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The efficiency of any organization depends in part upon secretaries, who are at the center of communications within the firm. They process and transmit information to the staff and to other organizations.

Secretaries perform a variety of administrative and clerical duties that are necessary to run and maintain organizations efficiently. They schedule appointments, give information to callers, organize and maintain files, fill out forms, and take and transcribe dictation. The amount of time secretaries spend on these and other duties--including typing--depends on the way office work is handled within the organization.

In offices that have a word processing centers, administrative secretaries handle everything except dictation and typing. Their duties range from filing, routing mail, and answering telephones to more complex work such as answering letters, doing research, and preparing statistical reports. Administrative secretaries sometimes work in clusters of three or four so that they can help each other. Because they are released from dictation and typing, they can serve several members of the professional staff.

Some secretaries do highly specialized work for which training is available in career schools and colleges as well as community colleges. Legal secretaries prepare legal papers and correspondence such as summonses, complaints, motions, and subpoenas. They may also review law journals and assist in other ways with legal research. Medical secretaries transcribe dictation, prepare correspondence, and assist physicians or medical scientists with reports, speeches, articles, and conference proceedings. They need to know medical terminology and be familiar with hospital or laboratory procedures. Technical secretaries assist engineers or scientists. In addition to the usual secretarial duties, they may prepare much of the correspondence, maintain the technical library, and gather and edit materials for scientific papers.

Another specialized secretary is the social secretary sometimes called a personal secretary, who arranges social functions, answers personal correspondence, and keeps the employer informed about all social activities. Membership secretaries compile and maintain membership lists, record the receipt of dues and contributions, and give out information to members of organizations and associations. They may have such other duties as sending out newsletters and promotional materials. School secretaries handle secretarial duties in elementary and secondary schools; they may take care of correspondence, prepare bulletins and reports, keep track of money for school supplies and student activities, and maintain a calender of school events.

Working conditions

Secretaries usually work in offices that are clean and free from high noise levels except during peak typing periods. Their jobs often involve sitting for long periods, and typing often requires working from materials that are difficult to read. If they spend a lot of time at a video display terminal, they may encounter problems of eyestrain, musculoskeletal strain, and stress. Executive secretaries, who perform a number of duties, have the variety in their jobs that many people prefer.

Secretaries generally work a standard 40-hour week. In some cities, especially in the Northeast, the scheduled workweek is 37 hours or less.

Office work lends itself to alternative or flexible working arrangements, and many secretaries hold part-time or temporary jobs. A few participate in job-sharing arrangements, in which two people divide responsibility for a single job.


Secretaries held about 3,573,000 jobs in 1990, making this one of the largest occupations in the U.S. economy.

Secretaries are employed in organizations of every description. They work for firms that engage in manufacturing, mining, 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. Almost half of all secretaries are employed in educational institutions, hospitals and other health facilities, law firms, membership organizations, and companies that provide career services. Among the latter are temporary help agencies and word processing service bureaus.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

High school graduates qualify for most secretarial positions provided they have basic office skills. Secretaries must be proficient in typing and good at spelling, punctuation, grammar, and oral communication. Short-hand is necessary for some positions. Word processing experience is increasingly important and more and more employers require it.

The skills needed for a secretarial job can be acquired in various ways. Although formal training or refresher courses are not essential for most jobs, training is an asset and may lead to higher paying jobs. Secretarial training ranges from high school vocational education programs that teach office practices, shorthand, and typing to 1- to 2-year programs in secretarial science offered by career schools, vocational-technical institutes, and community colleges.

In addition to a solid grounding in secretarial skills, employers look for a good command of the English language and an aptitude for numbers. Some firms look for individuals with excellent interpersonal skills, since secretaries must be tactful in their dealings with many different people. Discretion, judgement, organizational ability, and initiative are important for the more responsible secretarial positions.

Continuing changes in the office environment, many made possible by the computer, have increased the demand for secretaries who are adaptable and versatile. Workers must be prepared to be retrained whenever an employer introduces new equipment. Secretaries may have to attend classes to learn to operate word processing equipment, information storage systems, personal computers, and other automated office equipment. Sometimes, they must acquire this training at their own expense. The frequency with which such equipment is changed or updated makes retraining and continuing education an integral part of the job, and employers seek workers who understand and accept the inevitability of change.

Advancement for secretaries generally comes about in one of two ways: Promotion to more responsible secretarial positions, or transfer to another kind of job. As secretaries gain experience, they can qualify for the designation Certified Professional Secretary (CPS) by passing a series of exams given by the Institute for Certifying Secretaries, a department of Professional Secretaries International. This designation is recognized by a growing number of employers as the mark of achievement in the secretarial field.

Qualified secretaries who broaden their knowledge of their company's operations may be promoted to positions such as administrative assistant, clerical or secretarial supervisor, and office manager. By taking college courses or completing a degree program in a field such as career, marketing, accounting, or personnel administration, secretaries may progress into entry level management positions. Training in computing skills is an increasingly important factor in promotions.

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. They also can get jobs with manufacturers of word processing and other office equipment in positions such as instructor or sales representative.

Job Outlook

Employment of secretaries is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000 in line with the general growth of the economy. Despite productivity gains, made possible by office automation, there will continue to be strong demand for secretaries.

In addition to job openings resulting from growth in demand for secretaries, an exceptionally large number of job openings will arise due to replacement needs. Every year several hundred thousand secretaries transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force- -primarily because of household responsibilities. In this occupation, as in most, replacement needs are the main source of jobs.

Demand for secretaries will rise as the labor force grows and as more workers are employed in offices. The trend toward having secretaries assume more responsibilities traditionally reserved for managers and professionals also will stimulate demand.

Many employers complain of a shortage of first-rate secretaries. Therefore, well- qualified secretaries will be in great demand and should find many job opportunities. In addition to mastering the traditional secretarial skills, applicants who have computer skills will increasingly be sought by employers.


The average annual salary for all secretaries was $22,600 in 1990. Secretaries' salaries vary a great deal, usually reflecting differences in skill, experience, and level of responsibility. Secretaries earned average annual salaries in 1990 ranging from $18,520 to $30,528.

Salaries in different parts of the country also vary; earnings generally are lowest in southern cities and highest in northern and western urban areas. In 1990, for example, secretaries averaged $22,280 a year in the Northeast, $23,011 in the Midwest, $24,170 in the West, and $21,307 in the South.

In addition, salaries vary by industry. Salaries of secretaries tend to be highest in public utilities and mining and lowest in retail trade and finance, insurance, and real estate.

Most secretaries in large cities receive 7 paid holidays or more a year and a 2-week vacation after working 1 year. With added years of service, vacations may range to 4 weeks or more. Group life and health insurance, pension plans, and other benefits often are provided.

Related Occupations

A number of other workers type, record information, and process paperwork. Among these are bookkeepers, receptionists, stenographers, office managers, personnel clerks, typists, administrative assistants, legal assistants, medical assistants, and medical record technicians.

Sources of Additional Information

For career information, write to:

Professional Secretaries International, 301 East Armour Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64111.

High school students interested in careers as legal secretaries may request the pamphlet So You Want To Be A Legal Secretary. Write to:

National Association of Legal Secretaries (International), 3005 East Skelly Dr., Suite 211, Tulsa, Okla. 74105. Brochures describing a career as a secretary or legal secretary are available upon request from:

Association of Independent Colleges and Schools, 1 Dupont Circle, NW., Suite 350, Washington, D.C. 20036.

State employment offices can provide information about job openings for secretaries locally and nationwide.


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