Dear Joyce: I had planned to enter secretarial school in another year after my little girl is old enough for child care but thought I'd better do a little more investigating. Is shorthand still required? How much do secretaries earn? -- T.K.
As the talent pool shrinks because many career-focused women snub a secretarial slot, the demands of the job are growing from "take a letter" to "take a thought and make it sound right."
This translates to a field less crowded with competition than many others and is a reason why secretarial pay is averaging $25,000. Salary surveys show a growing number of secretaries are earning at the high end -- the $50,000 to $75,000 range, really! -- says Susan Fenner, education director of Professional Secretaries International (10502 NW Ambassador Drive, Kansas City, Mo. 64153; 816-891-6600), a membership society that certifies secretaries.
Shorthand is a slowly dying skill, but one that still may be worth a few thousand extra dollars a year. A recent Minolta study shows that more than half of U.S. managers have PCs and of this number about one-fourth do their own correspondence, which may mean roughing in the text to turn over to a secretary, or even doing the finished work.
The workplace has moved from shorthand to dictation to PCs, and the next step will be voice-driven computers that print the spoken word. The latter is imperfect and very expensive; throughout the 1980s we were told it would be debugged and cheaper by the end of that decade -- it may happen by the end of this decade. When it does happen, secretaries will still be needed as true assistants for high-powered managers.
Name changes for the secretarial function have multiplied: administrative assistant, executary, executive staff assistant. Sometimes the change is merely a status booster, but more often it reflects updated job requirements, from crunching numbers into a spreadsheet to organizing the workday of the boss, from balancing the depart mental budget to fielding client calls. The old typing and filing person is fading into history.
Although most managers really want a support associate who feels that being a secretary is a career in and of itself, it doesn't always work out that way. Many secretaries leave the field for closely related jobs, often switching to computers or desktop publishing, administrative services management and contract management. Others rise through line managerial ranks -- Carol Taber, publisher of Working Woman magazine is a good example. She started as a secretary and moved up through a sales track to her present position.
Of the myriad of skills you must master, don't overlook computers and other office automation. Technology is rewriting all aspects of office work, including the roles of secretaries. If you need to revitalize technical skills, take courses at night even if you must pay for them yourself.
If you are the sort of person who prefers to leave the big decisions to others, becoming the perfect secretary can be a fine career choice -- can you think of five people whose secretary you would like to be? But if you plan to use the work as a launching pad into management, there may be better entry jobs. In any case, try to make the changeover within a few years before you become typecast.