The automated office has spawned a new breed of institution in Washington: the automated secretarial school.
Whereas once 50 words per minute on a manual typewriter and a pleasant voice on the phone were the assets a secretary needed to land a high-paying job, today word-processing or even basic computing skills are a must. Area business schools, like secretarial programs nationwide, are scrambling to keep pace with the change.
Personal computers, word processors and video-display terminals have become standard equipment at the dozen or more accredited secretarial schools in metropolitan Washington, as well as at community colleges and four-year nonprofit institutions that offer business courses and majors.
"You can't run a successful school without offering the most up-to-date equipment," said Mary Wine, a former secretarial teacher who is now director of professional relations for the Association of Independent Colleges and Schools. The Washington-based group has accredited more than 800 for-profit secretarial programs nationwide.
Educators agree that automation has increased the cost of secretarial training, although in some cases it has not increased the cost of tuition. Automation also is cited, in part, for the growing shortage of secretarial instructors, as highly skilled workers who have taught such classes in the past and who are more in demand than ever find they can earn much more in the office than in the classroom.
Educators and professionals are less sure, however, about how automation is changing the nature of the occupation, particularly in cities such as Washington with large numbers of well-educated, professional workers.
Most point out that computers are freeing many secretaries from more tedious tasks such as filing and retyping, while expanding their administrative and executive responsibilities. This trend is making the profession more attractive to younger college-educated women, and increasingly, men. For example, a 1983 survey by Professional Secretaries International (PSI), a Kansas City, Mo., trade group, found that three-quarters of secretaries under age 30 have attended college, and 4 percent had masters degrees. The same survey of 3,000 PSI members found that 39 percent used video-display terminals, 87 percent believed automation has had a positive effect on the secretarial profession, and 73 percent believed automation has made their jobs more fulfilling.
Other observers point out that automation could mean that fewer people will be doing more work, and that the work could become more menial for some as software programs take over decision-making tasks. "There is an increase in productivity, but not necessarily an increase in pay" or responsibility, said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, which unionizes clerical workers.
On one issue, there is no debate: The demand for skilled secretaries is increasing nationwide, and, in the short run, automation may be feeding rather than slowing that demand.
According to a 1984-85 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the profession ranks third among occupations with the largest projected job growth through 1995, behind building custodians and cashiers. The number of secretarial jobs nationwide is expected to increase by 29.5 percent over that period, the bureau says, and prospects are best for secretaries "with strong typing, shorthand and word-processing skills."
Wine points out that Washington, like other large, paperwork-intensive cities, is a particularly competitive market. While demand is not as great here as in Los Angeles (where, according to Candace M. Louis, a PSI spokeswoman, secretaries have been offered new cars), "the schools cannot turn out enough people for all our jobs in the Washington area," Wine said. "Graduates with the right training have their choice of six or seven jobs."
"Washington is definitely a growth market," agreed Sylvia Cash, a former PSI president who is now with the law firm of Latham, Watkins and Hills in the District. "Just look at the help-wanted ads in The Washington Post."
Cash recalls one ad that created a stir among local secretaries when it appeared in The Post in April. Strategically placed in the "Style" section of the paper rather than among the classifieds, it asked: "Washington's Top Secretary: Where Are You?" and listed a salary of $40,000. The job required long hours and the best secretarial skills, and was placed by a business or law firm, Cash recalls. "That's not uncommon for this area," she said.
The high demand has pushed local salaries well above the national median of $17,000 to $18,000 reported in PSI's 1983 survey. According to Cash, most starting salaries for area secretaries in the private sector range from $18,000 to $22,000, while the overall average is in the $25,000-to-$30,000 range. Law firms, trade associations, lobbyists and consulting firms require the strongest skills and pay the best wages, Cash said. She added that the demands placed on secretaries probably are lower in the federal government, but government jobs offer more security.
Salaries for well-trained secretaries "are getting better and better and better," said Wine, and she credited higher wages and the profession's improving image with the current interest in secretarial programs.
The accent is on well-trained. And local schools, judged stringently on their ability to land good jobs for graduates, have invested thousands of dollars in computer systems to ensure they are giving their students marketable skills, school directors say.
According to Wine, all accredited proprietary (for-profit) secretarial programs offer computer courses, typing and shorthand. They also offer courses in "modern office procedures," record-keeping skills, business law, "good grooming," and "decision-making skills." Course lengths vary, from intensive nine-month programs that grant diplomas to two-year programs that grant associate degrees in "secretarial science." Most schools will let graduates return for refresher courses in the same program at no cost. The new equipment in general has not increased the length of training, Wine said.
"They're for-profit, which means they meet the demands of the marketplace," Wine said of the schools. "If a company comes in and says, 'We need such and such,' they can do it, and if something doesn't work, they can get rid of it fast."
