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Future Shock for Office Workers Seen

Advocacy organizations such as 9 to 5 National Assn. of Working Women and the Service Employees International Union have been warning for some time that the trend toward automation of offices presents threats to the health and economic futures of clerical workers.

Now the economic concern has been confirmed by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in a major report, requested by Congress, on the future of America’s offices. The report, “Automation of America’s Offices, 1985-2000,” predicts, among other things, that the rapidly increasing use of technology such as computers and advanced telecommunications will cause slowing in the growth of office employment for the next decade and possibly a decline in the 1990s. Workers at the clerical level are expected to be affected the most.

The impact on workers, particularly women, of a change in this sector of employment is enormous. Office work has been the fastest growing source of jobs for most of this century. Almost half of all American workers--clerical, managerial and professional--are employed in offices. Even in manufacturing, 30% of all employees are office workers. One in three employed American women is a clerical worker.

By 1990, the report predicted, there may be a computer terminal for every three office workers, and by 2000, terminals will be as ubiquitous as telephones. However, it is not the use of terminals that is transforming office work and may eliminate jobs, but the technology that allows links or networks of computers--the “integrated office.” A great part of clerical work today, though it may be done on a video display terminal instead of a typewriter, is essentially the same as in the past: The bulk of clerical work is transferring information from one form to another--from dictation to paper, from one document to another, from paper to computer or from one computer to another. In the automated office, computers “read” and store data from paper without the need for keyboarding personnel. Computers transfer information to other computers automatically.

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The report anticipated that office automation will continue to increase office productivity. The savings in time and labor for various office tasks range from 15% to 85% with automation. It also changes the nature of work--for some clerical workers, use of sophisticated equipment expands and enhances their jobs; for some managers, doing their own word processing in drafting letters and documents “clericalizes” professional work.

Lower level clerical workers are expected to be the hardest hit by any reduced needs for workers, the report said. Industry studies have found that training or re-training in new systems is most likely to be offered to managers, not clerical workers. “Increasingly, office workers must rely on their own resources and initiative to get their basic training or retraining for career mobility,” the report said, also warning that when workers must get their own educations for better jobs, the most disadvantaged workers--mothers and single heads of households who have little time or money--are further disadvantaged in the competition to move up the ladder.

9 to 5 and the Service Employees International Union, calling the government report “remarkable” and one that “challenges previous conceptions about the growth of office jobs,” are concerned that automation will lead to what they call “upskilling and downwaging” for clerical workers. Although clericals often lack access to training, they are adding skills on their own in order to operate new equipment--upgrading their own skills and productivity (upskilling), but clerical salaries are not increasing proportionately. Clerical wages actually decreased by 1.5% between 1983 and ’84 after adjusting for inflation (downwaging).

The two organizations for clerical workers are also worried about the impact of automation on upward mobility for workers and about possible increases in the number of people who work at home. Clerical work has never been noted for upward career mobility. As jobs become more sophisticated, if clerical workers are not offered training, there may be even less opportunity for them to get ahead, the association and union said. Also, they said, there is a growing trend for employers to hire from outside organizations rather than promote from within.

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Advanced electronic communications offer unprecedented opportunity for workers in all kinds of jobs to work at home. Of the few thousand people who now work at home on computers, most are women and most are doing clerical work such as data entry, the government report said. Home-based work can be extremely advantageous for groups such as mothers and people with physical disabilities; however, home-based workers have traditionally tended to be lower paid and receive fewer benefits. Some are treated as independent contractors rather than employees, and as such assume many of the overhead costs that would normally be paid by an employer such as health insurance and the costs of home offices and equipment.

Automation does create many new kinds of jobs, but “older patterns of differential pay and limited opportunity seem to be repeated,” the government report said. Congress should “watch closely” the trends in office work “in order to take corrective action if needed,” the report said. (The study was made at the request of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources and the House Committee on Education and Labor.) Unfortunately, the report added, the ability of the government to anticipate and monitor such trends is weak.

For example, no federal agency is systematically gathering information on automation in small businesses. The personal computer has allowed even very small firms to automate, but little is known about whether automation is causing job shifts in this large sector of the economy. Firms that employ fewer than 100 workers account for about one third of of all American jobs and sales. “Congressional oversight committees may want to direct the Small Business Administration and the Departments of Labor and Commerce to study these neglected questions,” the report said.


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