Tuesday, February 03, 2009


An Occupational Program We Can't Sell

In a passing conversation a while back with a colleague who routinely works with local employers, I heard that the single occupation for which we got the most requests from private employers is...

help desk? no...

construction? no...

sales? no...

Secretaries. Administrative assistants. Office managers.

We have a program dedicated to training students for these jobs. Back in the day, it was called “secretarial sciences.” Now it's something like “administrative professionals.” We get hundreds of requests annually from employers. Last year we graduated single digits. We're on the verge of eliminating the program, entirely for lack of enrollment. We can't give seats away.

I'm told that back in the 80's, the program was huge. Now it's dying, though not for lack of employer interest. The students just don't want it.

I've been perplexed by this for a while now. The jobs are out there, a two-year degree is enough, and the salaries, while unspectacular, beat most of what's available with a two-year degree. There's little heavy lifting, and it's not unique to any one industry (and therefore vulnerable to the quirks of any one industry). And yet, student interest is negligible.

Between observing and asking around, I'm starting to develop the outlines of a theory as to why the disconnect is so dramatic. Refinements or corrections from my wise and worldly readers are more than welcome.

Part of the issue is technology. At many cc's, in my observation, secretarial sciences program became much more technologically-focused over time. Some of that makes sense, given the ubiquity of computers and Microsoft Office. But for various reasons, both internal and external, many of the programs wildly overshot the degree of technology that most positions actually require. The students who might envision themselves in relatively generic office jobs often shy away from technical courses that strike them, sometimes correctly, as superfluous.

In addition to the technological expectations, there's also an entirely legitimate expectation of solid writing and speaking skills. With the technical skills, that's a potent and rare combination, and the students who have it all tend not to go into this program.

Part of it is the availability of other options. As we've become far more successful in persuading young women that they can pursue just about anything, that's exactly what they've done. This hasn't yet had much of an impact on the Nursing program, but the higher salaries there may explain some of that.

But there's another possibility that someone alerted me to recently. Administrative assistant positions usually involve taking orders, and having very little control over one's own work life. There isn't much authority that goes with the role. The other historically-female jobs – teacher, nurse – at least carry some authority in a particular context. These positions don't carry much workaday autonomy, which limits their appeal.

I'll admit not having thought of that one, but it makes some sense. Part of what I miss about being on faculty is the sense of relative autonomy in the classroom. (Administration is much more about cooperating than it is about commanding, if you do it right.) The prospect of combining a lack of autonomy with modest pay and limited advancement isn't terribly appealing.

Although I know this isn't unique to my cc, I don't know if it's regional. Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a similar disconnect on your campus? Is there a better explanation for it?

It seems to me that the workforce of admin assistants and other generic-ish office jobs could be developed through something like an Associates in Business Administration.

That sort of degree would offer the potential, and hope, of eventually transferring into a Bachelors program, or beyond. From one point of view, what's the use of college if you don't have any ambition with what you'll do when you get there?

In the meantime, that program could provide a 2-year degree that would help students who need to support themselves and finish the Bachelors at night.
This is an honest question: what skills do the administrative professionals programs develop? I'm thinking about when I worked as an office assistant over the summer as well as some friends who have taken office manager positions after graduation, and as far as I can tell, the skills for administrative professionals tend to be either very particular to that office (here is how the boss's weird organizational system works) or general liberal arts skills (writing clearly, being able to read, summarize, and present information effectively, and so forth). I'm trying to imagine what an administrative professionals course catalog would look like, and the best I can come up with is something bordering on caricature--Keeping a Schedule 101 or How to Answer the Phone Professionally 203. So what kinds of courses do you take for an administrative professionals degree?

- Anonymous Evergreen Grad Student
Seems like this should be sending a signal to employers, too.

If a job category perennially goes unfilled (or must be filled with sub-standard applicants), that should be acting as a signal to employers: the working conditions and salary are not competitive with other jobs.

