Friday, January 27, 2023

Beyond ChatGPT: The return of secretaries, in the fullest sense [my mother worked as a secretary]

Hollis Robbins, Secretary jobs in the age of AI, guesting in Noahpinion, Jan. 17, 2023.

Opening paragraphs:

The ‘secretary’ literally means ‘person entrusted with secrets,’ from the medieval Latin secretarius, the trusted officer who writes the letters and keeps the records. The secretarial role originally conceived was far more central than roles with the “assistant” title now standard. In the nineteenth century, the secretary was a prized role for young men: a diplomatic assistant, the overseer of correspondence, the superintendent of the files, and in many cases, an apprentice manager—well-positioned to learn at the elbow of the man in charge, someday to be the man in charge. The invention of stenography machines and commercial typewriters at the end of the century transformed the business world. Dozens of secretarial schools were established, most famously, the Katharine Gibbs schools, “the Harvard of secretarial education.”

Training for high paid secretarial roles in the mid-20th century was rigorous: a fifty hours-per-week workload to learn typewriting, stenography, business and social correspondence, organizational systems (office filing, business archives, inventory management, taxes), budgeting and finance, and social conventions. Top secretaries were expected to understand municipal administration, the relationship of business to government, local party politics. Cultural competence was critical. Art and music appreciation classes were required, as well as English literature (and grammar), and tasteful behavior (how to adjust a hat, how to greet guests, how to hold a cocktail in a crowded room).

Secretarial jobs propelled millions of 20th century women into financial independence, whether they spent their career in the role or advanced into management or executive positions.

Here’s what a skilled secretary can do:

  • Reviews and processes 90% of your email;
  • Has a working relationship with all of your colleagues, your direct reports, your customers, your external stakeholders, and your immediate family;
  • Embodies and models organizational norms and culture: intensity (high or low), formality (high or low), professionalism (presumably high).
  • Organizes/files all correspondence and key documents methodically;
  • Organizes and rearranges your calendar according to changing priorities;
  • Tactfully communicates delays, postponements, cancellation of meetings;
  • Ensures your preferences in travel, accommodation, entertainment, dining;
  • Remembers birthdays and anniversaries; suggests gifts;
  • Serves as a sounding board; advises caution when appropriate;
  • Keeps secrets.

The numbers?

Consider an executive earning $1.5 million per year. A secretary earning $120,000 who works for one executive alone needs to save that boss only 5 hours of a 60-hour work week (8% more productive) to make the numbers work.

How do we train the new generation of secretaries we badly need?

Like many in higher education leadership, I’m concerned about ChatGPT but I’m more concerned about student readiness, the decline of corporate training programs, and the general economic future for college graduates, particularly in the humanities. I wonder about the role colleges and universities could play in training students to practice skills that AI can’t deliver and that employers value—how to show up early, how to deliver bad news, how to give and accept criticism, how to deal with an office visitor the team leader does not want to see, how not to be flaky, how to organize files, how to handle confidential information, and most importantly, how to write and answer emails promptly, swiftly, briefly, and with tact. These skills cannot be automated, cannot be outsourced, and may provide a competitive edge to businesses that value them. The first step is to put the position on the org chart and value it.

There’s more at the link.

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