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Nature of the Work
* Training ranges from high school vocational education programs, to 1- to 2-year programs in secretarial science offered by business schools, vocational-technical institutes, and community colleges.
* Increasing office automation will ensure little or no change in overall employment of secretaries; growth in the health and legal services industries, however, will spur employment growth among medical and legal secretaries.
* Job openings should be plentiful, especially for well qualified and experienced secretaries, primarily due to the need to replace workers who leave this very large occupation.
Secretarial work continues to evolve along with new office automation and organizational restructuring. In many cases, secretaries have assumed new responsibilities and learned to operate new office technologies. In the midst of these changes, though, their core responsibilities remain much as they were. Most organizations still employ secretaries to perform and coordinate office activities and to ensure information gets disseminated to staff and clients. Managers, professionals, and other support staff still rely on them to keep administrative operations under control.
Secretaries are responsible for a variety of administrative and clerical duties necessary to run and maintain organizations efficiently. Secretaries are often the information clearinghouse for the office. They schedule appointments, provide information to callers, organize and maintain paper and electronic files, manage projects, and produce correspondence for themselves and others. They may also type letters, handle travel arrangements, or contact clients. In addition, secretaries operate office equipment such as facsimile machines, photocopiers, and telephone systems.
Secretaries increasingly use personal computers to run spreadsheet, word processing, database management, desktop publishing, and graphics programstasks previously handled by managers and other professionals. Because they are often relieved from dictation and typing, they can support several members of the professional staff. Secretaries often work in groups of three or four so that they can work more flexibly and share their expertise.
Executive secretaries or administrative assistants perform fewer clerical tasks than lowerlevel secretaries. In addition to receiving visitors, arranging conference calls, and scheduling meetings, they may handle more complex responsibilities such as conducting research, preparing statistical reports, training employees, and supervising other clerical staff.
Some secretaries do highly specialized work requiring knowledge of technical terminology and procedures. Further specialization is common among legal secretaries, for example. They prepare correspondence and legal papers such as summonses, complaints, motions, responses, and subpoenas under the supervision of an attorney. They also may review legal journals and assist in other ways with legal research, such as verifying quotes and citations in legal briefs. Medical secretaries are another type of specialized secretary. These workers transcribe dictation, prepare correspondence, and assist physicians or medical scientists with reports, speeches, articles, and conference proceedings. They also record simple medical histories, arrange for patients to be hospitalized, and order supplies. Most medical secretaries need to be familiar with insurance rules, billing practices, and hospital or laboratory procedures. Other technical secretaries assist engineers or scientists. They may prepare correspondence, maintain the technical library, and gather and edit materials for scientific papers.
Secretaries usually work in offices with other professionals in schools, hospitals, or in legal and medical offices. Their jobs often involve sitting for long periods. If they spend a lot of time typing, particularly at a video display terminal, they may encounter problems of eyestrain, stress, and repetitive motion, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Office work can lend itself to alternative or flexible working arrangements, like telecommuting or flex time, and 1 secretary in 5 works part time. In addition, a significant number of secretaries work in temporary positions. A few participate in job sharing arrangements in which two people divide responsibility for a single job. The majority of secretaries, however, are full-time employees who work a standard 40-hour week. Legal secretaries frequently work overtime.
Secretaries held about 3.4 million jobs in 1996, ranking this among the largest occupations in the U.S. economy. The following tabulation shows the distribution of employment by secretarial specialty.
Secretaries, total 3,403,000 Legal secretaries 284,000 Medical secretaries 239,000 Secretaries, except legal and medical 2,881,000
Secretaries are employed in organizations of every description. About 6 out of 10 secretaries are employed in firms providing services, ranging from education and health, to legal and business services. Others work for firms engaging in manufacturing, construction, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, and communications. Banks, insurance companies, investment firms, and real estate firms are important employers, as are Federal, State, and local government agencies.
High school graduates who have basic office skills may qualify for entry-level secretarial positions. Secretaries should be proficient in keyboarding and good at spelling, punctuation, grammar, and oral communication. Shorthand is necessary for some positions. Knowledge of software applications, such as word processing, spreadsheet, and database management, is becoming essential to most employers. Because secretaries must be tactful in their dealings with many different people, employers also look for good interpersonal skills. Discretion, good judgment, organizational ability, and initiative are especially important for higherlevel secretarial positions.
As office automation continues to evolve, retraining and continuing education will remain an integral part of secretarial jobs. Continuing changes in the office environment have increased the demand for secretaries who are adaptable and versatile. Secretaries may have to attend classes to learn how to operate new office technologies such as information storage systems, scanners, the Internet, or new updated software packages.
Secretaries acquire their skills in various ways. Secretarial training ranges from high school vocational education programs that teach office skills and keyboarding, to 1- to 2-year programs in office administration offered by business schools, vocational-technical institutes, and community colleges. Many temporary help agencies provide formal training in computer and office skills. These skills are most often acquired, however, through on-the-job instruction by other employees or by equipment and software vendors. Specialized training programs are available for students planning to become medical or legal secretaries or administrative technology specialists.