I think the lack of autonomy and respect is a big part of it. We all know that you can get people to work insane amounts for very little money, as long as the job is fun and sounds good at a cocktail party. Low-level admin isn't glamorous or fun, and it doesn't pay well either. Combine that with having no control over your work life, and we're talking a pretty unappealing package. Autonomy and challenge are important.

Case in point: my mom. Mom was a secretary for several years in the mid-60's, and was an office manager at an engineering firm for about 20 years starting in 1980. When she started at the firm, it was small, and she pretty much ran the whole show--she says it was interesting then. As the firm grew, the admin staff did as well, and Mom wound up doing fewer and fewer different tasks. She was paid slightly better, but she was more than happy to retire. She was getting bored stiff, and disliked not being able to decide her own workflow.

It also seems like employers got too used to hiring competent, articulate women for peanuts. Back in my Mom's day, as you note, secretarial work was one of the few employment options for women, and promotion beyond secretarial work was very rare. A woman who would have been an excellent secretary in 1965 is probably the Director of HR now.

DD, are your employers looking for office managers who will be promoted to higher positions in 5 years, or do they want someone who will stay in position for 15 years? If the latter, expecting an 18-year-old woman to go to college for 2 years so she can consign herself to the pink-collar ghetto is going to be a hard sell.
I'll just add to your point about greater opportunities for women and say this: one of the reasons that I went to college in the first place was because I'd watched female relatives work in clerical/administrative positions my entire life and I saw how much those jobs sucked. None of these women had degrees - they'd worked their way up into those jobs, earned a certificate here or there, whatever. Why in god's name would I pay tuition and take classes that would bore the pants off of anybody for two years to do a job that made the women around me miserable? And where there was NEVER going to be the possibility of working my way up the ladder into an actual career?

The other traditionally female professions sounded like professions to me. They actually required specialized information and knowledge. They also involved helping people other than one's jerk of a boss.

So, I like Meteechart's idea about a program that one could sell to students. I also think that maybe the focus should be on student needs and expectations for what they want from an education and in their lives post-degree than on employers who want a ready supply of interchangeable office labor.
I also think this has a ton to do with the increased options for women. As a feminist, I think this is wonderful!

As a first-year professor at a small liberal arts college who is enjoying having (well, sharing among ~20 faculty) a wonderful, kind, organized, helpful secretary... I worry about not having competent people to take her place someday when she retires!!! She makes my job so much easier!

I think the only solution will involve paying these people more to attract great people that have other options, but how to deal with the lack of independence?

There are people who are not intereted in a "career" but simply in doing a job (and doing it well) to make enough money to live on (or supplement a spouse's salary). Programs can be tailored and marketing to these people.

There are also people who do not have what it takes academically to either obtain a higher degree or to work at a more intellectually demanding job and programs in administrative assistant areas can be tailored and marketed to them.

Then there are the people who feel entitled to the big job and the big money BUT they fall into the second category above or they just don't have the motivation, work ethic, or whatever to go the distance. In this case, skills for administrative assistant work can be incorporated into other associate degree programs (technology, writing, speaking, etc.) so that people have these skills to fall back on when the entitlement thing doesn't work out for them and they actually have to go out and get a job, ANY job, and work to support themselves.

I know many people who are very content with their admin assistant careers. I know lots of people who work as admins as a second job (nights and weekends). And now there are opportunities to do this type of work from home (at least part time), which makes the job much more appealing to some people. I know lots of public school teachers who work retail or admin asst jobs during holidays and summers and they love the change of pace. A few have given up teaching for the less demanding and stressful (and shorter hours) of admin work.

Part of the problem is that admin asst work has a bad rep and I would say that if employers need more admins, then they should work in conjunction with career services at the CCs to market those jobs so that people know it's worthwhile, interesting, and at times challenging work. No one is "just a secretary" anymore.
Dr. Crazy: I think your point about watching relatives is very important.

You and I are both from working-class families, IIRC. A big motivator for me in my studies was to have more control over my life than my parents did: to have a job that I looked forward to, as opposed to one I did because I had to. Several of my "blue-collar scholar" friends have similar life stories. Same for you?

