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Washington Post
Ginger Davis has spent more than 25 years in the federal government. She now works as an executive assistant in the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Washington watches clerks slowly vanish

– 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 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 start-ups 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 metal cabinets.

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.

At the printing office, Davis, 58, has repositioned herself as the right-hand woman to the head of human resources.

She’s an indispensable, calming presence, her colleagues say, a discreet problem-fixer. She has also learned to manage her boss’ Outlook calendar, scan personnel documents and process the department’s electronic timecards.

Next to her computer still sits an IBM Selectric 2000 Wheelwriter.

“We’re never going to get rid of it,” she quipped. On a recent workday, Davis slipped in a document with a grammatical error, brushed Wite Out over it and typed a correction.

In her desk drawer, she still keeps a pile of pencil erasers and little yellow message pads with the options “You were called by,” “You were visited by” and “is waiting to see you.” There are also ink pads and rubber stamps to mark correspondence as “Draft” and “Confidential.”

“They remind me of how far I’ve traveled,” she said.

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.