Technology brings new breed of office worker Assistant: Secretarial jobs have expanded beyond shorthand and answering phones.


Office technology - voice mail, the Internet, Powerpoint and Excel - is making the secretary obsolete.

In white-walled suites throughout America, computer programs such as Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite have put more power to manage and organize into the hands of workers who once were hired chiefly to take shorthand and answer phones.

Today, they say, they have become office professionals.

For example, Roxanne Rehak, an executive assistant at Sylvan Learning Systems, prepares Powerpoint audiovisual presentations for two company presidents and organizes arrangements for hundreds of vendors at the company's annual convention.

Judy Swann, a senior administrative assistant with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., uses databases to keep track of customer complaints, coordinate those complaints with engineers and generate reports on customer service. And Tamika Hill, executive assistant at Capitol Hill Building Maintenance in Hyattsville, uses a desktop publishing program to generate company literature.

"The software and technology skills are a must-have," said John Hoey, a human resources manager with Sylvan. "You really can't come here if you have not worked with Microsoft Office in a PC-intensive environment."

Office management programs have made once-difficult or time-consuming tasks much easier, and office assistants have taken full advantage. Professional Secretaries International (PSI) says a survey of its members showed that 98 percent regularly use word-processing software, while 89 percent use spreadsheets. About 73 percent use presentation graphics programs, 58 use databases and 53 percent use e-mail and an online service. PSI bills itself as the largest professional organization of office assistants with 47,000 members worldwide.

"Administrative staff are contributing more in the work force," said Rick Stroud, PSI communications coordinator. "Many of the administrative staff can do many of the jobs that once were farmed out to other offices."

Thus, the devolution of the secretary.

"A secretary takes direction, takes shorthand and typing," said George Ann Fay, a trainer and author of "Will the Real Boss Please Stand Up? Taking Your Administrative Career to the Next Level."

Office professionals, she said are decision makers. "They coordinate the meetings, they put together the transparencies, they write the speeches."

Another PSI survey showed that 23 percent of its members worked as administrative assistants and another 21 percent had job-specific titles that included the terms coordinator or specialist. Only 20 percent were called secretaries.

At its annual conference next month in Atlanta, PSI members may also choose to remove "secretary" from the group's name, changing it to International Association of Administrative Professionals.

More than political correctness is involved.

"Their roles have really been redefined," said Lori Komstadius, a staffing manager with the St. Paul Cos. "They don't do just typing anymore. They're a partner with the manager in getting work done."

Consider the career of Swann, an Aberdeen resident hired in BGE's gas engineering and construction department three years ago to answer phone complaints from new customers who were having gas lines installed.

It wasn't long before she was hearing the same complaint repeated, so she began logging the calls into a database. Computing moved her from answering phones to coordinating work with the gas engineers, generating reports for her supervisors and other departments - including marketing - and making suggestions for company policy.

For example, customers now get notes on their door handles explaining that engineers may have to dig through their yard to install the gas lines.

Within a year, the number of complaints dropped from 500 to 200.

"Everything that she says people listen to, because they respect what she's done and the experience she has," said Jane Herschelman, a supervisor in the construction management department. "If we did not have her computer skills we would not be able to handle customer complaints on the spot. Her work is a huge help to the company."

Pub Date: 7/27/98

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