CC students are statistically fairly likely to come from families like ours, and they're the ones who are trying to make a better life for themselves. Why would they want the same sort of job that Mom has complained bitterly about over the dinner table for as long as they can remember?

If the admin jobs are more challenging/interesting than advertised, and the worker's treated with respect, that's a different matter. Maybe some sort of internship program could be worked out?
"As we've become far more successful in persuading young women that they can pursue just about anything, that's exactly what they've done."

My dad always said the one BAD thing about women going to law school was that once they started becoming lawyers, you couldn't get a decent legal secretary for love or money.

Maybe you're selling the wrong admin assistant jobs. Plenty of those jobs can be done without a degree of any sort, and aren't particularly challenging. But working as a legal secretary or as the assistant for an upper-level exec is very challenging, demanding, varied work. And it needs smart people with training and with natural talent.

Most law firms I know have a terrible time finding competent legal secretaries, and they make a very decent salary with good benefits (AND they get to go home at 5, unlike the lawyers). Many people in the position choose to stay there as a career, but if you want to transition to paralegal work, that's very easy, and most law firms are very supportive of secretaries who go back to school to become lawyers.

There aren't many two-year degree jobs that offer that kind of stability, salary, and good benefits. And the work, if it's too your taste, is pretty interesting.

I was a secretary. I was also a community college student. But I would not have even considered combining the two things and getting the kind of degree DD speaks of.

In large part, honestly - I just didn't need it. I had no trouble getting hired and eventually promoted to office manager (and even beyond) without a degree. Why would I pay the school to certify me in something I could do on my own?

But it's also true that, as DD points out, secretarial work has a lot of big drawbacks. Look, if I'm secretary or I'm a waitress, either way I'm serving people who are, at times, completely oblivious to my humanity. But as a waitress, at a good restaurant, I'm probably earning more money doing it and having more fun with my co-workers. If I see entry-level work as my terminal point, why would I even bother with school?

I will admit that Prof S has a point, though. In my last year as a secretary, I met two bright, educated young women who had voluntarily left their teaching jobs at public schools for secretarial positions. And their reasoning made a lot of sense. As young teachers, they hardly made any more money than secretaries, but the pressures of the job were so much greater. These were both women who were looking to start families of their own soon, and they didn't want a job that took 90 hours of their time every week, no matter how theoretically rewarding. They loved being able to work 9-5 and leave it behind them at night.

I found the work horrible, personally. It was dull and I felt...used...all the time. But it turned out I didn't really like "business" at all - even when I was promoted out of the secretarial pool, I wasn't happy. My view wasn't entirely unique among the women I worked with, but it wasn't the majority view, either. Many really were just happy to have stable jobs with benefits that didn't keep them away from their families an excessive number of hours or leave them smelling like grease at the end of a shift.

Also, DD, I think temp agencies are stealing your students. Seriously. If you have limited experience, temping is a great way to get it. And it looks fabulous on a resume if those are the sorts of permanent jobs you're shooting for. They pay you instead of you paying them, which for many working class women gives temping a HUGE advantage over the local cc. I think Dictyranger is on to something with the internship idea. People don't really want secretaries with proven academic skills. They want secretaries who have typed letters and answered the phones for real bosses. Most potential secretaries know that.
"how to deal with the lack of independence?"

The benefit of a job lacking independence is that you get to leave it at the office at 5 p.m. and that major SNAFUs are not your fault or responsibility. I don't mean that quite as badly as it sounds. :) But having worked and enjoyed these kinds of jobs, the trade-off for lacking independence is that you get to leave the job at work and go home to your family. I think the problem is sometimes that bad managers begin to treat the secretary as a "regular" employee ... while leaving them with the lower salary and lack of independence and so on.

A job lacking independence should also be a job lacking the kind of responsibility you go home and feel sleepless about, or the kind of responsibility that gets you yelled at when things go wrong. If it's lacking independence, you should be able to go in, do a good job, and go home, and feel good about your day.

