CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new paper co-written by a University of Illinois expert in labor economics finds that as businesses introduce more technology and automation into secretarial jobs, local employment increases.
Secretarial and office support work have changed dramatically over the past 50 years, with steno pools and electric typewriters giving way to spreadsheets and accounting software. Eliza Forsythe, a professor of labor and employment relations and of economics at Illinois, investigated the adoption of new technologies in office and administrative support occupations and found that these changes ultimately lead to more job growth in the local economy, although they offer mixed benefits for the office support workers themselves.
“There’s a lot of concern about automation eliminating jobs, especially in manufacturing,” Forsythe said. “But new technologies affect a wide variety of jobs, and in this case, we find a more nuanced story, with some broader positive effects despite job losses.”
Forsythe and co-author Marcus Dillender of the University of Illinois at Chicago analyzed over 8 million job advertisements from 2007 and 2010-16 to study how firms change job requirements as they adopt new technology.
Although often overlooked, office support workers make up more than 12% of the labor force, a larger share than manufacturing.
“Even though the profession has shrunk since the rise of the personal computer, it’s an important career pathway, especially for many women,” Forsythe said.
The researchers found that as firms added technology, office support jobs required more skills from their new hires.
“As jobs adopt more technology, employers ask for more experience, more college education, more cognitive skills,” Forsythe said.
Which means that more office support jobs are going to workers with college degrees and fewer workers are needed to complete the same tasks, Forsythe said.
“There was the ‘Mad Men’ era when you had an office full of secretaries answering phones, taking dictation and performing other secretarial tasks,” she said. “Now you have one or two people trying to cover all those same traditional office support tasks – but they also use Excel and QuickBooks, and perform human resources, management or accounting tasks as well.”
At the same time that office support workers are doing more than ever, Forsythe found that technological change led to faster wage growth for these workers. And that increased productivity also leads to benefits for the local economy.
“We find that the locations where firms introduced more technology in office support jobs saw increased employment growth, which is driven by growth in exactly the white collar jobs that these office support workers support,” she said.
Although employment in office support will likely continue to shrink in the near future, in the longer run those employed will be less likely to lose their jobs to future technological change, Forsythe said.
“Office work is becoming higher skilled and less routine, and the more tasks it encompasses, the less at risk it will be from further automation,” she said.
A working paper of this research was released by the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.