Secretarial: `Gd shorthand is a grt way to get a ft in the dr'

Traditional secretarial skills might be dying, but in a competitive marketplace can you really afford to ignore them?
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CONJURE UP an image of the most stereotypical secretary you can and you'll probably come up with a young woman, notepad in hand, eagerly "taking a letter". In most companies, of course, the reality is that taking letters is a practice that went out with the dinosaurs, but what about the shorthand that was needed to do it? Is that also a dead practice or could having a good knowledge of Teeline actually help you stand out in an increasingly competitive labour market?

Pauline Cannie, who has taught business skills at Queen's Business and Secretarial College in London for 20 years, says it's a question they ask themselves every year. "Like many such colleges, we've decided that for now we'll keep shorthand on the curriculum but we admit it's not needed by everyone," she says.

Students who take up posts in the City, PR, marketing or media are, she says, most likely to benefit from learning shorthand. "That's not because dictation is prevalent in these companies but because they're after employees who can take notes during speedy meetings and who can take accurate instructions at a moment's notice."

Nevertheless, she adds, you won't be required to write quite as swiftly as you once would - a fact that journalist Rachel Henry knows all too well. Having studied business skills at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology in the Seventies, she explains, "Our shorthand teacher was terribly strict and used to expect us to practise for two or three hours an evening. She was determined that we entered the workplace with a speed of 120 words per minute, whereas 100wpm is quite acceptable today." In fact, an increasing number of employers stipulate that 80wpm is adequate.

The method has also changed. You'd be hard-pushed to find today's secretarial colleges teaching the traditional mysterious-looking Pitman system that Ms Henry learned. Rather, Teeline, a system based on individual characters, is the most usual - and easier - technique.

Like most of the major recruitment agencies, Adecco Alfred Marks has found that fewer junior secretaries than top secretaries are required to have knowledge of shorthand. "I'd say around 30-40 per cent of companies ask for junior secretaries with shorthand skills - a figure that has stayed stable for some years. But around 60 per cent of companies after top secretaries require shorthand - a figure that is fast on the increase," explains Doran Hoffman, manager of the Swiss Cottage branch in north London.

Belinda Lighton - divisional leader of Knightsbridge Secretaries - agrees. "It's why I believe having good shorthand skills is a great way to get a foot in the door," she explains. "Many secretaries assume that because it's not used in the traditional sense, they don't need it, whereas that clearly isn't true."

And here lies the problem, says Paul Jacobs, spokesperson for Office Angels. "Because shorthand is not usually a necessity for junior secretaries, they tend to go rusty. By the time they've acquired the experience to qualify for a job in which shorthand is required, they've almost forgotten it."

Angela Richardson, who was a PA for 12 years and now runs Angela Richardson Event Management, concludes that all secretaries should practise shorthand whenever they can. "I use it in my shopping list, when I write down a phone message or go through the post," she says.

"Of course, I could do all those things without shorthand but it's incredible how much faster it makes those tasks. You could also try taking minutes at meetings or on the phone when it's unnecessary. It will build up your speed and your confidence for when you do need it." In addition, she says, use it when your boss tells you what he or she wants you to do that day. "It will help you and impress the boss," she says.

If you are already in a position where you're starting to forget the outlines of shorthand characters, you can always do a refresher course. And for those who didn't learn it in the first place, Ms Richardson advises signing up for classes. Teeline can be learned on a 12-week evening course, and you might get your boss to foot the bill.

Some recruitment agencies report that the demand in shorthand depends largely on the size and location of the employer. London is cited as the area where it is required the most, and smaller companies are said to favour it more than larger ones.

"That's because big businesses tend to have more team secretaries, whereas the one-to-one relationship - of which shorthand is such a part - is more common in smaller enterprises," explains Isabel Richards, who has temped in London for seven years.

But not everyone agrees. "The big job titles come with the big employers and so they're the ones who can request all the skills they want," says Doran Hoffman.