The Role of Secretary — My, How Times Have Changed

“Always be nice to the secretaries. They are the real gatekeepers in the world.” ~ Anthony J. D’Angelo

The dictionary defines the role of a secretary as “a person employed by an individual or in an office to assist with correspondence, keep records, make appointments and carry out similar tasks.”

The definition may not have changed much over the years, but the method to accomplish those responsibilities certainly has evolved. The title may have changed, as well; administrative assistant, coordinator or executive assistant are a few of the variations to a secretarial role. New technology also increased the skill set and competencies associated with the role. As with any change, some embraced the new, some struggled.

Many secretaries of the baby boomer generation were part of the transition from manual typewriters with multiple carbons that were a total nightmare for corrections, to electric typewriters (still with carbon copies), to the first computer systems, to today’s laptop computers.

Typing with any degree of speed on a manual typewriter was a challenge to take on without jamming the keys together. The advent of the electric typewriter was a wonder. Changing the font was so simple (just switch out the typing ball) and the correction tape feature made life so much easier. “Giving up my electric typewriter for a computer was not easy,” said Jean. For years, many secretaries had both a computer and an electric typewriter on their desks.

Copy equipment ended the need for carbon paper. However, learning to use the machines was not without its trepidation. One friend recalled printing about a dozen blank pages after each document to be sure no copies remained in the machine until she got comfortable with the equipment. Case in point, training sometimes followed the introduction of new equipment resulting in stress all around.

Shorthand was an expected skill for seasoned secretaries in years past. Jean recalled taking shorthand in college. Imagine the stress of transcribing on an electric typewriter when you hadn’t taken that class yet and had no idea how to turn the machine on. With the introduction of dictation equipment, the time spent transcribing and then typing out documents was streamlined. Both skills have served their purpose and are seldom, if ever, used now.

“When I began my career as a secretary, my principle responsibilities included typing documents, taking dictation, answering phones, filing and, in general, assisting others in the office when they needed assistance,” said Dee. “I began my career in a law firm, so typing documents was primary in my daily responsibilities. All of my early experience was ‘pre-computer’ in the days of electric typewriters and carbon copies. These days, my role as a secretary is a world apart from when I began. Now, we have computers and are heavily dependent upon technology which figures into everything I do. Dictation is a thing of the past; I don’t know if it’s even taught anymore. I do minimal typing; most correspondence is via e-mail by management. My role involves managing departmental projects, overseeing calendars and preparing expense reports. I book domestic and international travel (air, hotel and ground transportation) on a frequent basis.”

The sophistication of computer and the software programs required in today’s office environment has raised the bar for the admin/secretarial role. While some may have anticipated the secretarial role to diminish with the onset of computer technology, that has not been the case. Managing an office for one or more executives is the norm today. Being proficient in the latest software is an integral part of the role.

“I’ve used the skills from my secretary days in every job I’ve had since,” said Jean. “Knowing how to organize a project, keep track of events/schedules, develop working relationships — those are skills that carry to every other role.”

Celebrate the Administrative Professional in your life on April 26th which is Administrative Professionals Day!