Federal government’s clerks become a vanishing breed

Washington PostJanuary 18, 2014 

— Ginger Davis is a survivor, one of barely five dozen clerical workers left at the Government Printing Office.

Even as her agency has been redefining its mission in an electronic age, Davis has remade herself after 26 years with the federal government, rising from the secretarial ranks to become an executive assistant. When she was offered a job in the human resources office two years ago, she was initially daunted and read every book on executive assistants she could find.

“This is my time to shine,” Davis told herself.

Across the federal government, the broad rows of desks where secretaries and clerks once typed at least 40 words a minute have vanished. While automation has been transforming the federal workforce for two generations, that change has now accelerated because of budget cuts, with the government under pressure to keep only the clerical staff it needs. Those who remain have often had to revamp the role they play in this new-look workforce.

For decades, the steno pool was the face of the modern bureaucracy. The women in polyester suits and neckerchiefs, hair coiffed and fingers flying across the keyboards, came to embody the industry of the postwar public sector.

In 1950, clerical jobs represented three-quarters of the federal workforce. By the mid-1980s, the figure was down to a fifth. Today, these jobs are a mere 4 percent of the workforce of 2.1 million. That amounts to 87,153 people, less than a quarter of them secretaries, according to FedScope, the federal database of workplace statistics. In just the past eight years, the government has shed 40,000 clerical jobs.

At many private companies, secretaries and clerks long ago became relics as the technology revolution spread from the lean startups of the IT sector to the broader economy. But in government, clerks and typists held on longer, answering phones outside corner suites, shuffling paper records, and stashing personnel files in squealing metal cabinets.

Some federal staff members could ride out the changes until they retired, the job security of government work allowing them to stay put even as private industry was shedding thousands of office jobs, especially during the recent recession. Tight federal budgets and the automatic cuts of sequestration, however, have meant that very few clerical workers who leave are replaced.

Now that most Americans file their taxes electronically, the Internal Revenue Service needs fewer clerks to open paper returns. The Federal Aviation Administration has put its accident inspection reports online, so it needs fewer assistants to scan them in. In an age of teleconferencing, the front-office receptionist escorts fewer visitors to see the boss.

The downsizing is cementing the government as a bastion of white-collar, increasingly specialized professional work that demands a college degree, eliminating what was once a significant source of jobs for those with limited education.

“They’re doing away with us,” said Elizabeth Lytle, 55, an administrative program assistant for the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago. As her colleagues have retired, the EPA has looked to part-time contractors to type form letters and handle other clerical tasks, she said.

Times change

The data-processing bureaucracy started to grow during the Civil War. To pay for the war, the government began printing greenbacks for the first time, and the new notes had to be cut and counted. The Treasury Department turned to an untapped labor pool that would work for less than the going wage: women.

By the 1950s, secretaries were typing, filing, taking dictation, answering phones and opening mail in just about every American business and government office. The jobs were a woman’s ticket into the workforce.

But times would change, and a milestone came in 1997, when for the first time the number of higher-paid employees, GS-9 and above, outnumbered lower-paid ones such as most secretaries and clerks, GS-8 and below.

Today, almost 70 percent of these lower-ranking workers are women, government data show. One in three have been in their jobs between 10 and 24 years. Almost two out of three are 40 or older.

Not all of the remaining clerical staff members are mere vestiges. Some have kept pace with a workplace that demands more specialized tasks than ever. Instead of taking dictation with shorthand, they load presentations into PowerPoint. Instead of typing and faxing, they scan documents into a computer – although the 40-word-per-minute requirement still applies for clerical job applicants. And instead of supporting one executive in the C-suite, they work for five. Or for 50, as at the General Services Administration, where one assistant works for the entire executive staff.

“I’m prioritizing resources,” said GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who answers his own phone, responds to email directly from his iPhone and schedules many of his meetings.

As a management assistant at the Navy support command in Millington, Tenn., Doris Goode has taken on new responsibilities. She orders fitness and recreation equipment for sailors at sea, pulls together spreadsheets, gets bids from vendors, and prepares contracts and invoices for payment.

“Administration runs the business,” Goode said. “The job has really changed so much, they had to change the name.”

Some holding on

In some corners of the government, though, traditional clerical work is holding on.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, clerical employees are working to tackle the agency’s backlog of disability claims, many filed on paper. Others work in medical support, gathering patient records, making appointments and providing forms.

At the National Archives, about 800 clerks transport original documents to researchers in cardboard boxes because so few of the records have been computerized.

And at Army Materiel Command in Huntsville, Ala., a secretary is assigned to every general and many other senior officers. Andrea Turner, the executive assistant to the command sergeant major, said she spends some of every day writing letters that go into the mail: for birthdays, promotions, condolences, and invitations to all official functions.

“You name it,” Turner said. “If there’s a reason to write a letter, we write a letter. A lot of things are still tradition-based.”

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