I think the other issue might be a little bit of a class issue -- some places have a very clear demarcation between professionals and support staff. I think this actually works okay in sufficiently large companies for there to be an esprit de corps among support staff, a community of support. But in smaller companies, it can set up a real "us and them" mentality that isn't healthy. Like "company-wide" Christmas parties that exclude support staff. That's demoralizing.
What's fascinating to me is that I have a Ph.D. and after six years adjuncting, I left the academy for freelance writing and editing. (I have a spouse in high tech and three kids, so I need supplemental income more than a career and adjucting is terribly low-paid once you figure in the class prep and grading time.

Anyway, the most lucrative work that I do is for corporate clients, essentially it is project-based secretarial work: formatting, editing, and creating hyperlinks inside huge reports; or transforming very large industry exams (real estate, insurance industry) into on-line tests. I do not know why this work isn't done in house. Perhaps because it is project-based.

I worked as a secretary through a temp agency before and during the early years of grad school. Ph.D. level research skills do help, I can teach myself things on the fly, and I always do background research on the firm and industry and that impresses. And my writing skills are top-notch. But it is a little sobering to have my most marketable skills be the ones I learned in high school (9th grade typing and working on the newspaper) plus the work I did at age 19-23. But so be it. I work from home, do not have put up with the worst of secretarial work and I'm paid fairly well.

Long-term, I would love to get into legal support work: fast-paced, diverse, and interesting. Another possibility is working towards becoming an executive assistant for a R1 university Deans and above, can be very well paid, standard hours, many have Ph.Ds.

Tell your employers to hit up the R1 nearby that is surely over-producing evergreen Ph.Ds for great admins!
DD, can you give some more specific examples of technology skills that are viewed as "overkill"? I'm interested because I see this from behind the Help Desk... I don't think anybody (or at least anybody sensible) expects an administrative assistant to be a database programmer, but if they don't understand how to set up a mail merge, or do some simple formulas like totals and averages in Excel, they'll definitely be playing catch-up.
Sometime in the early 1980s I rather whimsically applied for a full-time community college position as faculty in the school's Department of Secretarial Science. I was called for an interview and a sample lesson for the department members who wanted me to demonstrate how I'd teach one of those new-fangled word processing programs.

I was astonished at getting an interview since my experience in higher education up until then had been as an adjunct and a full-time temporary instructor in English, mostly of composition and what we then called remedial writing.

But I'd taken some in-service and graduate education programs and listed six of the most common (now forgotten) word processing programs on my C.V., along with some workshops on word processing and computer programming for public school teachers I'd given.

In prepaing for the demonstration lesson, I learned the department still used the by-then nearly extinct eight-inch floppy disks; for years before that, I'd seen only the smaller ones that were 5 and 1/4 inches. Their computers were the oldest ones I had ever seen. Only one of the seven or eight professors, all female, whom I met that day was familiar with computers.

Bottom line: I wasn't hired, nor was anyone else. The department ended up being eliminated a year or two later. As far as I know, nothing like what's at your school ever replaced it.

So I suspect you are right that technology, along with cultural changes, has something to do with the demise of the secretarial sciences as a discipline.
Why would someone pay to get a degree in something that one can get paid to learn how to do in six months of on-the-job training?

This puts aside the rank stupidity of requiring a postsecondary degree for a receptionist or secretary jobs. Surely your local employers are not so utterly moronic as to be unaware of the basic skills tests which your local temp agencies can do for them.

Don't answer that.
I think Anonymous 7:39 hit most of the salient points. I was an administrative assistant long before I became a college student and (as a previous poster pointed to), I left the office for college precisely to avoid becoming one of the 60-year-old women I saw around me. The spectre of decades of administrative work drove me to the one place I swore I'd never go (that would be college).

