scan documents into a computer — although the 40-word-per-minute requirement still applies for clerical job applicants. And instead of supporting one executive in the C-suite, they work for five. Or for 50, as at the General Services Administration, where one assistant works for the entire executive staff.

“I’m prioritizing resources,” said GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who answers his own phone, responds to e-mail directly from his iPhone and schedules many of his meetings.

As a management assistant at the Navy support command in Millington, Tenn., Doris Goode has taken on new responsibilities. She orders fitness and recreation equipment for sailors at sea, pulls together spreadsheets, gets bids from vendors and prepares contracts and invoices for payment.

“Administration runs the business,” Goode said. “The job has really changed so much, they had to change the name.”

Serving Army tradition

In some corners of the government, though, traditional clerical work is holding on.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, clerical employees are working to tackle the agency’s backlog of disability claims, many filed on paper. Others work in medical support, gathering patient records, making appointments and providing forms.

At the National Archives, about 800 clerks transport original documents to researchers in cardboard boxes because so few of the records have been computerized.

And at Army Materiel Command in Huntsville, Ala., a secretary is assigned to every general and many other senior officers. Andrea Turner, the executive assistant to the command sergeant major, said she spends some of every day writing letters that go into the mail: for birthdays, promotions, condolences, and invitations to all official functions.

“You name it,” Turner said. “If there’s a reason to write a letter, we write a letter. A lot of things are still tradition-based.”

Angela Bailey wistfully recalls the hubbub around her when, as a young clerk-typist for the Social Security Administration, she churned out letters at an IBM Selectric, WiteOut at her side. Typewriter keys click-click-clicked and metal file cabinets squealed as they opened and closed, opened and closed. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the phones rang nonstop. The office hummed with the conversations of clerks taking Social Security claims.

Now, the ringing phones and clattering typewriters have gone silent.

“Even in a time of budget uncertainty, there’s an absolute need for these positions,” argues Bailey, who has risen to become a senior executive at the Office of Personnel Management.

These clerical workers, she says, are often the bureaucracy's bridge to the public and the “right arms” of senior managers. But even Bailey acknowledges that secretaries in many ways have become obsolete.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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