While no figures are available for the Washington area, the most recent data from the Department of Education list 117,500 persons enrolled in 2,348 post-secondary programs nationwide. According to Wine, most students are recent college graduates or women returning to work.
The Katherine Gibbs School, one of the oldest and largest of the national chains, provides a good example of how business schools are changing with automation, Wine said. "It used to be the old-fashioned secretarial school, where the girls had to wear white gloves and hats. At one time, the White House seemed to prefer their graduates."
Now, "the school has a very, very large investment in equipment," said Patricia Spencer, director of the Gibbs branch in Rockville, one of two in the metropolitan area. She added that the cost of its 10 Wang, Digital and IBM personal computers is "a factor" in school tuition.
(A year-long course at Gibbs costs $5,300. By comparison, Wine estimates that the average yearly tuition at for-profit secretarial schools is about $2,800 -- about the same as in 1981, according to the Education Department, indicating that equipment costs in general are not passed on to students.)
Besides buying new computers, Gibbs also has had to revamp its program to give students more time to train on the less-familiar equipment, Spencer says.
The key, educators say, is to give students training that is both specific enough to be useful and general enough to be widely applicable. For example, The Washington School for Secretaries -- probably the largest school in the Washington area, according to Cash -- starts students out on Radio Shack TRS-80s, then moves them to its collection of about two dozen word processors and memory typewriters, with a maximum of one machine for every two pupils. "They can go into any office and in a few days with a manual, they can learn any machine," said Carol Purvis, manager of student placement.
"A lot of employers are willing to train, a lot of them just want working knowledge of word processing," said Rae Darlington, an account executive at the personnel firm of Marsha Levy & Associates. But students with only a basic knowledge of word processing usually won't command high salaries when they emerge from secretarial school, she added.
Purvis said that WSS and its placement agency receive 100 requests a month each for skilled secretaries, requests that she "can't begin" to fill. Cash added that Washington-area schools in general have "very high" placement rates.
Secretarial programs offered by nonprofit schools, such as community and four-year colleges, are less costly than proprietary programs, but tend to be less up-to-date, local educators say.
"The public funding is not keeping up with advances," said Susan Friedman, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges. She added, though, that businesses are sometimes willing to donate equipment to schools.
Jean Netherton, provost of Northern Virginia Community College's Alexandria campus, said there is a waiting list for the office system technology course the school offers. At present, the school has 11 Wang computers to teach word processing and will add 25 less sophisticated microprocessors within the next eight months. Last year, 664 students took one or more courses in word processing, she said. Each course at the community college costs an average of $53.
"We have more people interested in taking it than there are slots," said Netherton, who added that attempts to get equipment donations have been unsuccessful so far.
Some professionals caution, however, that schools and students may be placing too much emphasis on word-processing and computer skills, and giving other areas short shrift.
"Some places are diploma mills" that do not give secretaries basic training in such essential skills as shorthand, asserted Louis, PSI's spokewoman in Missouri. "As a result, employers have had to provide a lot of on-the-job training.
"Secretaries that have taken it go a lot further in their careers. . . . They move up the ranks in major companies only if they have the basic skills."
Wine said a more pressing problem may be the increasing shortage of qualified instructors, who are choosing high-paying office jobs over lower-paying teaching jobs. "I can see where there's going to be a greater and greater shortage of business teachers," she said, and the situation will worsen because "the business education departments are being closed down in a lot of colleges across the country."
In the short run, Labor Department figures suggest, automation will fan the demand for secretaries able to operate word processors and data-entry equipment. But automation also means that eventually, one secretary will be able to do the job of several people, and that the expected growth in jobs will come from attrition and better business conditions rather than automation.
Some professionals, such as Nussbaum of 9 to 5, fear that the same equipment that makes the job easier eventually could limit the scope of a secretary's job by leaving decisions now made by people to computers.
They also worry that the increase in productivity will not be accompanied by an increase in wages. "If secretarial schools were going to do a good job by their students, they would encourage their students to demand what they're worth," Nussbaum said.
But Cash believes that the job profile is changing for the better, and most professionals agree.
Human relations skills are becoming more important, Cash said. The reason for the change is that a secretary's success depends more on his or her ability to deal with people than on the completion of obsolete, menial jobs. This is an idea referred to in the industry as "high tech and high touch."
And while typing -- now known as "keyboarding" -- is still a basic skill in the new profile, Cash says, it will take up less time, leaving more time for secretaries to research and compile reports.
Perhaps the biggest challenge schools face, Wine said, is to prepare secretaries for the vastly different -- and greater -- responsibilities they will have as a result of automation.