Anonymous 8:00, I would like to point out that the work you did was "project-based" and used skills you'd honed over time. I venture to guess that the people you worked for may have even valued your skill *as* a skill. When I was an administrative assistant, I got none of that. Sure, there were occasional projects, but the fundamental nature of an administrative job is...to administrate. To maintain. To make sure that things keep running with mind-numbing regularity.

Someone brought up executive secretaries and legal secretaries, and I will agree for the most part: these jobs do require more specialized skills, and do garner a bit more respect. I was lucky, oh so many years ago, that my temp agency placed me with a legal firm that was willing to train me. In 1994, at the age of 24 and with zero college training, I was a legal secretary making $40,000. Occasionally, I stumbled across some lawyers who really appreciated my specialized skills (which included legal research, proofreading, editing, and resizing type to fit within 10-page limits, just to name a few). But even here, my skills were less valued than my ability to look busy at all times. (And, seriously, while the lawyers clamored to have me handle their projects, the folks around me did truly crappy work, but so long as they were good at maintaining...at the most mundane of tasks, they were more prized by the administration than I ever was.)

All of this is to say that I cannot, in this day and age, imagine going to college to learn to do administrative work. Yes, I realize that most people who go to community college will be coming straight out of high school and will need some basic skills. They can get most of these in their other courses. Word? check. Excel? check. Keeping track of multiple calendars and deadlines? college itself will require this skill.

If your concern is to provide students with training that will allow them to find a job when they leave your purview, well...sure, many of them may end up as administrative assistants. But they would be best served by obtaining these skills as one component of a broader education.
It seems like employers are looking for highly organized multi-tasking individuals with excellent communication skills. Back when I taught at a school with an "Office Assistant" program, we were teaching basic desktop, math, and writing skills.

Practically speaking, the Office Assistant program had the lowest admissions requirements, so most of the students who came in either flunked out or transferred into another program (Usually Business Administration or Medical Assistant) as soon they had a term or two of decent grades. We had very very few graduate.

This was in the Upper Midwest, so it's not a regional thing.
No time to read the comments, so this might be repetitive:

Can the employers recruit for you? I am imagining a program with internships so the cost of college is reduced, and promotions as progress is made toward the degree. They might also help you with a better name to market the program. I think ours might have "management" in the title.

As for problems selling it, I am also imagining the "co op" program my HS had and that I am sure current ones also have. Those often did not have a professional reputation, so if your program title smells even a little bit like one used in your local schools, that could be a big turn off for students.
just to add to the chorus, what kind of business executives are you talking to?

Sometimes business executives expect more education in a person than the position warrants and can't attract educated people because people with the education and skills that they perceive are needed for these administrative jobs which have limited mobility have more options.

For example, when my husband was temping as a payroll manager while going to law school he had several attempts to hire him for this job, which just requires a certificate (not even a degree) because of his masters degree and upcoming law degree. At the last job he held, the VP was holding out for someone with 4+ years of experience and a BA to work at a job in which there is little room for promotion and a cap on the salary (seriously $35K). The guy seriously though that the job he was offering would be attractive to a person expecting a JD.

I found this to be true of many higher ups who have no idea of what these entry level positions really entails. There can often be a huge disconnect between the level of skills expected by the supervisor of the position and the executive of the company.

I'm suggesting that this may be an issue of talking to the wrong people about what their company really needs. They know they need to fill positions, but they may be at such a level they have no idea what the position really entails and needs.
From the senior VP view:

Admin assistant programs have "too much demand". True. The students get a decent job before graduating. Even though that should equal success, it lowers graduation rate. This lowers performance funding for the institution. Isn't this a great profession?
I used to work at a prop. u that originally was a secretarial college and they had great success in admissions and placement. Just yesterday I passed by and found out it has turned into another type of college centered around heathcare. First, I am a little confused as to why a degree in secretarial work is needed or would be within even a community college. This seems like a degree for a technical college.

Through college I worked reception/secretarial positions and the pay was good for that point in my life. After I graduated and went to temp agencies I found many trying to place me in secretarial jobs. Graduating with a BA I pretty disgusted with the gender bias and refused any type of secretarial work. If the agency asked me to take a typing test I walked out the door. I would have taken a typesetting job, but I doubt that was what they had available. One interview even had me type up a memo as a test.

