The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Administrative assistant jobs helped propel many women into the middle class. Now they’re disappearing.

A secretary stands next to her boss while he speaks on the phone in a California office in 1953. (Ed Clark/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Rita Maxwell had no idea she was about to lose the job she’d had for nearly 20 years when her boss told her to meet him in the conference room at the end of the work day.

In a short conversation, Maxwell’s longtime boss, the head of an executive search firm in Northern Virginia, informed her that he no longer needed an executive assistant to handle his scheduling, errands and phone calls. He offered her a few weeks of severance pay and said he would stay late while she packed her belongings.

“I was completely taken aback when he called me into the meeting room,” said Maxwell, who was let go in early 2017. “There’s just not a lot of loyalty anymore.”

From $22 an hour to $11: GM job cuts in Ohio show a hot economy is still leaving parts of America behind

The United States has shed more than 2.1 million administrative and office support jobs since 2000, Labor Department data shows, eroding what for decades had been a reliable path to the middle class for women without college degrees.

The job losses affecting administrative assistants, bookkeepers, clerks, data entry specialists, executive assistants and secretaries have largely continued even as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, suggesting these jobs aren’t coming back.

Employment in administrative support positions has fallen to 1986 levels, and the Labor Department predicts that secretaries and administrative assistants will see the largest job losses of any occupation in the coming decade.

Since her layoff, Maxwell has only been able to land temporary jobs that pay $13 to $16 an hour — about a third of the roughly $80,000 annual salary she made in her final years at the search firm. Retraining did not seem like a realistic option in her mid-60s, she said.

A lot of companies simply “ghost” her, Maxwell said, not calling or emailing to let her know the outcome even after she came in for a final-round interview. She has run down her savings and dipped into her retirement fund to pay the mortgage on the bungalow house in Manassas that she purchased in 2011. If she can’t land a full-time job by the spring, she said, she’ll have to put her home up for sale.

“I was part of the women’s lib generation. I was proud I was able to support myself and not have to depend on somebody else to keep a roof over my head,” Maxwell said. “But what in the world am I going to do if I don’t land somewhere?”

The U.S. unemployment rate is 3.6 percent, a half-century low, and there are more job openings than unemployed Americans. Technology has created more positions than it has destroyed, economists say. But although the nation is likely to have many jobs for years to come, it’s less clear whether they will be well-paid jobs.

‘This doesn’t look like the best economy ever’: 40% of Americans say they still struggle to pay bills

On the presidential campaign trail, the conversation has focused mainly on the plight of workers losing manufacturing jobs (and potentially truck-driving jobs) to automation or trade. Most of those workers are male. Almost no attention has been paid to the upheaval that women in administrative positions are facing, said Martha Gimbel, a labor economist and former research director for the Hiring Lab, even though the scale of job losses is not far off from what occurred in blue-collar sectors.

“If you think about the amount of emotional energy we’ve devoted to what the future of truck drivers is as opposed to the future of administrative assistants, it’s mind-boggling,” Gimbel said. “We’re so focused on jobs that men do that we allow the suffering of women in this area to be silent.”

The nation has shed 2.9 million production jobs since 2000, according to Labor Department data. (Although manufacturing has lost even more than that, other jobs in welding and specialized computer operation have grown.)

Administrative positions have been lost to automation and outsourcing. Nearly 20 percent of administrative assistants have moved into something else entirely, such as sales or customer service roles, job site LinkedIn found.

“Up to about five years ago, the trend was to replace administrative work with cheaper labor in India or the Philippines,” said Phil Fersht, head of HFS Research, which works with clients on automation strategies.

“The new trend is to actually replace administrative work with robotic software,” he said. “I saw a bank in Brazil recently replace 600 staff with basically a chatbot.”

But a third threat is also at play: upskilling. Companies increasingly want a college degree for administrative positions, recruiters say, making it even harder for those who are laid off to land one of the roughly 18 million remaining administrative jobs.

