When Mitzi Ferguson's employer, Archive Corp. of Costa Mesa, bought Cipher Data Products, she dealt with the lawyers on behalf of her office. Daily, on the phone, she represents the company president to its board of directors. She arranges the president's personal and professional schedule and is fluent in several software languages.
Ferguson embodies where the secretarial profession is headed--away from production tasks such as filing and taking dictation, and toward information management. Being a secretary, more and more, means being computer-literate, well-educated and capable of making important decisions.
The changes are being driven in part by technology and in part by the slumping economy, workplace experts say.
"In 1980, there was one computer for every 100 people. By 1990, there were two computers for every three people," says Barbara Otto, a spokeswoman for Nine-to-Five, a Cleveland-based organization of office workers. "There's been an incredible increase of the use of technology in the workplace."
Moreover, the large number of middle-management positions eliminated during this recession--perhaps forever--means that responsibility for management functions such as hiring, supervising and coordinating departments is being handed down the ladder to the support staff.
"Everyone seems to be cramming a lot into each job," says Sue Foigelman, manager of six local offices for Chicago-based Manpower Inc., the world's largest temporary services agency.
Pamela Rhodes, a training consultant in Costa Mesa and a former secretary, agrees: "The secretary's role is becoming more critical with the flattening of corporations. The good news is, there's a bright future. There will always be a need for secretaries."
The bad news, some say, is that secretarial salaries are not keeping pace with the increased responsibility or with the wages of managers. Some workplace observers blame continued low wages on sexism, since 98% of secretaries are female.
Average salaries of secretaries have risen 4.6% annually since 1983, according to a 1991 survey conducted for Kansas City, Mo.-based Professional Secretaries International. Management salaries have risen 5.4% yearly during the same time.
Today, according to the PSI survey, 13% of secretaries make over $40,000, with the average hovering just under $25,000; 14% earn less than $19,000. Not surprisingly, the disparity with managers and the low average pay has bred resentment.
"Secretaries' responsibilities are being doubled or tripled, but they're getting no more money and no change in title," Otto says. "It's been proven time and again that when women make up the majority of an occupation, there are low wages."
In addition, secretaries complain that their contributions are underestimated, that they are excluded from decisions that affect them and that bosses don't communicate job requirements clearly.
This sentiment is reflected in what secretaries said they would like to receive for Secretaries Week, which begins Monday: raises, bonuses, time off, written statements of appreciation and training opportunities. This, instead of lunch or dinner, "which 77% of the managers give and only 6% of the secretaries want," the PSI survey says.
And more and more, secretaries are thinking of leaving the profession. In 1983, 56% of secretaries surveyed for PSI said they intended to remain secretaries throughout their careers. By 1991, that figure had dropped to 46%.
That may reflect the fact that secretaries have more choices today. The job is more of a steppingstone and less of a dead-end than it has been in the past. In fact, Linda Waller, a career counselor for Women's Focus in Tustin, says that 25% to 40% of her female clients have been secretaries at some point in their careers.
For many young women, it is a way to get in the corporate door and start learning and earning. "Many have found themselves in secretarial jobs because that's where the openings were when they were 22 and just out of college," Waller says.
Also, the very manager-like duties that are being passed on to secretaries now are preparing them to move in many different directions, says Ann Coil, owner of an Orange-based career counseling company bearing her name.
Coordination, administration of people in clerical ranks, helping companies purchase the right computers and telecommunications equipment are among the more transferable skills. With the right certificate program, Coil says, secretaries can prepare to move into careers in personnel, human resources, facilities, hazardous waste and environmental management.
"Secretaries' efforts touch so many people that it gives them an insight, a knowledge of the company that other people in narrower functions don't see," Coil says.
The experience prepares many for other careers.