Aside from more opportunities for women, I think pay is the bigger reason the jobs are not getting filled. If they paid so great, young men would be applying for them. Lack of flex hours might be another issue.

I do know of a lot of great paying administrative assistant positions that pay $45,000+, but they usually require more knowledge that typing and answering phones such as legal, medical and foreign languages.

If a company just needs someone to answer the phones and use a computer, shouldn't a college student be capable? Why is a degree even needed?
Punditus, I wonder if you've ever seen a really good secretary (admin assistant) at work. You imply that just about anyone could easily pick up those "basic skills" in "six months" on the job. I see that claim as naive, if not downright insulting. My spouse (who has a B.S.) happens to be an admin assistant (basically, an office manager and budget person, after twenty years on the job). It's incredibly unlikely that the average high school graduate who lacks postsecondary ed could simply step in and develop the level of reasoning skills, writing skills, and speaking skills (not to manage organizational psychology) that she has put to good use over the last two decades. Sure, bad secretaries can come from just about anywhere (same for bad teachers, same for bad cops), but as for the REAL THING -- that individual isn't likely to be the person who graduated high school six months ago.
I definitely agree that someone who has twenty years' experience knows a lot more than someone who just graduated from high school.

They're probably applying for different jobs, though. I doubt the minty-fresh putative student with an AA from DD's CC is expecting to get your spouse's job out of the gate. So the degree is essentially valueless in this context, except as a resume enhancer.

The average reasonably bright person can, in fact, learn how to manage budgeting over the course ten years in order to move up the Administrative Assistant ranks.
I became an administrative assistant right after I wrapped up a masters degree in flute performance. It was far better job than waitressing (which gave me shin splints and a surely attitude), and the administrative assistant job came complete with benefits including college tuition, so I could pick up another masters.

Yes, some of the work was mindless, but I was on the ground floor to watch the PC revolution displace big players like DEC. Thanks to the music background, I could also type over 100 words a minute....made me a popular administrative assistant.

By the time I figured out that I need to change careers, I had a good three years in, a second masters, and a secure knowledge about technology (don't go crazy over this stuff--it's helpful, but not the second coming).
"Administrative assistant positions usually involve taking orders, and having very little control over one's own work life."


I've been an Administrative Assistant (which was just a newfangled term for my real position: secretary) for three different companies. I started at age 18 as a summer employee, worked as an office manager while in college, and supported myself while finishing my doctorate by working in yet another secretarial position. I did my jobs well but never saw them as a permanent career option.

I watched the secretaries around me--bored stiff, taking orders from jerks--and I did not want that kind of future for myself.

One thing that a fellow administrative assistant told me really stayed in my head: there's no upwards path. Seldom in our company did a secretary ever "switch over" from the secretarial path to a higher-paying job in the company with more freedom, creativity, and power. The only promotional possibility was to become the secretary for someone (usually male) in a higher position, like a vice president. And such "promotions" usually just meant more stress, an only-slightly higher paycheck, being expected to wear nicer (more expensive) clothing, and work longer hours.

Without the opportunity for advancement, it was a dead-end job. If I'd stayed in any of those positions, my future would have been one of making photocopies, fetching coffee, planning events, typing up dictation, and making someone else look good, while working eight hours a day in a windowless office--for $25K a year.

Sure, employers want people who will do these jobs, but are they willing to make those jobs compelling to skilled, educated, and intelligent people?

Anon 7:39 said it right: we've had those jobs, and we didn't need college degrees to get them. So why spend the money on a degree? There has to be something else that the degree offers to make the time and expense worthwhile. But two years of school just to take orders from some boss who wants his secretary to wash his coffee cups, buy gifts for his wife, mend his pants, and plan office parties that the secretary will never be allowed to attend? (I've done all of the above.) No thanks. :)
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