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New skills kill myth of the 'office wife'

Employers are constantly complaining about school, college and university leavers being launched into the world of work without the necessary skills. The traditional image of the secretary as the deferential "office wife" is now redundant, says a new study claiming Moneypenny has re-invented herself.

Overturning the outdated cliche of the underqualified assistant who is a few nail files short of a full manicure set, the research reveals her chair is now filled by a more powerful, highly trained successor.

The study by the independent Institute for Employment Studies at Sussex University suggests that, far from going the way of typewriters and handwritten memos in the paperless office, the secretary of today has expanded her role in response to organisational changes and business needs.

The job is now likely to include a wider range of tasks and functions and to attract increasing responsibility. Secretaries are expected to have higher-level skills, and the career is likely to have tougher entry requirements in future.

Lesley Giles, IES research fellow and co-author of the report, said secretaries had traditionally played a supporting role limited to gatekeeping information and providing administrative back-up.

Though that function is still predominant, it has expanded considerably to include very complex tasks requiring a wide range of high level skills.

The study, part of the Department for Education and Employment's Skills Review Programme, points to the emergence of two new secretarial roles: the team player and the independent worker.

The team player provides support for a group of people and is often the key link between various team members.

She (male secretaries are still the exception) is also increasingly likely to communicate with and provide information to other parts of the organisation, and outside, on the team's behalf.

The independent worker, meanwhile, now has her own area of work and responsibilities independent from the work of the person she supports.

However, despite the changes in the nature of secretarial work, the research unearthed little evidence that training and development opportunities for secretaries are improving significantly.

The study observes an "assumption that secretaries will learn by osmosis" and suggests that the lack of training is linked in part to the persistence of narrow stereotypical views about what secretarial work is. Access to training largely depended on managers' goodwill.

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