If your idea of a secretary is someone who answers the telephone, types a letter, and brings the boss coffee, it's time to update that image. Today's secretary is a highly skilled, educated individual with a promising career path. "Secretarial jobs are more critical now than ever before," says Tim Fisher, president of Nancy Adams Personnel.

"These people are really responsible for making the whole show go." According to Mr. Fisher, advances in office technology have given rise to a need for staff members who have sophisticated skill levels. "Secretaries today are an office's automation," he asserts. "You can do without an accountant before you can do without a secretary." Linda Burton, vice president of Office Mates, agrees. "Secretaries are responsible for so much these days," she explains. "They're really an integral part of a business' operations.

"Because of the downsizing that many companies have been forced to undergo in the past few years," Ms. Burton adds, "today's administrative support worker wears more hats than ever before." In addition to a strong word processing background, says Ms. Burton, secretaries must know how to spell, punctuate, and write grammatically correct documents. They are also being called upon to perform a variety of middle management duties such as purchasing and customer service.

"In the twelve years I've been here," says Ms. Burton, "I've seen this field really grow. Today, secretaries are being handpicked for positions, perhaps even being interviewed two or three times for one job. . . that's a process that used to be reserved for middle and upper management slots. That just shows you what a vital function they serve."

Glenda Scherr won't disagree with that. An executive secretary with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Mrs. Scherr began working as a secretary when she was 17, "let's just say, a long time ago." "I used to visit my aunt who was a secretary," Mrs. Scherr recalls, "and I liked the feeling of running an office, of being number one." Though Mrs. Scherr now regrets not having gone on to college, she has always enjoyed the fact that people depend on her and that she learns a lot on the job. Being a secretary today is dramatically different from what it was when she first started out, says Mrs. Scherr. "Everything is so high-tech now. In the first place, I only got my first computer three years ago so I don't have as much computer knowledge as I'd like."

In addition, says Mrs. Scherr, she has had to learn to deal with other sophisticated equipment, including complex phone systems and fax machines. "It's been an educational process. Things have changed so much that I've had to learn everything from scratch."

Mrs. Scherr notes that a large part of her job is organizing meetings for Associated staff members and their lay volunteers, a complicated undertaking both because of the number of meetings held throughout the year and the numbers of people involved on each committee. "Coordinating everyone's schedule can get crazy at times. You definitely have to be organized. "Basically, though, my job is to coordinate everything," Mrs. Scherr explains. "I try to keep the department running smoothly."

Though Mrs. Scherr points out that she loves the people in the department with whom she works--"we really are like a family and they treat me like gold"--she thinks that being a secretary today doesn't command the same respect that it once did. "I've always considered myself a professional," she comments, "but a lot of others don't. I don't think we're as highly regarded as we should be." For Mary Ellen Noyes, an executive assistant at Ottenheimer Publishers, appreciation, rather than respect, is what she looks for on the job. "Respect is something earned between individuals that has nothing to do with your job," she comments. "When it comes to my work, I want to be appreciated and I think that I am. I feel good about what I do and the people I work with make me feel good too." Like Mrs. Scherr, Ms. Noyes also became an office worker right out of high school, primarily because she didn't have a clear idea of what else she might like to do. Now, 13 years later, she is enthusiastic about her work and recommends it highly as a career choice.

"It's a great option for those who are people-oriented," she says, "as well as for those who enjoy keeping things running smoothly." That is harder than it once was though, says Ms. Noyes, because today's office workers are frequently doing more than one job at a time. Because of technology as well as the economy," Ms. Noyes says, "many companies use just one person, where they might have used two or three before. An office might have had a receptionist, a secretary, and an administrative assistant, but now you more or less have just one person doing it all."

Career counselors say that more and more people are entering the field of office work, drawn by the opportunity to handle just such a variety of responsibilities, as well as by the lure of a high-tech environment which is seen as a springboard to more lucrative positions. According to Phil Manzie, coordinator of the Maryland Career Information Delivery System, there will be approximately 245,000 new job openings nationwide for secretaries between now and the year 2005, leading to close to 3 million secretaries in the labor force by then. Projected growth for the field, says Mr. Manzie, is 8 percent. In Maryland, there will be about 1100 new job openings between now and 2005, a growth of 1 percent. (These figures do not reflect statistics for medical and legal secretaries.) The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 1992-93, annual salaries for secretaries ranged from $15,000 to $39,000. In Maryland, a beginning secretary earns about $17,000. The average salary for everyone working in the field is just over $26,000, and some experienced workers can earn as much as $39,000. "A top-notch administrative assistant can earn anywhere from $26,500 to $30,000 in the Baltimore area," confirms Linda Burton of Office Mates. "Companies expect the best from these people and are willing to pay for their skills."

Where can people find those skills? At Fleet Business School in Annapolis, company president Carole Nicholson points to a changing curriculum that reflects the changing times. "We still teach keyboarding on a typewriter," Ms. Nicholson says, "but now we also have 100 computers as well. Everyone learns word processing. Everyone also takes business English, punctuation, and communications. It's a year's worth of intense training. . .it's not easy."

Begun in 1934 as a secretarial school, Fleet now offers training for administrative assistant (the politically correct terminology for secretary), in addition to programs in microcomputer, legal secretary, business and travel, and small business management. Though Fleet is a co-ed school, says Ms. Nicholson, and she does see more men entering the field ("primarily because of the computer"), by and large, most office workers are still women. According to Maripat Blankenheim, public relations director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, in 1970 97.8 percent of all secretaries were women; by 1988 that had grown to 99.1 percent. One reason that number is growing, says Fleet's Carole Nicholson, might be because becoming a secretary is a good way to get your career going. "The average age of our students is 25," she says, "and many have already been to community college or even four-year college, and are now coming to us so they can be trained for a job. "It's hard to find employment these days in your chosen field," Ms. Nicholson adds. "Being a secretary is a viable, honorable profession, and a great way to get your foot in the door before you move on. . .if you want to move on." David Humes, a supervisor at Jewish Vocational Services, agrees. "Years ago," he says, "it was unfortunate, but a lot of women with college degrees would be put in secretarial positions even if they didn't want that. Today, women are finding that if they have the right office skills, they can enter a company at a much higher level than with just a college degree. There's much more of a career ladder than there used to be."

What secretaries need today, says Mr. Humes, are high-level technical, computer, and people skills, a good deal of efficiency, and good work habits and attitudes. "They have to be faster, smarter, and handle a greater variety of tasks than they once did," Mr. Humes adds. "What were entry-level skills three years ago would now be unemployable."

Written By: Carol Sorgen
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