“For non-college-educated workers, the landscape of opportunity is contracting and narrowing,” said David Autor, an MIT economist whose research found that workers without college degrees face about as tough of a time in cities as they do in rural areas. “We have tons of jobs for lesser-educated adults, but we have very few good careers.”

Among the 10 jobs expected to add the most employees in the next decade, six pay less than $27,000 a year. Jobs are growing at the high end and low end, a “barbell” economy.

The changes are falling especially hard on women over 50.

The Trump vs. Obama economy — in 15 charts

Elizabeth Espenshade, from Elizabethtown, Pa., walked right into an administrative assistant job at a steel company after graduating from high school in 1975, believing, like many factory workers, that it would last a lifetime.

When steel ran into trouble in the 1980s, she was laid off but transitioned to a job in state government. She worked for three decades as an executive assistant at the Pennsylvania auditor general’s office until she was let go in 2013 at age 57 because of budget cutbacks.

Since the layoff, she has found jobs, but none have paid even half of the $29 an hour she earned in her final years in state government.

“I think technology is taking over everything. It’s taken away a lot of our work,” Espenshade said. “I needed three more years to get full retirement, but I was pushed out the door.”

Espenshade initially fell back on a side job that she’d had for many years, doing data entry in a trucking company’s billing department. But that role was outsourced to India in 2016.

Today, Espenshade works part time at a nonprofit drug and alcohol counseling service. She said she enjoys the work, but it pays $13 an hour, complicating her hope of retiring soon. Staff at PA CareerLink, a government job center, urged her to retrain for a new career, but she didn’t think that was practical given her age.

“I went for job interviews, including at a hospital, and they all told me I was ‘overqualified,’ ” Espenshade said. “Realistically, I was 57, and they didn’t want to train me.”

Several recent studies have found substantial evidence that women over 50 get far fewer callbacks for job interviews and face a harder time than older men in job hunting.

“The finding of discrimination in hiring for older women is pretty clear,” said David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine who looked at results from 40,000 job applications, including in administrative fields.

More than half of workers 50 and over are let go involuntarily, and only 1 in 10 of those workers ever earn as much again, Urban Institute found. Recruiters for executive assistant positions say C-suite professionals now want their assistants to have college or even graduate degrees in business or law.

“Clients want a different person today, not the same type of person they had in the past. They see this more like a chief of staff role,” said Melba Duncan, a former assistant to private equity giant Peter G. Peterson and founder of the Duncan Group, which does human resources consulting. “There’s often a request for a four-year degree.”

Is college worth it?

As the requirements have gone up, pay is rising at the high end, and more men are entering the field. In the early 2000s, administrative jobs were nearly 80 percent female, but that has since dropped to about 70 percent.

Groups like the International Association of Administrative Professionals urge members to get more credentials. They offer a certificate program that covers technology, project management and business writing.

In a 2018 IAAP survey, more than half of the respondents said what they want most is leadership training. Duncan’s group hears that frequently, too, and offers a six-day course at Columbia University aimed at support staff.

Some executives say administrative cuts have gone too far. They say there’s a business case to having a human at the front desk and handling key client phone calls.

“The thing we found you can’t replace with technology is knowing the institutional memory of a place and the client relationships that matter the most,” said Kathy Tunheim, chief executive of Tunheim, a communications firm in the Minneapolis area.

Listen on Post Reports: Since 2000, the US has shed more than 2.1 million administrative and office support jobs. “The vast, vast majority of those jobs are held by women,” says reporter Heather Long.

Tunheim praised her assistant, Ginny Melvie, for her ability to befriend people over the phone, a skill that has helped win clients.

Melvie, 64, still enjoys the job but said her role has changed significantly since she started at the firm in 1999. Initially, she worked full time just for Tunheim. Today, she works part time (by choice) and supports up to six people.

“CEOs still need you. They need someone who is reliable and professional. Sometimes you have to make decisions for your boss because they are gone,” Melvie said. “In some respects, the pressure is a little bit more now.”