Testing and certification for entry-level office skills is available through the Office Proficiency Assessment and Certification program offered by Professional Secretaries InternationalThe Association for Office Professionals (PSI). As secretaries gain experience, they can earn the designation, Certified Professional Secretary (CPS), by meeting certain experience requirements and passing a 1-day examination given by the Institute for Certifying Secretaries, a department of PSI. This designation is recognized by many employers as the mark of excellence for seniorlevel office professionals. Similarly, those without experience who want to be certified as a legal support professional may be certified as an Accredited Legal Secretary (ALS) by the Certifying Board of the National Association of Legal Secretaries. This organization also administers an examination to certify a legal secretary with 3 years of experience as a Professional Legal Secretary (PLS). Legal Secretaries International confers the designation, Board Certified Civil Trial Legal Secretary, in specialized areas such as litigation and probate, to those who have 5 years of law-related experience and who pass the examination.
Secretaries generally advance to a more responsible secretarial position by promotion. Qualified secretaries who broaden their knowledge of the company's operations and enhance their skills may be promoted to other positions such as senior or executive secretary, clerical supervisor, or office manager.
Secretaries with word processing experience can advance to jobs as word processing trainers, supervisors, or managers within their own firms or in a secretarial or word processing service bureau. Their experience as a secretary can lead to jobs such as instructor or sales representative with manufacturers of software or computer equipment. With additional training, many legal secretaries become paralegals.
Job openings should be plentiful, especially for well qualified and experienced secretaries, primarily due to the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave this very large occupation for other reasons each year. Projected employment growth for secretaries over the 1996-2006 period will vary by occupational specialty. Growth in health services industries will spur faster than average employment growth for medical secretaries; expansion of the legal services industry will contribute to average employment growth among legal secretaries. Employment of secretaries who do not specialize in legal or medical workabout 7 out of 8is expected to decline due to the widespread application of new office automation. Despite this projected decline, rapidly growing industriessuch as personnel supply, computer and data processing, and management and public relations will generate some new job opportunities.
Secretaries have become more productive with the help of personal computers, electronic mail, scanners, facsimile machines, and voice message systems. The use of automated equipment is also changing the workflow in many offices. Due to corporate restructuring, administrative duties are being reassigned, as are the functions of entire departments. In some cases, such traditional secretarial duties as typing or keyboarding, filing, copying, and accounting are being assigned to workers in other units or departments. In some law offices and physicians' offices, for example, paralegals and medical assistants are assuming some tasks formerly done by secretaries. Professionals and managers increasingly do their own word processing rather than submit the work to secretaries and other support staff. In addition, there is a trend in many offices for groups of professionals and managers to "share" secretaries. The traditional arrangement of one secretary per manager is becoming less prevalent; instead, secretaries increasingly support systems or units. This approach often means secretaries assume added responsibilities and are seen as valuable members of a team, but it also contributes to the decline in employment projected for most secretaries.
Developments in office technology are certain to continue, and they will bring about further changes in the secretary's work environment. However, many secretarial job duties are of a personal, interactive nature and, therefore, not easily automated. Duties such as planning conferences, working with clients, and transmitting staff instructions require tact and communication skills. Because automated equipment cannot substitute for these personal skills, secretaries will continue to play a key role in the office activities of most organizations.
Based on a survey of 160 metropolitan areas, the average annual salary for secretaries with limited experience was $19,700 in 1995. Salaries vary a great deal, however, reflecting differences in skill, experience, and level of responsibility, with averages ranging up to $40,600.
Salaries in different parts of the country also vary; earnings are generally lowest in southern cities, and highest in northern and western cities. In addition, salaries vary by industry; salaries of secretaries tend to be highest in transportation, legal services, and public utilities, and lowest in retail trade and finance, insurance, and real estate. Certification in this field generally is rewarded by a higher salary.
The starting salary for inexperienced secretaries in the Federal Government was $17,400 a year in 1997. Beginning salaries were slightly higher in selected areas where the prevailing local pay level was higher. All secretaries employed by the Federal Government averaged about $27,900 a year in 1997.
A number of other workers type, record information, and process paperwork. Among these are bookkeepers, receptionists, stenographers, personnel clerks, typists and word processors, paralegals, medical assistants, and medical record technicians. A growing number of secretaries share in managerial and human resource responsibilities. Occupations requiring these skills include clerical supervisor, systems manager, office manager, and human resource specialist.
For information on the Certified Professional Secretary designation, contact:
Professional Secretaries International, P.O. Box 20404, Kansas City, MO 64195-0404. Homepage: http://www.gvi.net/psi
Information on the Accredited Legal Secretary and Certified Professional Legal Secretary designations is available from:
National Association of Legal Secretaries, 2448 East 81st St., Suite 3400, Tulsa, OK 74137-4238. Homepage: http://www.nals.org
Information on the Board Certified Civil Trial Legal Secretary designation can be obtained from:
Legal Secretaries International Inc., 8902 Sunnywood Dr., Houston, TX 77088-3729. Homepage: http://www.compassnet.com/legalsec
State employment offices can provide information about job openings for secretaries.
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