Office Work

Before she landed her current job as a receptionist/administrative assistant at an insurance company in Conshohocken, Allison Cawley worked as a recruiter.

Her assignment?

Recruit receptionists, clerks, administrative assistants, and secretaries - the kind of jobs once available to bright young women with a high school diploma.

Not anymore.

"Most jobs, everyone wants a college degree," said Cawley, 26, herself a college graduate, who has firsthand experience with what Drexel labor economist Paul Harrington calls mal-employment.

"Even for jobs at $10 to $12 an hour," she said, "they want college degrees. It seems that the college degree is the minimum now.

"We had to eliminate some people my mom's age from the running because they have 20 years of experience with one company, but no degree, and [employers] want that degree," she said.

"Why? I still haven't figured it out. Some of these jobs are strictly data-entry, and you could pay someone right out of high school to do it," said Cawley, who graduated in 2008 from Eastern University.

"I guess if someone graduates with a good [grade point average], you know they showed up. You know they turned in their stuff. You know they are reliable," she said.

When the recession began in 2007, 19.5 million people were employed in office positions. Last year, the number dropped to 17.7 million.

In 2005 in the Philadelphia region, there were 509,890 employed as secretaries, clerks, receptionists, and administrative assistants. By 2011, that number had fallen to 475,350.

U.S. Labor Department statistics get pretty specific - there are fewer file clerks, fewer switchboard operators, fewer executive secretaries, fewer bill collectors, even fewer secretaries for lawyers.

"Instead of administrative assistants typing letters, lawyers are typing their own letters," said Ken Dubin, owner of the Dubin Group in Bala Cynwyd, where Cawley worked as a recruiter.

"I walk into an office park and go to the reception area, and it says, 'Please ring the bell.' Or 'Please dial by extension,' " he said.

Companies "are asking for more from the employees," said Bill Emerson, president of the Emerson Personnel Group, in Cherry Hill. His company handles temporary and full-time office staffing.

"Where you used to have three or four payroll clerks, maybe there are only two. You don't necessarily need four," he said, "because of technology," as computer software takes over payroll and bookkeeping functions.

Meanwhile, some office work can be handled just as easily in Asia as in Camden County. That's what more than 35 office workers at Swets Information Services' U.S. headquarters in Runnemede learned in 2009, when subscription-fulfillment services shifted to Singapore, federal documents show.

While some college graduates might be frustrated in a receptionist's job, Cawley isn't. Her pay and benefits are decent, and she sees opportunity to advance.

"It's a perfect job for me."