Instant Secretaries: Just Add Training

By Hennebach, Carol | Training & Development, November 1992 | Go to article overview

Instant Secretaries: Just Add Training

Hennebach, Carol, Training & Development


Is it possible to train blue-collar workers to become secretaries in only a matter of weeks? IBM thought so, and set out to prove it with a pilot training program.

The program started with a problem. IBM's Austin, Texas, site had a critical shortage of secretaries; headquarters had declared a hiring freeze. As a solution, the administrative services department in Austin decided to recruit candidates from overstaffed departments--including manufacturing--and to train them for six weeks. Presto! Instant secretaries.

Retraining IBM employees to fill the vacant secretarial positions would offer new job opportunities and save hiring costs. But the solution raised questions. How would the company determine suitable candidates? What should be the curriculum? Was it realistic to expect an employee to make the transition from assembly-line worker to secretary in just six weeks?

The administrative services staff, headed by Lillian Davis, led the pilot program. Class managers Sally Ward and Pat Knudsen moved quickly to recruit suitable candidates for training and to develop a curriculum. They disseminated information about the program to managers at the Austin site and announced it on company bulletin boards. Each candidate was required to have administrative experience, a high-school diploma, a manager's recommendation, and a typing speed of at least 35 words per minute. Out of 45 applicants, 10 employees were selected to be candidates for secretarial training.

Developing an appropriate curriculum was more complicated. Trainees would need more than basic orientation and a few computer classes. They needed a soup-to-nuts curriculum that covered every aspect of secretarial performance. IBM asked several external training suppliers in Austin to submit bids and suggest training goals and content.

Those suppliers' suggestions showed widely divergent views on what a secretary is or does. After considering the proposals, IBM selected a program proposed by the Business and Technology Center of Austin Community College. The center would provide two weeks of courses in basic skills, customized to IBM's needs. IBM would follow up with four weeks of in-house training on software usage, keyboard skills, and company procedures.

A customized curriculum

The Business and Technology Center contracted Alice Moseley, of the Business Training Source in Austin, to design and teach the initial two-week course. Moseley spent two months developing 14 different workshops and customized manuals. IBM staff members were involved in the design process. They reviewed drafts of the materials and suggested content.

The 68-hour curriculum was divided into the following workshop segments:

* automated office procedures (2 hours)

* keyboard skills (6 hours)

* telephone communication (6 hours)

* time management and organization (6 hours)

* filing and records management (2 hours)

* business writing, grammar, proofreading, and editing (10 hours)

* business math (6 hours)

* professional communication skills (8 hours)

* introduction to personal computers (4 hours)

* introduction to MS-DOS (4 hours)

* business manners and corporate etiquette (4 hours)

* dealing with difficult people (4 hours)

* problem solving (3 hours)

* stress management (3 hours).

"I built in a lot of practice and discussion time," says Moseley. "I had to be sure that participants mastered the skills. There would be no time for relearning once they started their new jobs."

To ensure accountability, IBM requested that trainees pass written exams on the content of the workshops that required technical knowledge. The training manuals were printed and a classroom was reserved at Austin Community College. …

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