Monday, April 4, 2016

The Changing Office Workforce

This snippet on the changing workforce at law firms set me thinking:
According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, law firms employed about 90,000 more lawyers and about 80,000 more paralegals in 2014 than at the start of the survey in 2001. At the same time, law firms shed 180,000 to 190,000 legal secretaries, other legal support workers and their supervisors.
These changes have swept through my corporate America; in my own firm nobody, not even the CEO, has his or her own secretary. The number of people with undefined office help or "clerical" jobs has declined everywhere. This is partly because certain old-fashioned tasks (especially typing and filing) have become partially obsolete. But on the other hand there is still lots of menial stuff that has to be done. Viz., whenever we send in a major proposal for a government contract somebody has to check to make sure that everything on the list (financial forms, testimonials, affidavits swearing that we haven't bribed anyone) is actually in the envelope. This used to be done by somebody with a clerical job; now it is done by a "marketing professional." These marketing people work on proposals and other marketing efforts, laying out and editing documents, pulling together the data needed for the financial forms, setting the schedule and sending invites for phone meetings among the people working on the proposal, etc. These people all have college degrees. So while some old-fashioned office tasks have disappeared, others have been taken over by low-ranking "professional" people with BA's. Other tasks have migrated even higher up the chain. In my office we all make our own travel arrangements and our own coffee, even senior engineers whose time is theoretically worth several dollars a minute. Since I began serving as a project manager I have been constantly amazed by the amount of semi-menial clerical work that our system requires of me, things like setting up files (computer files) for all the project correspondence, making phone calls to check on late payments, setting up conference calls, typing up minutes from meetings, scanning documents, etc.

I cannot believe that this is the most productive possible arrangement of office work. I am certain that thousands of Americans without advanced degrees could do the administrative part of my job better than I can. But the system seems to be discarding more and more such workers. This has to be a major drag on the productivity of professionals everywhere, while simultaneously wiping out hundreds of thousands of jobs once held by high school graduates.

No comments: